I love everything about direct response fundraising—from the way creative messaging plays out across channels to the strategies that inspire donors to give.
And I’ll admit it: I’m a direct mail dork.
If you were to look around my home, you’d find dozens of mail packages from nonprofits sitting around in piles.
I sift through them. I read them. I study them. But most of all, I simply enjoy them.
There’s something special about receiving a piece of mail and holding it in your hands that simply can’t be replicated in any other realm.
That’s why direct mail has been such an incredibly effective fundraising tool for nonprofit organizations for decades. However, several significant challenges have emerged in recent years that have some questioning just what the future of direct mail truly looks like.
In this blog post, I’ll explore these challenges, share some opinions from around the industry and discuss potential solutions to help nonprofits navigate this changing landscape.
The state of direct mail today
To understand where we are, we must understand what’s led us here. Several forces have intersected in the last few years to generate a major impact on direct mail.
First and foremost is the rising cost of printing and mailing. On the print side, the pandemic lockdown created a supply shortage of paper products, and this was followed by a sharp rise in inflation across the globe.
On the mailing side, the USPS increased the price of first-class mail by 14.5% in the last two years—with another rate increase coming in July. Postage rates in Canada are also up 2.1% in the last year alone.
During the same three-year period, digital marketing grew leaps and bounds. More donors than ever are giving online, leading many organizations to shift their focus toward growing their digital programs to meet people where they are.
Nonprofits have also seen a 20-year trend of fewer people giving to charity—across channels—and declines in response rates and donor retention.
Put it all together, and you have rising costs, fewer donors and a whole bunch of digital channels competing for your donors’ attention. Where do we go from here?
Thoughts around the nonprofit industry
I’ve had conversations on this subject with many people, both inside and outside of RKD Group. I asked a few of our client partners for their thoughts on the future of direct mail, and I’ll share them here with you:
"I think we'll see more integration with other channels to create a surround sound approach. We typically see direct mail integrated with email and telemarketing, but I expect we'll see additional channels like connected TV and digital media come into play more and more to match changing consumer habits. I also think we’ll see more recycling and reusing direct mail components in an innovative way, like utilizing augmented reality (AR) to encourage engagement."
– Karen Barr, Managing Director, Supporter Experience at Save the Children
“Direct mail will continue to remain an integral part of multichannel campaign strategies. I see the use of tools like QR codes increasing to enhance the direct mail experience and drive donors online for additional content and opportunities to donate. In recent years, we’ve seen large growth in our traditional DM donors choosing to donate online, which gives organizations the opportunity to put more relevant content in front of their donors to deepen the relationship, leading to increased donor loyalty.”
– Kali McKenna, Deputy Director of Annual Giving at UNICEF Canada
“Direct mail will remain as an important annual fundraising strategy. We continue to see strong returns, even though more and more folks are electing to give through digital channels (which tend to be faster, more convenient and more secure than mailing a check or cash). We recognize there have been supply chain and USPS-induced struggles over the past several years. Despite this, direct mail efforts play a major role in our solicitation strategy.”
– Mike Stafford, Senior Development Manager, Central Pennsylvania Food Bank
What you don’t see in any of these quotes is the idea that direct mail will fall off a cliff or be replaced in some way. All three see a future of multichannel integration, along with paths to enhance direct mail.
So, let’s talk about a few ways we can start optimizing direct mail for the future.
How we can prepare for direct mail’s future
Let’s start here since each client partner mentioned integration in some form. Many nonprofit organizations already have strategies in place for using similar messaging and images across channels, but integration can go even further.
We’re helping our clients incorporate QR codes and personalized URLs to their direct mail packages. This encourages deeper engagement by letting donors experience the nonprofit across channels. For instance, a direct mail piece may include the story of someone who received the organization’s help, and a QR code could link to a video where that person shares more of their story.
As costs rise, nonprofits must lean further into their data to optimize their direct mail programs. By using analytics and predictive modeling, nonprofits can identify the most responsive segments of their donor base and tailor their direct mail materials to these audiences. This ensures that the right message is delivered to the right donors, resulting in higher response rates and better return on investment.
AI-driven models can predict which donors are most likely to respond and which ones can be cut from a mailing—allowing organizations to invest that capital into more productive areas of growth. Models can also identify donors who are more likely to move into monthly, mid-level or major giving, and they can be placed on the proper communication path for those areas.
Using data to understand donor behavior
Too many organizations have siloed data with inconsistent rules. This is a barrier to truly understanding the motivations of donors. Nonprofits should leverage more data to inform their direct mail campaigns—identifying patterns and trends in donor giving behavior and channel preferences.
We’ve also found that testing in direct mail creates valuable learnings that stick across channels. What works in the mail also works in digital—but that’s not always true the other way around.
Differential creative and personalization
Do you send the same campaign package to all of your donors? Going hand in hand with using data and modeling is the ability to move from a one-size-fits-all direct mail creative strategy to one that incorporates donors’ interests and behaviors.
With the use of differential creative, nonprofits can craft unique and personalized direct mail materials that stand out from the clutter. This personalization helps to create a deeper sense of connection and relevance for donors who don’t care about premiums like labels and notepads.
Many of our clients use digital printing to personalize direct mail materials with the donor's name, giving history and other relevant information, making communication more personalized and engaging.
What the future of direct mail looks like
When you put this all together, you get a direct mail program that quickly identifies the unique attributes of donors and separates them into audiences that get more and more granular the more data is gathered. Each donor will receive the right cadence of communication for them—across channels—with messaging and images that appeal to their interests and ask strings that fit their wealth capacity and giving trends.
We know direct mail is still effective, and it will remain effective in the coming years. The future is audience-based targeting and building smarter journeys that adapt to the donor’s behavior and preferences.
Think about this: What’s filling up with more junk—your mailbox or your email inbox? Mail already has an edge in standing out; now imagine the greater impact of a piece of mail that is personalized to you and your interests.
Yep, I’d say the future is bright.