Direct Mail Isn’t Dying – But Sometimes I Wish It Would

As long as I have been doing fundraising the “is direct mail dead” question has arisen with great regularity.  Interestingly, the question is always raised by direct mail fundraising consultants — and the answer is always  unsurprisingly “no.”

Clouding the situation from the other side are the over-optimistic claims from the Internet world that it’ll all be online in a matter of a few years.

Full disclosure – professionally I fall on the “cyber” side of things, but I have a healthy respect for the financial importance of direct mail – for now and for the foreseeable future.

In his most recent defense of direct mail as we know it, Chuck Pruitt uses a self-serving study (sorry Chuck but it is) to claim that direct mail is a “life-cycle” thing and not a “generational thing.”  He claims that eventually, we’ll age into the life stage in which we will become direct mail donors.

That’s kind of silly.

Let’s look at some reasons why:

•    Rapid and extensive adoption of online banking and bill-paying. I have no clue where my checkbook is on any given day.  I am not alone.  Responding to direct mail is intimately tied to bill-paying, and as the bill-paying ritual shifts online, so will a great deal of giving.
•    Online giving is for many organizations the dominant channel for acquiring new donors.
•    Online giving is already the dominant giving channel in emergency giving.

More fundamentally, the direct mail denialists overlook a genuine and powerful shift that is very much generational – a rejection of inauthentic communications.

Baby boomers are hard to fool.   Gen-Ys are impossible to fool.  That won’t change with age.

Why does it matter?  Because in my experience there is no more inauthentic communications channel than direct mail.

•    Contrary to their public claims, direct mail fundraisers spend much more time thinking about the color or size of the envelope than they do the content.   I’ve been in those meetings.
•    A huge proportion of direct mail includes mailing labels or other crap to make you feel guilty and give out of obligation – not a great way to establish a relationship.  The worst manifestation of this is the mailers who tape a fifty cent piece or a quarter to a reply card.
•    Everything is an emergency – because that lifts response rates.
•    Many mailers resort to stunts like deliberately printing the address on the envelope upside down – because that lifts response rates.
•    One non-profit mailer put a variation of the US seal on the envelope and stamped it “Official Taxpayer Information.”
•    The patois of direct mail is loaded with hyperbole and stilted language – because it lifts response rates.

I’m not saying these tactics don’t work.  If they didn’t work they wouldn’t be so commonplace.  I am saying it’s all a little bit cheesy and dishonest, and we have three generations – boomers, Gen-X an Gen-Y who are progressively less tolerant of cheese and manipulation than their forebears.

Is online fundraising perfect?  Hell no.  Do we find ourselves sometimes resorting to the same tactics?  Regrettably yes.  The current fascination with premiums among online fundraisers for instance is in my opinion a short-sighted mistake.  Crap backpacks and other tchotchkes do not make for durable donor relationships regardless of the channel by which they are peddled.

Pruitt rightfully points out that online donors often have shorter lifespans as donors than mail-acquired donors.  I would argue that is because the practice is immature and we are still learning the art of online stewardship.   But that’s changing.

There’s nothing inherently “bad” about direct mail, but after three decades of hucksterish communication, the perception won’t wear off overnight.  The sheer expense of mailing means that direct mail will almost certainly decline in its share of the overall communications mix.

If our direct mail brethren are smart, they’ll get beyond their denial about the world changing, and reinvent the medium to match the expectations and tastes of new generations of donors.  If they don’t, then maybe it is time to be drafting the epitaph.

  • Confusion about tactics combined with denial of reality is a crazy cocktail.

    Who cares if stamps and paper go away? What matters is a genuine connection with people who care.

    Well said, Mark

  • Meri McCoy-Thompson

    I like your generational perspective. My “direct mail” inquiries sit in a box, waiting to be attended to “when I have the time.” I give to email inquiries much more readily. Even when I care about the direct mail orgs more, I don’t like responding to their direct mail requests. Perhaps it is that phony feel that you mentioned. On the other hand, I don’t want email newsletters from all these orgs in my email box…. I bet solutions to that problem will probably be developed in coming years.

  • Mark

    Thanks Meri — I think as fundraising became all about database management, it got really impersonal. Some of those habits have carried over, and very few organizations i can name have invested in using all that fancy Internet technology to deliver a truly donor-centric experience. But that sure is the goal.

  • Great stuff, Mark. I posted on my blog today, when my soon to be hubby received a direct mail piece marked “Warning: The penalty for obstructing or interfering with the delivery of this letter is a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 5 years imprisonment.” The contents? A “free” six-night cruise.

