Direct Mail: An Appropriate Strategy for Churches
John J. Considine
One of the fastest growing aspects of communication employed by both profit and nonprofit organizations to reach their target markets is direct marketing. Direct marketing has many definitions, and in the past has gone by other names: direct mail, mail order, and direct response. “Direct Mail” is, in fact, a promotional medium in which the mails are used to disseminate messages. These communications can come in various forms and sizes: letters, postcards, leaflets, catalogs, and coupons. “Mail order” does its promotion through any medium, such as television, magazines, and newspapers. The mail order technique is basically a method of product distribution. Finally, “direct response” is a name given to an advertising technique that elicits an immediate response, such as an order or inquiry, or a visit to a store or showroom.
Direct mailing incorporates all three of these concepts. The most widely accepted definition was drawn up by a committee of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). They defined direct marketing as “an interacting system of marketing which uses one or more advertising media to effect a measurable response and/or transaction at any location.” The DMA definition can be simplified by employing the concepts of media usage and direct response. In essence, direct marketing is simply impersonal promotion, in the sense of not being face-to-face, which seeks to evoke direct action.1
While some profit and nonprofit organizations may easily utilize all of the three main concepts of direct marketing, direct mail appears to be a feasible tool for churches to utilize in order to more effectively communicate with its desired target market. Unfortunately, most religious organizations have not considered using direct mail as a means to contact their constituencies in spite of the successful uses of other organizations. Direct mail is the “heart” of the direct marketing industry. It is the third largest advertising medium, next to newspapers and television.
The purpose of this chapter is to offer logical support for the use of direct mail by churches in an attempt to more effectively reach their desired publics and also to more effectively communicate their message to these segments. In the past decade, the nature of communication has changed radically. Although television, radio, newspapers, and magazine advertising formerly represented the dominant means of reaching an audience, more and more advertisers are moving away from reliance on these mass media. Instead, they are turning to “targeted media”: communication vehicles that enable them to reach a more narrowly defined, concentrated audience.2 As other organizations achieve success with direct mail, it is certainly appropriate for churches to examine this tool, understand not only the benefits, but also the limitations of direct mail, and consider developing strategies for a direct mail campaign.
Benefits of Direct Mail
As mentioned previously, a marketing-oriented church should be responsive to the needs of the segment of society it hopes to attract. As a result, church leaders must strive to determine effective ways to communicate their offerings to their target market. Again, many church leaders have been reluctant to consider using direct mail as a means to communicate information. Part of the hesitation towards direct mail stems from church leaders’ belief that direct mail won’t work and/or it will cost too much. Similarly, some church leaders may simply be unaware as to what direct mail is, how it can be utilized, and what benefits can be expected.
To influence church leaders to become more receptive towards the use of direct mail, it is essential that they first become aware of the actual performance of other direct mail studies. To begin with, Walter Mueller claims that based on solid statistical studies, direct mail gives the “most” results for the “least” time, effort, and money. He offers an article by Robert Enstad, which was syndicated by the Chicago Tribute Service that supported his argument. Enstad indicated that while sales from direct mail marketing are growing at an estimated 15% each year, over-the-counter sales are increasing at a rate of only about 6% each year.3
Another objection one may have regarding direct mail is that our mailboxes are filled with “junk” mail every day so no one would read direct mail correspondence. Ensted provided another interesting fact that would counter such an argument. He indicates the Direct Mail Marketing Association (DMMA) has instituted several services for those who receive so-called junk mail. Since some people don’t appreciate receiving all this unsolicited mail, the DMMA has provided a way for names to be deleted from mailing lists. They have also provided an appropriate service for those who would like to have their names placed on more lists.
Enstad, quoting a representative of DMMA, wrote: “We had about 80,000 requests from persons wanting to get on or off mailing lists. About 20,000 persons wanted less mail. 60,000 asked to receive more mail. Such findings will hopefully expose the fallacy that direct mail won’t wash.”4
In addition to overcoming some of the common misconceptions of direct mail, it is equally important that religious leaders be informed of the definite benefits that a direct mail strategic campaign can provide. For example, direct mail provides several important advantages for nonprofit organizations:5
(1) Direct mail tends to be very focused: it can achieve maximum impact on a specific target market.
If a church has segmented the market and chosen an appropriate segment(s) to pursue, then direct mail would be an ideal way to focus a church’s communication efforts on its intended target.
(2) Direct mail can be private and confidential.
This feature would be extremely advantageous for churches since most people perceive religious matters as very personal. Direct mail would not be as threatening as a telemarketing approach or home visitation. It obviously would be less intrusive, allowing the recipient to read the message at his/her own convenience and privately decide whether or not to pursue the church’s invitation.
(3) The cost per contact and cost per response can often be very low.
This would be a key advantage to churches with limited budgets, still allowing them to reach their intended target market in a cost effective manner.
(4) Direct mail results are often clearly measurable, and this can help make marketing programs more accountable.
Unlike other forms of advertising where the results are often difficult to truly measure and the desired responses often quite delayed, direct mail provides a quantifiable response so church members can easily measure the impact of their efforts. A successful direct mail venture can also be used in the future to justify additional campaigns, since the success can be objectively described.
