How to build your annual direct mail plan in 8 easy steps

November 22, 2019

As fundraisers, we all know that the first signs of the holiday season mean it’s time to dive into planning meetings, campaign budgets, and spreadsheets.

But I have good news to share! Direct mail isn’t dead. (You can see the research for yourself in Good Works’ State of the Direct Mail Nation 2019)

The bad news? You no longer have any excuse to delay planning your DM program for 2020!

I apologize if I just added something else to your to-do list this week…but I promise you it’s not as intimidating or time-consuming as it sounds. To make it up to you, I’ll help you start the process with eight steps below.

1. Before you make plans for next year, review your results to date

Take a real good look at the results from your program year-to-date, as well as the final results from the year before that.

What did your donors respond to, and what seemed to fall flat? Did everything drop as scheduled, or were there delays? Was there a package that exceeded projections, and if so, can you somehow replicate it in the coming year? Are there any testing results to analyze and apply to your pieces moving forward?

Look at timing, messaging and creative of each package, and see if you can identify any patterns or trends that tell you what your donors like. Look at the numbers, but trust your gut, too. And remember, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Don’t fix what isn’t broken!

2. Establish fundraising goals for the year

This will likely involve a larger conversation with your annual giving team. Before you start typing up an ambitious plan, think about the larger goals for your organization and your donors. Are there areas of growth you want to consider? Is new donor acquisition a priority? Perhaps your charity would like to increase its monthly donor file, or improve its second-gift conversion rate. You can build your direct mail plan to support and further these priorities.

3. Determine your budget & audience for next year’s program.

I’ve combined these two steps here because one inevitably impacts the other. In direct mail planning, your quantities are the main factor in determining hard costs like paper, printing, and postage.

Get the most up-to-date counts for your donor segments (active, lapsed, monthly, etc), and determine your budget for prospect mailings, if applicable.

Pad your costs a bit to account for any unexpected increases in material costs. (Here in Canada, paper costs are continuing to increase, which will ultimately impact every component in a mail package.)

4. Start with the big picture plan and work backward.

Don’t get lost in the weeds. Once you have your goals, budget and audience determined, take last year’s DM plan and strip it down to the basics.

Look at the year’s plan as a whole and keep the campaigns and components that work, move around or add to the pieces that need extra attention, and delete those you don’t want to repeat.

5. Assign themes and stories to each campaign.

Now you can start slotting in ideas for stories and signatories. In reviewing your results from years prior, you should have a bit of an idea of the themes and messages that garner a response. What resonates most with your donors? Remember to plan for a variety of signatories; for example, a healthcare foundation might have a mixture of doctors, patients, family members and staff who pen letters.

6. Get creative.

Look at your package components and allow for some variety in size, colour, and design. My colleague, and Good Works’ very own outer envelope superstar, has some helpful tips on how to shake things up when it comes to creative elements!

Think about additions like inserts or premiums that might enhance your package. You can read more about the types of lift notes that might work for you here.

7. Think about testing.

I’ve put this in as a step on its own, but this is really something you should be thinking about throughout the entire planning process.

Your testing strategy should tie back to your goals as well. For example, if you’re looking to upgrade your donors, try testing a different gift matrix. If you’re debating the extra costs of a full-colour envelope, test it. Would your donors prefer a larger reply coupon? TEST. IT.

(And remember, only deploy one test per campaign, otherwise, you won’t have reliable results!)

8. Integrate your direct mail plan with other channels.

Look at how your other fundraising activities like email or events, can be woven into your direct mail plan (or vice versa). A cohesive plan has the potential to lift response across all channels. Man, this could be a whole blog post on its own… (Thanks Ronen)
Don’t be scared, and have fun with it. Planning early, and with as much detail as you can, will save you time, money and last-minute headaches in the year to come. Happy planning!

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Melanie Scholz

Melanie Scholz

Twin mom. Boy mom. Eats supper standing up. Fan of Jillian Michaels and HGTV. Lover of charcuterie, white wine and apocalypse-type movies.