The impact of charity direct mail has become blunted over time. To engage better with donors, charities are now adopting the techniques used by the business sector, as Patrick McCurry discovers.
Charities have been using direct mail for years, often to good effect.
But the formula used by most organisations has barely changed in that time - usually reliant upon the traditional case study to pull at donors' heartstrings.
Those packs are losing their punch with an increasingly cynical public, and the problem has been compounded by a lack of sophistication in the way direct mail has been targeted. All too often, charities have been guilty of a blanket approach, with not enough targeting or analysis of the audience. This is all becoming much more apparent to charities now, says Stephen Pidgeon, chairman of Target Direct, because in the past few years the commercial sector's use of direct mail has hijacked the emotional arena - and is doing a better job of it.
"Charities have been traditionally been brilliant at emotionally-led propositions," he says. "Shock, horror - child in Africa is starving. That's worked well. But the interesting change is the stance of the best commercial companies. They're now invading charities' traditional territory."
Pidgeon points to Orange and First Direct as examples. "First Direct's material has people talking and laughing about this great experience they've had, and it turns out they're talking about their bank. In the past, banks talked about interest rates, now it's emotions. Charities have been saying the same things for a long time, and they've got to move on now."
But if the commercial sector is aping charities, doesn't that mean the charities are doing it right? The difference, according to Pidgeon, is that companies like First Direct are doing it better. "Charities have been doing it on the cheap for 25 years because it's easy. But you have to be much more clever and understand your supporters. Only recently have charities begun to examine and then record the motives of their supporters."
In other words, messages need to be tailored to different segments of the supporter base, and the commercial sector has been doing its homework better. But Marie Curie Cancer Care, for example,has begun to focus on this area and has identified that people support it for quite different reasons. It may be because they want to see others helped, or they may not want to know about people at all but just want to see cancer go away.
"Those are totally different motives," says Pidgeon, "and if you understand that, the proposition can be geared to either."
Sarah Tite, head of supporter development at Marie Curie, says the charity has been working at segmenting donors. "We've looked at the way we classify groups of supporters," she says. "We look at when they last gave, as well as their giving patterns, and that informs the way we talk to them. Rather than donors receiving every mailing, we're now more sophisticated in identifying groups that prove to be most cost-effective at a particular time with a particular mailing." Marie Curie is about to launch a database which will enable it to do this more successfully.
So it's not necessarily about avoiding emotional impacts, but about using them more judiciously, and from different angles. Cancer Research UK, for example, still elicits an emotional response in its "all clear" material, but it's a positive emotion, refreshing the whole campaign.
The NSPCC has taken a similar approach in its recent mailings, particularly the annual message from its director. The charity's donor relationship manager, Lisa Williams, says the director's message is a particularly important mailing and, in 2003, it decided to move away from overtly emotional case studies.
"The director's message is her report on what has happened in the past year," explains Williams. "In the past, it has been very much case study-based, but we found that our donors are actually very interested in how their money is being spent, and so to pick up on that trend we tried to give as much information as possible."
The mailing also aimed for a positive feel. "The look of this particular pack was much more celebratory," says Williams. "It had a child's drawing on it saying 'thank you'. The one in 2002 was black and white and quite serious."
The pack went to 135,000 cash donors and some inactive committed givers, as well as payroll donors. Changing the style of the mailing to reflect donors' interests in the way money is used increased the response rate from 13 per cent to 14 per cent. And the shift away from old-style emotional appeals will be carried through into other communications.
"Classically, the packs had a long letter about a particular child and the abuse they had suffered and how the NSPCC had stepped in," says Williams.
"It would have a sad baby with great big eyes looking up at you. This pack had happy children. There is still an element of emotional appeal, but it's quite a big step away from that old approach."
It may be that the public has grown numb to stories of tragedy, but Williams also feels that people are now all too aware of tragedy and would rather know what's being done. Changing communications accordingly is a way of giving control back to the donor, which can reinvigorate their engagement.
Tony Elischer, managing director of Think Consulting, says listening to donors and giving them control is crucial. "The sector is still too formulaic in the way it uses direct mail," he says. "It's too frightened of putting the donor in control of communications, asking them what they really want."
