Long letters work better.
But don’t just take it from me.
Dr Barnardo wrote a four-page appeal letter in London in the 1880s using classic direct mail techniques: Underlining, urgency, dollar handles, specific ask and a clear reference to what YOU could do to help. The winter had been ‘the severest and most arduous, so far as work among the children of the poor is concerned.’ So the good doctor needed to raise £100 a day for food. He told readers ‘unceasing demands upon our resources’ were having an unprecedented impact on his charity.
The four-page Dr Barnardo letter from the late 19th century.
Years later, another children’s charity, Starlight, had a rough year and they had decided to go public about their shortfall. Unceasing demands upon their resources were tough too. They asked for funds but also had a refreshing degree of honesty. The donor learned that part of the shortfall was because Starlight funding strategy relied too much on events and companies. After reading the press stories about their plight I pulled together an ’emergency’ appeal to their donors and met up with them. The emergency appeal was only developed to show how I work, but they decided to mail it immediately anyway.
The opening paragraphs of the Starlight letter
It would never win awards for graphic design beauty. But the appeal raised over target. It more than doubled the amount raised from the same donors the previous year.
At the heart of the appeal was a four-page appeal letter.
Despite the rise of other media, direct mail is still the biggest source of new one-off donors. So it is important we maximise revenue from mail donors. And longer letters will tend to do that for you.
I really don’t like long letters, by the way. They are a pain in the butt to write, check copy, get client approval, print and mail-merge. And someone important in most of our (Pareto’s) clients doesn’t like them. And they don’t look great in my portfolio. Though the results do.
In focus groups, donors say they dislike long letters too. In Hong Kong, one client ran focus groups which all concluded that donors would be more likely to respond to a pack with a two-sided letter and tear off coupon than a four-page pack (actually eight pages – English and Chinese) with lots of additional information. The two pager raised HK$1.5m (AUD$220k) – the big pack raised over HK$7.5m (about $1.1m).
Long letters work. As you can see from the test results below. These are from a revolutionary pack National Heart Foundation did more than a decade ago.
I know longer letters tend to work better, but not because they are long. I think it is because, to tell a good story with a beginning, middle and end and ensure the right fundraising tactics, it simply takes more words.
These tactics include target, what the target is for, deadline, establishing need, demonstrating the solution, demonstrating why that charity is best placed to solve etc.
A dreadful four-pager is worse than a good two-pager: If a story can be told more quickly then tell it. As Mal Warwick says ‘A fundraising letter should be as long as it needs to be…’
Long letters tend to work better with mid-value donors too. Maybe it is just about respect – good donor care to take the time to explain why the donor’s support is so important.
Ready to learn more about how to get the most from your mid-value donors? Check out my Mid Value Donor Super Course. It’s available for all members of The Fundraisingology Lab.