The Science Of A Donor Acquisition Package

If direct mail is a science like biology, then acquisition package testing might be a more specific discipline like microbiology. No matter how you classify acquisition package testing, it is a science.

“The goal is to acquire new donors, but donors who will stay with you and upgrade, at the lowest investment,” said Lisa Maska, a partner at Lautman Maska Neill and Company in Washington, D.C.

Specifically, you’re trying to: increase response rate and average gift; lower the package cost and the cost to acquire a donor; and, sometimes to open up new markets.

Maska, along with Jennifer Venderveld, vice president of marketing at the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation (MCHF), and Betsy Wason, vice president of development at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), led attendees of the Direct Marketing Association Nonprofit Federation 2014 New York Nonprofit Conference through the ins and outs of acquisition package testing.

Good acquisition letters share the following characteristics, said Maska:

  • A strong case for support;
  • A solution to a problem;
  • How your organization is uniquely able to provide a solution;
  • Establishment of credibility;
  • Emotional storytelling, and;
  • Able to show donors how they can make an impact.

“Ask, ask, ask,” said Maska. “Be a little repetitive. Donors don’t necessarily read a letter straight through. They may skim it.”

Tips for other elements include:

1. The reply form: Set the initial ask at the right amount, and don’t forget that a donor might put the form aside and make a gift later or on another channel.

2. The carrier envelope: Use a teaser if you need it, said Maska.

3. Reply Envelope: Test everything, like making it a BRE or prepaying postage

4. Additional inserts and premiums: Approach these with caution, and only include them if previous tests have indicated they’ve done very well.

If your organization has a number of purviews or issue areas, test the messaging focus to see on which your donors are coming in. “What works best for us is acquiring donors on an animal research message,” Wason said. PCRM, based in Washington, D.C., has about 125,000 active donors and a revenue budget of $10 million.

Wason said PCRM’s “Rodney” package, about a dog used in medical testing, is the organization’s hard-to-beat control. It has a four-page letter with a petition and an outer envelope with a teaser. “We find our donors are interested in advocacy, so (the teaser about) signing the petition lets them know about an immediate action they can take,” said Wason.

When testing a new acquisition package recently, Wason first looked at competitors’ packages. Some had nickels attached to the envelope as an incentive. “As a way to set ours apart, we took the nickel idea and flipped it around,” she said. “Our current donors are against receiving premiums, so we used that mindset for our No Nickel Package.”

The new acquisition letter called attention to the competitors’ practice, with the line, “At PCRM, we’d rather use that nickel to save a dog…” The new package had a 1.64 percent response rate, which was 60 percent higher than the control, and a 73 percent increase in revenue. However, the package’s efficacy didn’t last long. Wason said that packages generally tend to last between 18 and 24 months, but “after 12 months we started to see package fatigue already.” The lesson here: keep testing.

The biggest takeaway, said Wason, was checking out the competition. Start with the list you’re using and see what others are mailing to that same list. “They’re what people you want to respond are responding to,” added Maska. Gather some competitors’ control packages, spread them out on a table and look for common elements. Once you see what they have in common, you can figure out how to make your package stand out.