Direct mail may have an image problem, but the very best work is extremely effective. Here three experts pick the campaigns they believe were right on target this year.
The BBC recently aired a programme called Brassed Off Britain, in which "junk mail" was voted the most annoying thing in the country. When you consider that it beat banks and call centres to the top spot, you get an idea of how much people dislike it.
But as all charities probably know, it is worth incurring the wrath of some recipients because direct mail really works. The Royal Mail estimates a cold mailing generates a response rate of 25 per 1,000. This is five times more effective than a newspaper insert, which generates five responses per 1,000, and considerably better than the one response per 1,000 achieved by a one-page, full-colour ad in a weekend supplement.
Unsurprisingly, the use of direct mail is growing. The Direct Marketing Association's 2003/2004 census shows that spending on the medium increased by 14.8 per cent to be worth £13.66bn in the UK over the past year. This is partly down to a trend for integrating mailshots into umbrella campaigns, thereby increasing their effectiveness.
So it is increasingly important for charities to make their direct mail stand out from the crowd. Why should someone read your pack and not another?
It may be because of a gimmick, eye-catching photography or a startling headline. Innovation is the key. But beware of innovating for the sake of it, warns Neil Henderson, creative planner at DMS.
"Breaking new ground is not an end in itself for fundraisers," he says.
"It takes enormous amounts of time, money and organisational will to innovate." But Henderson adds that taking a new approach may be a necessity when well crafted, well executed, well integrated campaigns are no longer enough to satisfy a charity's financial ambitions. "It may be necessary when a charity wants to expand its programmes, or when times are tough and donors not so generous," he says.
Innovation should not be a one-off event. The most successful charities are those that constantly use original approaches to reach new donors and nurture existing ones. After all, as soon as recipients get bored, you have lost them.
"The point of innovation is to discover if benchmark approaches can be improved," says Henderson. "If trusted techniques can't be improved, there's no reason to stop using them."
With this in mind, we asked three industry experts to pick the one campaign from the past year that really stood out for them.
CHRIS ARNOLD, creative director of Feel, chooses World Vision
A pig is an unusual Christmas gift, but there are many people who would gladly receive one. That was the thinking behind World Vision's gift catalogue, which was launched in September. The catalogue, also online at www.greatgifts.org, encourages recipients to give useful things to some of the world's poorest people - items such as livestock, pots and pans or even a well. All the gifts are things that real people have asked for specifically.
The catalogue caught the eye of Chris Arnold, the creative director of Feel, a design agency. "I thought it was just another corporate gift catalogue - and I thought 'oh, I need something for our clients' - but then I spotted a photo of a pig coming out of a box," he says.
"I instantly discarded the letter, as I always do, because I wanted to see what was in the pack. I hadn't quite clicked at this point. I made the assumption that it would just be another bunch of calculators, but then I saw all the things I could be giving, like a mosquito net, a cookery set or a pig."
World Vision's idea was originally devised by its branch in Canada, but the UK organisation is the first to take it beyond the charity's core group of supporters to target the general public and buyers of corporate gifts.
The main modification to the Canadian concept was using a more light-hearted tone, explains Peter Meadows, head of marketing and creative services at World Vision. "We realised the catalogue was too serious before," says Meadows. "It was very worthy. People in the charity sector assume everyone is as serious about the issues as they are, and that everything has to be serious."
The catalogue was first sent to World Vision's supporters and then to selected cold lists, including companies. It was also distributed through churches and the web has played a prominent role, with affiliates driving traffic to the site. Arnold says it is the catalogue's central premise that makes it a success because the design does not particularly stand out. "It won't win any design awards, but it's clean and simply done and the copy is kept to a minimum," he says.
He dismisses the letter that comes with the catalogue, calling it "the usual waffle". He says such letters are often unnecessary because charity packs usually do the job perfectly well on their own.
World Vision produced the catalogue with Domain, an agency that helped develop the concept and design. Another catalogue is on the cards for the spring and Meadows attributes its success to the fact it helps people solve the problem of what to give others.
For corporate buyers, telling clients they are buying a pig instead of sending Christmas cards is good PR. "We are the antidote to gifts that go down badly," Meadows says.
For Arnold, the winning ingredient is humour. "I'm a great believer in having fun with the consumer," he explains. "Big companies exploit humour. Walkers uses it to sell crisps, for instance. It's the one area that most charities run away from - but it could be their secret weapon."
PHILIP KEEVILL, creative director of Keevill Barton Kershaw, chooses Samaritans
Samaritans launched a campaign to promote its email service to young people last month. Research found that the charity enjoyed a high level of awareness among 16 to 25-year-olds, but many of them did not think Samaritans was aimed at them. Few young people were aware of its email service.
