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Direct response fundraising doesn’t have to be a guessing game: with proper testing, you can make data-informed decisions.

There’s an advantage in fundraising activities designed to elicit an immediate, direct response (e.g., mail, email, digital ads, and telefundraising) over less immediate channels of donor engagement (e.g., personal meetings, grant proposals, and events): the opportunity direct response fundraising activities afford for scalable testing and data-informed decision-making.

In other words, through rigorous and regular testing, fundraisers can improve direct response results and monitor a program’s cost-effectiveness in “real time.” For this reason, testing should be a regular component of your organization’s cultivation, solicitation, and acquisition programs.

If your organization doesn’t have a big development department, that might seem like a tall order. But it’s not. In fact, by making a few small changes to your next campaign you can start running simple tests today and gain valuable insight for future messaging.

Because direct mail typically combines a large sample size with response rates that are higher than other direct response channels, your mail program is one of the best places for you to start testing. To keep it simple, put together a straightforward A/B test: Send a slightly different package to two identical audience samples and evaluate any differences in ROI, response rate, and average gift amount between the samples.

Here are five simple test ideas for your next direct mail campaign:

1. Test copy. The letter text is far and away the most important element of any direct mail campaign. Try testing two different letters against each other. They might have different hooks, different programmatic emphases, different calls to action, or be of different lengths. If you have a letter that’s consistently performing well, test regularly with the goal of finding new copy that does even better!

2. Test a lift note insert. Placing a short “celebrity endorsement” (from someone other than the main letter signer) in your package is often an effective (and low-cost) way to establish credibility with the reader—and to boost your response rate.

3. Test your carrier design. Your package’s outer envelope is the first thing recipients see. If it’s an acquisition mailing, the prospective donor will often decide whether to open your package or throw it away based solely on the carrier design. Try testing different sizes and colors, or a logoed envelope against a mystery envelope with only a simple address block. You can also try printing teaser copy on the outer envelope to pique interest and get a higher open rate.

4. Test postage types. While mailing at nonprofit rate gives you the lowest unit cost, you might get a better return on investment overall if you mail first-class—particularly if you’re mailing to high-dollar donors. You can also test stamped postage against other forms of postage, such as metering and indicia. Or try using multiple stamps to give your package a more personal look.

5. Test premiums. Try strengthening your letter’s call to action by connecting a gift or some other benefit to donor responses. This could be a small giveaway (e.g., a magnet, book, or pin) for all donors. Or it could be membership in a donor club that’s tied to a certain giving level. The first type of premium focuses on increasing response rate, while the second type of premium typically aims at securing high-dollar donors. Test to figure out what’s right for your package and your audience.

As end of year fundraising draws near, take advantage of the fact that direct response fundraising doesn’t have to be a guessing game. With proper testing, you can make data-informed decisions that will strengthen your development program over the long haul.

Spencer Kashmanian helps purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. He manages American Philanthropic's direct response groupwhich offers a simple, transparent model to nonprofits, making direct mail and digital fundraising easy and successful. 

You can contact him with inquiries about fundraising at skashmanian@americanphilanthropic.com

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