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You might find it a bit odd that the CEO of a fundraising technology company might be writing about old-fashioned methods of personalizing communications.

I recently had an in-depth discussion with a prospective customer regarding the extent of bulk personalization that is attainable via mail merges, through the hundreds of fields of standard and custom information in our Bloomerang system.

Needless to say, the creation of and testing of extensive in-letter content takes a bit more time than your normal appeal letter with just a personalized salutation and amount of the last gift being merged in.

But could this amount of time be better used?

I asked the fundraiser just that; why not take the same amount of time (or slightly more) to personalize it the old fashioned way by handwriting any of the following:

  • The address on the envelope
  • The P.S. at the bottom of the letter
  • A note in the margin
  • A message on an attached post-it note
  • The entire letter

Any of these alone or in combination will improve the performance of any appeal letter, build better relationships in any thank you letter, and in the case of the last option often be kept and cherished for years!

Just Exactly How Much Will Results Improve?

This seems like an easy question to answer for each of the scenarios outlined above. Unfortunately, there just isn’t any concrete data as a result of a study or survey.

Perhaps like my friend Roger Craver of the “Agitator “ blog fame states “such scientific testing is just not as relevant or as popular here in the nonprofit world.”

Fortunately, our own donor communications head coach, Tom Ahern, has some ideas.

When asked about the improvement in results from such personalization to donor and prospect letters Tom replied in his usual wonderful prose.

Here is the first bit of wisdom:

“I don’t have hard research or A/B splits (at least that I could find quickly, reviewing my two chief all-inclusive DM references, Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals and Alan Sharpe’s Mail Superiority). Nor do I think a hard-data answer is all that useful, given that DM is ever changing and always empirical (keep testing).”

Followed by even more prophetic analysis:

“The consensus guideline, from Mal to Alan to Jerry Huntsinger (my earliest DM tutor), is that adding personalization to DM always improves results. At its most obvious: “Dear Tom” will likely beat “Dear Friend.”

Hand-written stuff in a DM appeal is a form of personalization: hand-done touches (these days we might even call it “artisanal” or authentic touches) will out-pull that which looks industrialized. That in itself is enough of a guideline. Personalization adds warmth to DM. Warmth draws the reader closer.”

Next, an even more recent real life example as only Tom can provide:

“Real life: I just picked up my mail, returning from a 3-city tour of Montana. The entire clutch of mass direct mail appeals, commercial and fundraising, that I pulled from my rural mailbox went straight to trash. I’d just arrived off the red-eye from Seattle.

But there was one hand-written envelope. That I kept, for investigation later.”

Finally, since most of the readers of this blog are from small shops here is a few closing pearls of infinite wisdom:

“Your inquiry gave me a good excuse to revisit Jerry H.’s lengthy DM tutorial on SOFII.org. Let’s jump to tutorial #56: Strategy for the Small Organization. A few observations by him about successful DM in smaller shops:

“They take great pains to avoid looking like an institution.” “They use personalisation as often as possible.” “The smaller the mailing list, the more important personalisation becomes.” “They try to avoid the ‘computer look’ that the major organisations use by using personalisation at a deeper level.”

So as you can see personalization takes many forms (including different spellings in various countries) in the fundraising world.

Hopefully, most small to medium size nonprofits will combine newer technology to reach the masses and proven old-fashioned technology to reach key prospects and renewing existing donors. Better yet, do your own A/B testing to what works best for your constituents!

Do you hand-personalize your donor communications? Let me know in the comments below!

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Jay Love

Jay Love

Co-Founder & Chief Relationship Officer at Bloomerang
A 30+ veteran of the nonprofit software industry, Jay Love co-founded Bloomerang in 2012. Prior to Bloomerang, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of eTapestry for 11 years, which at the time was the leading SaaS technology company serving the charity sector. Jay and his team grew the company to more than 10,000 nonprofit clients, charting a decade of record growth. Prior to starting eTapestry, Jay served 14 years as President and CEO of Master Software Corporation. MSC provided a widely used family of database products for the non-profit sector called Fund-Master. He currently serves on the board of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and is the past AFP Ethics Committee Chairman. Jay is also the author of Stay Together: How to Encourage a Lifetime of Donor Loyalty.