Reality Direct Mail: How I Wrote One Appeal

Proposed: I am NOT writing direct mail appeal to tell “a” story. Or “our story.” I’m writing to the extend the reader’s story. To make that reader a living character in an act of doing good. To lend purpose, as the late neurologist and Nazi camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, implored.

I talk to myself when I write. I jot notes on a yellow pads, ‘me telling me’ stuff.

In the appeal I’m writing today, the tone will be immediately set by the doctor’s name appearing at the top of the page.

Name Name, MD

And by the unusual size of the letterhead sheet. For this special, Memorial Day appeal we’re using an executive-size sheet. It’s slightly smaller than standard office stationery. More personal. A bit exclusive. So…

Name Name, MD

In 24 pt. type centered. And just below that, on the right, there’s a date, in 12 pt. type. At that size the date will properly read as a minor, background element.

And then you break the silence.

A voice begins speaking. Says something short, per Sugarman. Nothing overwhelming. In 14 pt. type. If you’re not a sadist, you use BIGGER TYPE for 60+-year-old eyes, the eyes upholstered inside the heads of most American donors.

Dear [Salutation Informal],

You’ve heard it before.

But I wanted to tell you myself, as we move toward this upcoming Memorial Day …

… Thank You for your faith and belief in hospice.

This is a renewal letter. So the letter quickly acknowledges the targeted recipient’s past contribution in a values-based way, e.g., “…your faith and belief in hospice.”

Donor-centered appeals practice an ancient sorcery called “baptism by gratitude.” Trained copywriters and other artists were once burned for such witchcraft.

Baptism by gratitude©™® goes like this: baroquely smother (think Hollandaise sauce) your current and recent donors in thanks and gratitude all the time. You will make more money if you do.

That particular thank you above also reminds the reader she is part of something important, through her gift. Her gift is the link to the tribe. It’s a powerful link. A throbbing link.

It hasn’t always been easy being hospice. Although it’s now part of established medicine, it began as a compassionate movement led by a trailblazing UK nurse in the 1960s.

It was alternative medicine. People wanted to die at home, not in a hospital. Ways to do that painlessly had to be invented and perfected and argued for. Hospice has always relied on its true believers, as do many other charities.

The letter goes on, in paraphrase:

Your gifts … mean so much – maybe even more than you realize.

You see, philanthropy such as yours is absolutely essential….

This is the letter’s “moment of truth.” This is when the signer comes right out and talks frankly about the need for donors – the ESSENTIAL need for donors. I don’t see this in a lot of other letters.

The letter continues for five paragraphs about that need, discussing all the really great and intriguing and surprising and heartwarming things that only “your generosity” makes possible.

I learned from Jerry Huntsinger. Decades ago I paid to subscribe to his training newsletter. (Those were the days for experts. Now the Eminent Mr. Huntsinger GIVES his immense knowledge away online, on SOFII.)

I remember someone cornered him. They asked, “What was the absolute minimum that a direct mail appeal required?”

His answer: “Adequate emotion. Adequate rationale. Adequate mechanics for getting the gift back in the charity’s hands.” I think about that recipe often.

Those five paragraphs I wrote explaining the need for philanthropy at hospice? Those are both the adequate emotion and the adequate rationale.

The emotion part is the part where we give the reader an important job to do. The rationale part is where we explain what philanthropy – and ONLY philanthropy – buys.

The letter is consciously trying to “build our culture of philanthropy,” so-called, by talking about the exclusive function of charity in the mission.

Pretty much every paragraph of the letter’s 18 is either a direct ask (“…please make another gift….”) or an implied ask (“…due to generous philanthropy … such as yours!”)

That’s the SMIT — the Single Most Important Thing the letter has to say — a concept developed by Pareto in Australia, who probably learned something like from someone else, since all copywriters stand on dozens of other shoulders, like the world’s tallest cheerleader tower.

And so on: in healthy direct mail appeals, every paragraph is there to do a job, aware of how reader’s actually read which is NOT how untrained appeal writers THINK they read.

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