Get more money with your year end appeal: Interview with Paul Bobnak of DMIQTV and Who’s Mailing What
Paul Bobnak interview 8/22/13
Tell us about yourself. How long have you been working in the direct mail industry?
For the past 15 years I’ve been the archivist of Who’s Mailing What. My basic job which hasn’t changed much, every day I look at direct mail and email. Then I categorize it and analyze it and put all of that information in a database system. We have gone from providing this information in a print product to providing it online.
Direct mail and email is dull as dishwater but it’s fascinating to do. You have to have a detail oriented personality (which I have). It’s ultimately about human behavior and analyzing it from a number of different ways. Whether it’s a for-profit enterprise and a non-profit, it’s all about driving response, trying to get people to become engaged and invest their money. Seeing nonprofits do that is really interesting. You wonder what the thought process was, and why people aren’t aware of what works and what doesn’t work.
We archive email and direct mail in Who’s Mailing What.
Our database in Who’s Mailing What allows us to let nonprofits search 13 sub categories for cultural institutions, environmental charities, children’s charities, etc. Someone could look at those narrow slices and see what else they’re doing. It’s valuable to see what they’re doing and get some ideas from that to see where you’re coming up short.
What is DMIQTV?
DMIQTV is all of the videos that Direct Marketing IQ produces. It’s on a little hiatus because we’re getting training to use more high tech and versatile video. They use snippets of direct mail, and they discuss trends in direct mail and email and it’s something we will do a lot more of. People prefer video content and love a human face on our analysis.
What do you do to get around the fact that you don’t know how well these mailings did?
We mark mailings that we see in our mail stream. For some organizations who continue to send the same direct mail pieces again and again, that indicates that they are successful. When a control has been received for more than 3 consecutive years, we call it a grand control. These are the nonprofit mail pieces that are the most successful. We don’t know how successful they are, but we do know that they’re successful. We have reports as well as stories that we do in our free newsletter, and we can analyze the piece and ask what is it that makes it so successful? Is it the front end premium, back end premium, writing, design? So many factors.
There are about 1,500 of these that we’ve tracked over the years across all of the categories. For nonprofits I would say 800 of them are for nonprofits. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! With credit card companies they are always taking more risks than nonprofits to try to get more profit. They change everything all the time. With nonprofits it tends to be more about building long term familiarity with the donors.
What do you wish more nonprofits knew about direct mail, and what do you think of these pronouncements every few years that direct mail is dead?
I wish that they knew that it wasn’t dead, rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. American Cancer society is ending and scaling back their direct mail acquisition, and they are one of the biggest players, but there are certainly plenty of other nonprofits that will take up the slack.
Postage costs continue to increase and that’s inevitable, and USPS delivery may get scaled back. The reality is it’s the highest channel that you will get the most response on, over email and social media.
A lot of nonprofits may be cutting themselves short with budgets the way they are, with people not wanting to make investments in direct mail campaigns because of the recession. A lot of nonprofits who haven’t had a lot of growth in the last few months or last year, they are seeing they should have made investments in direct mail.
It’s this faith in technology, things that are available on the screen, it’s available in an instant, where a direct mail packet is something you can put aside for a few moments, but it’s still there. Direct mail is far more easily measurable than social media. Unless you do social really really well and you are able to somehow measure it, it’s not valuable for driving memberships or subscribers or donors.
We know that the direct mail universe is shrinking. Why is that? Because postage rates have gone up and people are moving away from postal, whether it’s invoices or magazine subscriptions, it’s moving somewhat to a digital model. We know email open rates are dropping because people are inundated with legitimate email and spam. That tells me that there’s an opportunity there for people who can do direct mail well to get back into direct mail.
How can nonprofits do direct mail well?
Personalize your connection to the donor. Direct mail certainly offers that ability. All anyone has to do is get in touch with a good printing service provider, VDP, variable data personalization, they can really use the data that they have on a donor. They can really reach out to them and speak to them in a way that is more personal and build a relationship.
What is VDP? How can you ask for it from a mailhouse?
You can ask if they have VDP and what level they have it at. In the past personalization was “dear Jane” just adding someone’s name. It was clunky, and not speaking to the donor. We used to see nonprofits mailing a lot of name and address labels, and this is something that’s fairly easy to do.
Today you want to do something like, “We appreciate your membership to our museum, there have been a lot of changes since you joined in 1997.“
You can personalize the letter for someone who joined in 1997 versus 2008. These options are important. Donors are looking for something a bit more personal. That is not to say that there aren’t donors who give simply because they have a moment because they want to feel good about something, but they don’t go beyond that. There’s an opportunity for people to link direct mail and email together, maybe one follows up the other, and each person can have a special landing page on the web for the campaign, and it reaches people in a personal way. It’s about engaging people.
