Is There a Generation Gap Among Direct Mail Responders?

I was listening to a Direct Marketing Club of New York presentation recently by Covenant House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless kids in various cities. One of the challenges that the organization is facing is that its donor base is aging. The need to attract a new demographic among donors is apparent. However, its direct mail efforts haven’t been performing as well among younger prospects as it continues to do with its best donors—so the organization has turned to online channels in a bid to find these new, younger donors

I was listening to a Direct Marketing Club of New York presentation recently by Covenant House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping homeless kids in various cities. One of the challenges that the organization is facing is that its donor base is aging. The need to attract a new demographic among donors is apparent.

However, its direct mail efforts haven’t been performing as well among younger prospects as it continues to do with its best donors—so the organization has turned to online channels in a bid to find these new, younger donors.

In 2012, Covenant House set up a series of petitions through Care2, an online community for social action. Taking on four subjects—child trafficking, emergency healthcare, aging out of foster care, and domestic violence—Covenant House asked consumers to sign petitions related to these various topics, some focused on Congressional action, for example.

With the names and online contact information of tens of thousands of signatories, Covenant House this year is taking on a three-part email series, each with specific creative relevant to the petition subject matter, to “nurture” the consumer toward becoming a donor—asking them to social share their petition support, watch and share a video related to the topic, and then, by the third email, respond to a call to action to become a donor. For those who take no further action by way of the three emails, telemarketing is used to reach and attempt to convert them to donors.

With positive early results, it looks as though Covenant House may find its way to a younger donor base successfully.

Covenant House has no plans to ditch its direct mail—even as it acquires new digital donors. That’s because its “omnichannel” donors (donors who give in more than one channel) are its most generous, giving significantly more than single-channel donors in either direct mail or digital alone. In addition, direct mail continues to be the “workhorse” for donor acquisition overall, and each channel has its own strategic use in such activities as reactivating former contributors, the organization reported.

But the younger=digital donor acquisition strategy identified here makes me wonder about direct mail’s future. Is Covenant House’s turn to digital because young adults don’t read their direct mail as closely as older Americans do—is there a “mail generation gap”? Does traditional fundraising creative in direct mail fail to resonate with younger people? Are digital natives simply online more often—and analog communication doesn’t register as forcefully?

Or, from the marketer’s perspective, is digital an easy, more affordable and more timely go-to for testing acquisition more efficiently?

Twenty years ago, before the commercial Internet, if a non-profit organization needed to attract a younger demographic, it simply tested a direct mail piece (or a TV ad, etc.) against the control within a targeted demographic segment—and adopted the new creative within the channel only when results proved themselves. That very same testing within mail could be just as effective today.

But why wait six weeks or more for a direct mail cycle to prove itself (or not)—when the availability of digital allows new formats, multivariate testing, and creative refinement and segmentation so readily and cheaply? Perhaps a generation gap does exist with direct mail—but also marketers are increasingly impatient: do not discount digital’s speed in testing, revising and engaging donors in real time, and how attractive these speedy attributes are to marketers and fundraisers looking to meet aggressive goals.

The only way to really know what works—and what doesn’t—is to test. Covenant House already knows its multichannel donors are worth more, so you can probably bet its digital donors will be getting a direct mail piece of one sort or another very soon.