In 2002 The Princess Royal Trust for Carers took on an individual donor manager, Nisha Motwani, to help focus its communications and ensure the charity was listening to donors. Motwani says she is still experimenting with mailing strategies - varying general themes with specific appeals - and segmenting the donors.
Treating them as sophisticated consumers is vital, she argues. "I want to section off the people who will only give to Christmas appeals, for example. I think you need to build a proper relationship, and if donors tell you how they want to be contacted, you can't ignore their wishes. If they say 'don't mail me', we won't."
Allocating in-house resources to managing donor communications, as Carers has done, is an important factor, says Elischer. He bemoans the fact that although charities usually know what they should be doing, they tend to rely heavily on external agencies and have very small in-house departments.
"Charities need to take greater ownership of skills and focus on in-house competencies," Elischer says. "And why deposit all your thinking with one agency? It's just convenience, but if you choose two or three you get a wider range of ideas. Organisations just aren't moving on enough."
Elischer says he hates the word "customer", and prefers to think of donors as stakeholders. But, like Target Direct's Pidgeon, he feels the commercial sector is streets ahead of charities in the way it exploits direct marketing.
"Guinness has been phenomenal in tailoring its direct marketing to all sorts of segmented details," he points out. "It's engaging, but still using a traditional form of direct marketing. We can learn from that."
Of course, expense is an issue, but the additional outlay of doing proper research into donor demographics, and then acting on it, is likely to pay back with better results. A small number of well-targeted communications can be far more lucrative than a mass approach.
"You make savings by reducing the number you mail," says Marie Curie's Tite. "And for some, it has increased the response and the money we've raised by focusing on particular groups and then using completely different messages for other groups."
And while charities may never have the resources of companies like First Direct or Guinness, they can still follow their approach to customer management and retention. The NSPCC likens its tactics to a bank, which will always tailor its communications depending on whether you're a student or a homeowner. A bank wants to keep people hooked into its services forever.
"A bank tries to stay with you at different stages," says Williams. "And although we don't know what life stage our donors are at, we know that there are points, such as maternity or redundancy, where your income is going to be limited and you might stop your charitable contributions."
The NSPCC has applied that thinking in its direct mail to make requests for people to volunteer time, rather than making predictable requests for money. That kind of tailored approach can pay off in long-term loyalty because it gives donors options, so that they don't feel forced to just hand over money.
"It's about viewing supporters as people who might want to do something other than just open their wallets," says Williams. "Using direct mail in this way can keep the door ajar and keep the engagement alive."
CASE STUDY: TERRENCE HIGGINS TRUST
Blanket approaches to direct mail have never been an option for the Terrence Higgins Trust. It hasn't had the budget, and its proposition doesn't have the kind of general support that cancer or child welfare has, so its communications have always had to be well targeted.
Even so, research into its donors still effected a change in its direct mail. The charity analysed its database for age, gender, geography and interests. It found its core supporters are fairly affluent 35-55-year-old women.
But anecdotal research uncovered that their motivation is based around human rights issues. "They're not necessarily interested in the details of services, or the hearts-and-minds stories," says Debbie Holmes, director of fundraising. "They're interested in the kind of work we're doing to change the situation for people with HIV/Aids. So it's a slightly more intellectual angle."
While the charity never relied heavily on emotional case studies, it knows that its donors don't always want emotional stories. The result has been a more daring tone in its direct mail. "In the past, we were a bit worried about messages around ill-health and death," says Holmes.
"Our mailings were quite gentle. Now we're a bit braver in getting the human-rights message across." The trust has never dealt with the huge numbers of some other charities, so its direct mail is quite cost-effective. "Having a more integrated strategy is paying dividends," says Holmes.
The charity has used a simple way of getting feedback from donors. The trust always sent Christmas cards inviting recipients to send messages back which would be displayed in its reception. Last year, it used that method to ask specifically for feedback on the charity's work.
"The response was fascinating," says Holmes. "It boils down to really thinking about who we need to be talking to and how we talk to them."