The most recent issue of Third Sector caught my attention when it landed with a light thud on my desk, due to the question emblazoned across its front cover: Direct mail – is it facing serious decline?’
It’s true that the way direct mail (DM) is used by fundraisers has changed significantly in recent years. But the cover story also bring to mind Betteridge’s Law, that “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no."
Perhaps more importantly, is this the right question to be asking in the first place?
Evaluating direct mail as an isolated channel is the wrong starting point. If we want to consider DM’s future without falling prey to hype, it’s helpful to consider how effective it is through the lens of the two main fundraising roles it plays:
- Attracting new supporters and
- Engaging existing supporters.
Direct mail & attracting new supporters
There’s little doubt that DM’s role in attraction is being diminished. Susannah Birkwood, the author of Third Sector’s cover story, states that “raising money through the medium (of DM) has unquestionably become harder in recent times."
Birkwood puts this down to a variety of factors, including increased regulation (particularly around data protection), complaints from donors and an increase in negative media coverage over the last couple of years.
This perfect storm of pressures, along with the high expense of mail compared to other channels, means that addressed DM no longer dominates the recruitment landscape.
While dramatic headlines might make this seem like a new phenomenon, that’s not the case - the effectiveness of rented mailing lists has been in decline for some time. For quite a lot of major charities, the love affair with cold direct mail died way back in the nineties or the noughties.
Keeping it in context
It's hard to deny that response rates to cold direct mail (DM) aren’t what they once were, and regulatory challenges have increased.
However it’s worth remembering that other traditional attraction channels, such as face-to-face and door-to-door have seen similar disruption, and declines in effectiveness. Telephone fundraising has perhaps fared worst of all. In this context, maybe DM isn’t doing too badly after all.
It’s clear that for many fundraisers, DM has too many recruitment benefits to walk away from. For example, Lewis Coghlin, fundraising director at Cats Protection, told Third Sector that “supporters recruited from direct mail tend to be good, loyal donors who, if treated right, can stay with the charity for many years.”
Julius Wolff-Ingham, head of marketing and fundraising at The Salvation Army had good words to say about the channel too, telling Birkwood that DM is “still one of the most effective ways for us to recruit new people.”
It's also worth noting that the decline in addressed mail using cold lists has been mirrored by a growth in the use of unaddressed mail/door drops and media inserts.
The latter options provide charities with the medium to tell stories in a similar way to cold DM, without the additional data protection and cost challenges that comes with rented lists and increasing postage costs.
Direct mail’s role in building relationships with supporters
When it comes to longer-term engagement, we need to ask ourselves how we can use multi-channel journeys to put supporters at the heart of fundraising.
Direct mail continues to offers some fantastic engagement opportunities as part of the supporter’s preferred mix of channels.
Indeed, the IOF’s head of policy Daniel Fluskey suggests that, in a world where we predominantly interact online, addressed mail can now have a bigger impact than ever before. This is borne out by Fast.MAP’s latest Media DNA Report, which shows that direct mail scores highly when compared to other channels for being retainable, trustworthy and relevant.
MarketReach’s in-depth The Private Life of Mail research from 2015 came to similar conclusions. It showed that people value items they can see and touch 24% more highly than those they can only see, and that receiving mail actually made 57% of those surveyed feel more valued by brands.
An important channel for individual giving
As to whether direct mail is facing serious decline, Third Sector’s article actually confirms its resilience as a channel, acknowledging that charity spending on DM actually increased by 3% to £265m in the year to June 2016 (Nielsen).
Sure, high volume cold mailings are not about to return with a bang, but DM still has an exciting role to play as a communication channel in the changing landscape and culture of individual giving.
There seems to be a genuine movement within charities to innovate around ‘doing the right thing’ and a willingness to approach relationships with supporters in a different way - and we see no reason why direct mail won’t continue to play an important role in that process.