(5) Small-scale tests of proposed strategies are very feasible with direct mail.
In fact, direct mail is an ideal field test vehicle. A number of marketing factors can be varied over several mailings and the results compared to baseline measures.
Direct mail offers churches great flexibility in the design of their desired messages, allowing them the ability to determine “what works the best.” Similarly, the scope of the campaign can be easily adjusted to remain within the budgeting constraints of the church. The possibilities are quite extensive in that churches could try to determine the impact of a variety of different messages or themes and determine what type of approach has the greatest impact.
(6) The effectiveness of direct mail can be assessed directly in terms of behavior (for example, requests and inquiries), whereas other media assessments usually require attitude and awareness indicators, which are generally faced with measurement problems.
The advantages of direct mail identified by Novelli provide a solid rationale for their usage by churches. However, it would be imperative that the church has a clear focus on exactly who it hopes to attract. A mass mailing to everyone in the immediate community would not only be extremely expensive, but most certainly a waste of a church’s resources. The use of direct mail clearly implies market segmentation by the church. Having identified the specific segment of the church it hopes to pursue, a direct mail campaign can be directed only to those householders that contain such people. Although the cost of using a focused, targeted mail campaign usually winds up being higher per household than is true for a mass mail campaign (i.e., mailing to every household in the targeted geographic area), the budget can be stretched further and generally reaps greater dividends.
Barna offers the following chart to demonstrate a comparison of how a mailing to all 50,000 households in one community would have cost a church $17,800; a mailing sent to the 10,000 householders most likely to have an interest in the church’s message was $4,310.
Barna points out that for the targeted approach, the cost per household was higher. This was a result of the cost of printing the brochures, which was higher due to the smaller print run, and the more expensive mailing list because it was more selective. The choices facing the church are as follows: It could spend $17,800 to send a brochure to each household one time. It could spend $4,310 for a single exposure to the households most likely to be interested in the message being communicated. Or, it could spend $17,210 (still less than the cost of a single community-wide mailing) to reach the target audience four times, either with the same message or different brochures, knowing that multiple exposure to a message increases the likelihood of impact.6
A well-designed message addressing the felt needs of the intended target market can be effective and could be influential in encouraging these individuals to visit the church. In addition, the church that implements direct mail as part of its communication strategy may also enjoy other, intangible benefits. Walter Mueller believes that a consistent direct mail program will give both the pastor and the church a reputation for being progressive. It will also promote an image of an active church. Similarly, it will communicate a sense of strength and unity with the church. It can also be used to call attention to and promote interest in the programs of the church. Finally, Mueller claims that a direct mail program will clearly communicate to everyone on the mailing list that this is a church that is serious about its God-given responsibility to reach people for Christ.
While this section has discussed the main direct and indirect benefits that direct marketing can provide a church, it is important to realize that since the typical household now receives in excess of 1,500 unsolicited pieces of mail each year, it will take a polished, professional piece to cut through the clutter and make such a significant impression that it will alter an established behavior pattern. Similarly, the return rate — i.e., the percentage of householders who respond to the mailing — does not exceed 1%.7 Thus, direct mail is certainly no panacea. If done poorly or amateurishly, the results could be disastrous and a waste of a church’s precious resources. The next section will discuss some of the cautions and limitations that church leaders should also be aware of.
Limitations of Direct Mail
As mentioned previously, the typical household is bombarded with more and more unsolicited pieces of mail each year. Unless careful attention is given to a church’s direct mail program, its mailings may easily be lost among all the other pieces of mail reaching the targeted household.
A fundamental concern for church leaders considering a direct mail campaign has to be a segmentation of the population. It is critical that churches clearly identify the specific target market(s) to whom they believe their church can most effectively address these individuals’ needs.
The problem is that many churches have basically utilized a “mass marketing” approach when a single appeal was made to an undifferentiated mass market. Such an approach pays no attention to differences in people’s needs, preferences, or behavior, and is primarily concerned with meeting the organization’s own needs. The bottom line is that a church cannot be all things to all people. It is not feasible for a church to try to satisfy each need of each individual who comes into contact with that church.
Similarly, a church should not expect every household in a specified geographic area to have an interest in the church and its activities. In essence, rather than trying to reach every household, a church needs to target its limited resources to reach a specific segment of the population. Church leaders need to understand that different segments of the population respond to different ministry opportunities, and focusing one’s communication efforts on a specific target group allows for a more efficient attraction of that market
Having identified the specific market segment it hopes to attract, another critical concern of a direct marketing program is that the message conveyed in the literature is appropriate and well-received by the intended group. If the message conveyed turns people off, is misunderstood, or has absolutely no effect on the recipient, then the entire campaign could be a huge waste of time and money.