But email is precisely the medium that young people will be most comfortable using - especially for support, because it can give them a greater sense of control than a telephone call. Last year, 100,000 people contacted Samaritans by email, and the charity now wants to build on this.
The campaign, called Who's Jo?, promoted the email@example.com email address. The name Jo was chosen instead of a generic email address, such as firstname.lastname@example.org, to convey the fact that a real person reads all the incoming emails. The name is also short, easy to remember and unisex.
"There were two main phases of this campaign," says a Samaritans spokesman.
"The DM element was a series of postcards - a media teaser sent to the national press ahead of a launch event. There then followed an above-the-line advertising campaign using print, outdoor, television, radio and online banners."
Philip Keevill, creative director of recently established direct marketing venture Keevill Barton Kershaw, applauds the campaign's simple concept.
"The Who's Jo idea is an easy, simple way to make people realise there is a real person at the other end of the email," he says.
"What I particularly like is the strategy of using email in this way. I can see that young people would feel uncomfortable with telephoning for advice. This way they can use a method of communication they feel comfortable with."
National media journalists were sent a different postcard promoting the campaign every day for a week in the run-up to the launch event on 7 November.
The PR work was handled by Firefly. "The postcards used pictures of various famous Jos," says Catherine Betts, senior account executive at the agency.
"We had one with JK Rowling, one with Joe from New Kids on the Block and one with Joe Di Maggio. They featured messages such as 'this Jo made her fortune by sitting in cafes' and 'this Joe lost his virginity while on tour with a boy band'."
The final postcard in the series explained exactly how the email service worked. It also revealed that Samaritans was launching the service with National Jo Day and called on all people named Jo (or Joe) to attend an event at Jubilee Gardens near the London Eye with the Merseybeat and Hollyoaks actress, Joanna Taylor. More than 100 Jos turned up to the party - the first 50 received free goody bags - and a group photo was taken.
"In some ways, it's not as strong creatively as some other campaigns this year, such as the NSPCC's," Keevill says. "But it shows how to think about the way people want to communicate, the action the charity wants to generate and how to prompt that action."
He adds that Who's Jo? managed to stand out from other campaigns: "While other initiatives might be multi-media campaigns, they can be passive and not as involving as this one."
BILL BRITT, editor of Marketing Direct, chooses The Royal British Legion
This year marked the 60th anniversary of D-Day, an event commemorated by the Royal British Legion. The legion is best known for its activities around Remembrance Day on 11 November. This year, the organisation wanted to raise its profile as a charity that operates all the year round. The legion also wanted to appeal to new, younger donors, who might feel less of an emotional connection with the Second World War.
Bill Britt, the editor of Marketing Direct, says the Legion's DM campaign was particularly impressive because of the way it engaged the public.
"In addition to the typical mailshot with a letter and pictures of veterans, they created these little flags," Britt says. "They were union flags with the words 'thank you' on them. The idea was that you could write a message on the flag when you sent in your donation. Thousands of the flags were then placed on Sword Beach (one of the five sites of the Normandy landings) as part of the ceremony on D-Day."
The Legion sent 2.3 million packs by direct mail in addition to a door-drop of 2.4 million. The head of direct marketing, Andrew Jones, says the response rate was better than expected.
"The DM response was just over 2 per cent, which was astonishing for us outside of remembrance time," he says. "The door-drop response was 0.8 per cent and that was encouraging too."
In fact, the organisation was overwhelmed by the number of flags it received.
"We got 70,000 back," explains Jones. "We had said we would lay out a flag for everyone who died that day, which was 1,520 people. To have 70,000 flags was overwhelming, but we laid them all out and photographed them as we had planned."
There was a fundraising element to the campaign, but the flags themselves were not an overt fundraising tool, according to Nick Thomas, executive creative director of the Target Direct agency, which developed the idea.
Generating money was important, he says, but it was just as crucial to come up with more creative ways of remembering servicemen and women and to move beyond the legion's association with the annual Poppy Appeal.
"It was an opportunity to get the legion up front and into the nation's consciousness and to raise awareness of the work it does during the rest of the year," says Thomas. "It was a way of talking about its work a bit more, using the vehicle of the D-Day anniversary to do that."
Britt struggles to find anything in this campaign to criticise. "It was very successful in getting money from existing and new supporters," he explains. "This campaign raised about £2m for the legion and it got front page coverage in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. What other charities can learn from this initiative is that it pays to really involve people in a campaign rather than just ask them for money."