  • Matt

    I worked for The Franklin Mint 10+ years ago. This huge direct mail company also believed that baby boomers would significantly change their habits as they moved into retirement and their next life stage. Specifically they thought that boomers would become nostalgic and start buying collectables. Sadly they were very much mistaken. As a result the Franklin Mint headquarters is now empty and overgrown with weeds. As marketers we have to adjust to our customers. Whether we are looking at the way we communicate with them or the products that we sell, we have to meet their needs not expect them to adjust to meet ours.

  • While online fundraising continues to grow, direct mail still has a role. While I’m tempted to look forward to the day where direct mail finally disappears, I suspect that it’s a long way off (as says Mal Warwick –; integrated strategies (offline + online) still yield the most success.

  • Mark


    Completely agree. All I’m saying is that the content of direct mail is going to have evolve beyond the rinky dink gimmicks that has dominated it so far. Mal begs that question…

  • It’s not overnight mail, but over time mail will be sealed. It won’t disappear Look “ponies” are still here even though “pony express” has come to a halt. It’s a shift in the mind set. What I’m surprised about is that I’m still getting expensive alumni magazines mailed to me. I thought educational institutions would want to be leaders in communication. As long as we continue to communicate, what difference does it make “how”? Inbound vs. outbound. I guess we’ll bound to find out. I vote for “inbound”, though still respect the fundamental principles of traditional marketing.

  • Hal

    Wonderful post that really hit home with me. I work with/for one of the largest charitable organizations in the world. I’ve been pushing online contact for several years, but the ‘old’ ones will never understand this concept. There is always hope for the future.

    I despise direct mail, especially when I get something (calendars, stickers etc) which is supposed to make me feel obligated to return something, i.e. money. Organizations I used to support, I quit. If they waste my previous support on the crap they send me for more money, it quickly becomes self-defeating.

  • I believe most of your points can be generalized to include all direct mail, not just charitable causes. Great post.

    If I read this out loud in my office right now, the direct mail marketing team would string me up. Don’t worry, I don’t think they’ll see this comment unless you print it and mail it to them.

  • The implication that direct mail is all about fooling the reader, hucksterism and that online marketing largely steps away from this and is somehow better, cleaner and is preferred by 3 out of 4 dentists is simply laughable.

    Does it happen? Sure. Is it limited to direct mail? Hardly. Does it mean that all direct mail should be stopped? Give me a break.

    Poor marketing can be (and is) done with every media in existence (and will be every one yet to come).

    More often than not, the media is only part of the success or failure.

    The key – as you note – is “inauthentic communications”. Those are not limited by media. We see them in Twitter, in direct mail, in email, etc.

    Blaming “old ones” in your organization, as one commenter did, pffth. Some of the most effective online marketers are OMG – 50 and older.

    Is age really your criteria for detecting marketing and communication success? If that were so, every 17 year old on the planet would be in demand – since they know everything:)

    Fix the message and the relationship, rather than blaming the messenger.

    An example: I would welcome US mail from the Sierra Club if it wasn’t snarky, impersonal, sensationalistic crap. That is why they dont have my email address.

    It isnt the media, its the folks behind it.

  • Mark

    Did I suggest we should do away with direct mail? Just curious if you thought so…

  • Mary Cahalane

    Authenticity is the key. But I think it’s unfair to call direct mail inauthentic and assume e-mail or other cyber communication is authentic. I find as much inauthentic e-mail coming my way as I do snail mail. Neither interest me. OTOH, plenty of organizations are spending the time and creativity to truly communicate – and it really doesn’t matter what vehicle is used. (Except the phone. I hate phone calls, regardless of how noble the cause!)

  • Scott

    “it’s all a little bit cheesy and dishonest, and we have three generations – boomers, Gen-X an Gen-Y who are progressively less tolerant of cheese and manipulation than their forebears.”

    As a direct marketer who tests these things on a regular basis over the gamut of age groups, I can tell you without hesitation that this pervasive assumption is kind of silly.

  • Ed

    There is good direct mail and there is crap direct mail.

    There is good digital marketing and there is crap digital marketing.

    The only difference is that direct mail raises hundreds of millions of pounds more than digital marketing.

    But if fundraisers want to stop doing direct mail because ‘you don’t like it’, fine – that reduces the competition and makes my job easier.

    I just pity the charities you guys work for.

  • Dave

    I wish the organizations I support would do away with their marketing efforts, in general. Send me the membership renewal, yes, but not all of the pieces (email, direct mail, it doesn’t matter) begging for me to give more. I support you. As I have the means, I will support you more. All you’re doing in the meantime is wasting resources.

    On the other hand, I sent an email to one organization a few weeks ago complaining that an article in their newsletter made one of their staff people look like a hypocrite, and got an almost immediate reply from the membership director apologizing, explaining, and thanking me for contacting them. There is now a much greater chance that I will increase the size of my contribution next year.

    It’s not a question of direct mail versus email versus telephone or even personal appeals. It’s a question of authenticity and responsiveness.