Do you see more live stamps or indicias on grand controls?
They tend to be indicia. You don’t see too much use of live stamps except for mail that’s going to higher end donors. I don’t know exactly why that is.
What are some new trends in nonprofit direct mail envelopes?
The biggest trend going on right now is more use of color, especially 4 color outer envelopes, you see a lot more 4 color photography, 4 color graphics, you may have had over the years a 2 color logo and the nonprofit name in a corner card and a teaser line on the front, and that doesn’t cut it anymore. It works for some, but a lot more nonprofits are working with their print shops to do 4 color outers.
What are you seeing for trends in enclosures?
For premiums, probably biggest change is that they’re on a slow decline. In the last couple years, there’s been a move towards using personalized certificates, massaging the ego of the donor, it flatters them to receive something that is personalized in their name, that wasn’t done 6-7 years ago. That’s been on a big upswing since then.
The other thing is that some nonprofits have been mailing a premium item like a tote bag or a blanket, and that’s expensive to go in the mail. They will mail that right up front instead of waiting til they’ve made a donation.
Address labels have gone down because people are using mail less for payments and bills, and they were looking for something to replace it like a personalized certificate. These larger items are heavy and lumpy, a 9 x 11 envelope stands out.
Do you have examples of these premiums in Who’s Mailing What?
Everything is in there, and we have pdfs for a good chunk of our mail. Every email has a pdf, but not every direct mail package. But if they’re doing a search and we can create an image for them.
This is an opportunity for nonprofits to provide a premium that’s mission centered. With address labels there’s almost no branding, which is a lost opportunity.
Have you noticed any shifts in grand controls for human services charities?
Not really. They tend to be similar to what they’ve been doing for years, which is trying to measure their impact of a donation with how many people are served by the institution.
What about for animal charities?
Nothing really different from what’s been working for a couple of years. Presentation that is heavily based on getting people angry about the treatment of animals. If there is one thing that ASPCA has distinguished themselves by, it’s color. They’re using orange, across all of their channels, direct mail and email, and it’s something that stands out. They’ve used refrigerator magnets. It’s a great idea. They’ve got great branding across all of their channels.
In terms of copy, are you still seeing a lot of dear friend letters, or is it more personalized?
It is more personalized, but it still has a long way to go.
Nonprofits don’t have as much information on people as much as for profit companies would. But even organizations that are mailing special campaigns to their current donors, some of them are not doing anything special for their donors who have given over 15 years in their direct mail. And then they give the same thing to those who are not current donors. So that’s a mistake. They should leverage the information they have and personalize an ask for them that’s a lot more relevant.
Have you seen a lot of grand controls attached to email campaigns?
No, not really, it’s difficult for us to determine what direct mail campaigns are tied to email campaigns and vice versa.
What’s so special about your Who’s Mailing What website?
What’s special about it is that we are the oldest and the largest library of direct mail and email samples anywhere, we’ve been around since 1984, some of our data goes back to the beginning of 1985, and we collect thousands of email and direct mail efforts every month. The majority of it is email because it’s easier to collect. The advantage is that people can search around specific categories of mail, specific industries, 200 categories, and 12-14 nonprofit categories, people can also search by formats, people might just look at trends in self mailers or postcards or envelopes.
People ask me all the time, “Who should I buy mailing lists from? What direct mail companies are good?” Do you have any recommendations around that?
I would recommend people check out the resource guide on fundraising success magazine website, it’s http://fundraisingsuccessmag.com. There’s a section there for vendors of every aspect of direct mail and email, and most of them in this case are specific for nonprofits. I can’t recommend anyone specifically, because on a personal level I know a lot of different companies. I would also say that Blase Ciaboton. @thedmailman on Twitter. He’s a good source to talk to, especially about things like mailing lists, I would recommend him, I don’t think he would steer anybody towards a specific vendor, but he’s a good source too.
What are some good questions to ask a list seller about leads?
If you’re starting off at a zero knowledge base, there are 10 other people that are more knowledgeable than I am about this stuff. Ask where the names on the list come from. You need to know what kind of offers the names bought from, whether it’s a commercial thing or memberships in a museum or some other type of nonprofit, you’ll want to know the last time the list was used, because mailing lists go out of circulation after awhile. They can’t stay fresh because so much of the population moves everywhere. You’ll want to know are the lists segments by how people respond to offers. Were they all direct mail, where they TV, radio? There are a lot of ways people respond, especially for nonprofits. You want to look at how much they spent, what kind of levels of donors are they? There are so many different questions you can ask.
Paul, how can people reach you if they have more questions?
Thanks so much for being interviewed today!
If you have questions for Paul, reach out to him at the methods above, or leave a comment and I will ask him to answer it.