I’m often reminding fundraisers that direct mail remains a standard-bearer of a well-rounded development department. This may be counter-intuitive in the digital age . . . or it makes perfect sense.
The March 2020 issue of The Atlantic ran article titled, “Why Restoration Hardware Sends Catalogs the Size of a Toddler.” Unsurprisingly, the for-profit world is still investing handsomely in direct mail. And yet many of us are wondering why we are still getting—or sending!—so much mail: “This is the digital age . . . I can send emails for free. Why pay production, design, printing, postage?”
Author Amanda Mull answers that question succinctly: “the physical world still matters.” Mull describes the decision of companies like JCPenney to stop sending their catalog as digital sales and marketing took the forefront of their strategies. And then five years later, “defeated,” JCPenney reintroduced their catalog.
Even as we become increasingly connected, perpetually on our phones and laptops, the physical world matters. Indeed, the physical world of mail may stand out more precisely in contrast to the ceaseless inundation of digital ads and information. Mull predicts that “America might be entering a golden age of the catalog.” I hope she’s right, and I hope that holds true for direct mail, too.
And I suspect she’s right. When we spend all of our time—working, playing, relaxing—staring at screens, then the irruption of paper into our lives—several sheets of it—becomes a welcome irruption.
As Mull writes, “It’s so analog, it almost feels wholesome.” In a world ruled by the digital, the analog is a welcome shift that demands our attention and engages us differently.
There are several reasons for the golden age of the catalog. First of all, direct mail often carries a higher average gift and a higher retention rate than digital fundraising. The same holds true for sales catalogs, except to a lesser degree, it turns out. Mull reports that catalogs prompt larger purchases “up to twice as expensive as noncatalog shoppers.” For many nonprofits, however, a direct-mail average gift is significantly more than twice the average online gift.
It’s also the case, as Mull points out, that significant portions of Americans still aren’t as connected as you and I. They may have internet, but it may not be fast, reliable, or a regular part of their lives. These are both poorer and older demographics—the former may be your low-dollar donors and the latter will be, well, almost all of your donors.
Another store owner describes the need to tell her company’s story, which is too difficult with online ads. A catalog gives her the space to tell her story. And how much more would this apply to nonprofits!
Donor engagement depends upon storytelling. They need to know your mission, your vision of the world, how you’re moving towards it, who they’re helping and why and how, and so much more. They need to feel like a part of your story, as though they, with you, are educating children or helping broken families or feeding the poor—and in fact they are.
These stories, this connection, can’t be achieved through hastily scrolled Facebook ads. Your donors—the analog of a customer—need time to get to know you, and the best way to achieve that (short of meeting with them) is to mail them. You’re still fighting for your donors’ attention, there’s no mistaking that; but you’re fighting a handful of envelopes, not an endless scroll of posts and ads and posts and ads.
The physical world still matters—but that doesn’t mean the digital world doesn’t!
Many companies today are finding that most of their orders are made online. That doesn’t mean they are pulling out of the catalog business, though. The trick is to fire on all cylinders: digital ads warm a donor’s attention before a direct-mail piece; the mail piece sets that organization apart from others not sending mail, and it gives the organization a chance to tell its story.
If possible, you’ll even want to have a specific donation landing page for your various direct-mail campaigns. That way donors find the same messaging online that they read in the mail. They might make their donation online—but that doesn’t mean the mail piece was unnecessary. It means the mail piece grabbed their attention, set you apart, pulled the donor in.
The enduring importance of direct mail does not mean you should stay out of digital marketing and digital fundraising. What it does mean is that you should stay invested in mailing your donors. Don’t try to read the market and predict a precipitous change toward digital fundraising.
As long as human nature remains the same, donors will want to give to organizations they identify with—and that identity is largely forged through personal letters.