For example, one church put out a mailing just before Easter. The timing seemed appropriate — a good time to search for church visitors, since many people wander into churches during the traditional holy days of Christmas and Easter. Amazingly, not a single person from the 40,000 households reached by the mailing came to visit that church. On examining the materials, it became apparent why nobody showed up. Who wants to be told that they are sinners and will go to hell if they don’t change their lifestyle? That was essentially what the brochure told people. The colors were dark, the message was one of fear and guilt, and the church was in a really inaccessible location. In this situation, Barna concluded the problem was not the medium, but instead the message.8
Direct Mail Tactics
If a church’s direct mail campaign is to be effective, a great deal of thought and planning will be required in terms of the message to be sent. Church leaders considering a direct mail program as part of their overall marketing strategy will need to be able to answer the following questions regarding the use of direct mail: What, To Whom, How, When, and How Many.
Since direct mail is a form of marketing communication, church leaders need to establish some clear-cut objectives as to what they want to accomplish through the use of a direct mail company. Are they intending to use direct mail to simply make members in the community aware of the church, as might be the case if the church is new or has moved location? Or are they trying to convey such a message that will hopefully stimulate the recipient’s interest leading to a change in attitude and/or behavior? A direct mail program geared to creating awareness would convey a very different message than one desiring to change one’s behavior. Thus, it is first critical that church leaders clearly identify the key objective of the direct mail campaign. Poorly clarified objectives will likely lead to ineffective messages, thus resulting in minimal impact.
Just as the church leaders must be clear as to the desired objective to be accomplished, so must they be focused on the intended target audience. As mentioned previously, a “mass marketing” approach is no longer feasible for today’s churches. They must have a clear vision as to the type(s) of people they are trying to attract. Is it people in certain age groups (baby boomers, baby busters), lifestyles, those possessing certain needs, couples, singles, or newcomers? Certain groups will be more responsive to direct mail than others. By not having a clear identity of their target market, a church is wasting its precious resources and will result in an ineffective and inefficient use of direct mail.
Having selected its desired target market, it is then necessary for the church to develop an appropriate mailing list. Several outside services can be the source of highly tailored prospect lists defined by schools, occupation area, socioeconomic status of the neighborhood, patronage of a particular product, service or outlets, and so on. Whenever time permits, new rented lists should be tested with small mailings to see if they are productive before the campaign continues with the unknown target list. However, the best lists would most likely be those containing the addresses of people with whom the organization already has some form of contact.9 This infers that it is critical for churches to maintain good internal records — keeping track of those who perhaps responded to past mailing, who made inquiries in the past, or who have actually visited the church on some occasion. Members of the congregation could also be asked who they might know — friends, relatives coworkers — who might be interested in the church and its activities. These names could also be included in the mailing.
Having defined the objective of the direct mail campaign and selected the specific target market they are trying to reach, church leaders must now decide on how to most effectively convey their intended message. Obviously, they must try to develop the most compelling and intriguing message possible to attract such individuals since the church’s direct mail piece will be competing with all the other unsolicited mail for the individual’s attention. While different messages will require different approaches, listed below are some factors to consider in developing the direct mail piece.
Style — Many church letters are quite dry and boring.
They provide the basic information, but do little to motivate the recipient. Jerry Huntsinger, who wrote the letters that raised the millions of dollars necessary to build Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, suggests that to get results by direct mail, one’s style must be simple and homey. Use stories, short words (60% or more should be five letters or less).10
Color — The use of color can add both to the attractiveness and effectiveness of direct mail pieces. Color can be used to add life to the copy and may help convey certain ideas that may be used to advantage. According to tests performed by the Direct Mail Advertising Associates, the most legible copy is produced by means of black ink on yellow paper. It is recommended to use nothing but black ink for lengthy paragraphs, since other colors create eyestrain, which causes the reader to be psychologically “turned off” to the message you are trying to communicate.
Content — Church leaders need to ensure that the mailing contains all the necessary information. Has anything been left out: who, what when, where, and why? Similarly, the direct mail piece needs to be edited for accuracy. Are there any grammatical, punctuation, or spelling errors? Also, is the information provided accurate? The dates and locations need to be given accurately.
Clarity — Since the direct mail piece will be competing with all the other unsolicited mail received by the recipient, it is critical to avoid being too wordy. It will probably be necessary to edit and re-edit the message, striving to be as concise as possible. Similarly, it is essential that the message is written as clearly as possible. It shouldn’t breed confusion or misunderstanding among the recipients. Without being patronizing, the message should be written in such a way that it will be understandable to all who read it.
Uniqueness — This factor is somewhat of an intangible. Again, the church’s direct mail piece is merely one of many the recipient must wade through. Thought should be given as to how to make the church’s piece stand out and catch the attention of the individual. Some suggestions might include the use of illustrations or drawings to enhance the appearance of the copy. Another possibility might be the use of humor to try to put the recipient at ease and not feel threatened by a religious message. A catchy phrase, a small limerick, or some subtle attempts at humor may add spice to the message. By catching the reader’s attention early on, this may ensure that the full message is actually read.
Finally, to help pinpoint potential problems or areas of miscommunication, it is recommended that each direct mail piece be pretested. Obviously, once the piece is sent out, the church can do very little to clarify any issues, change the copy, or reinforce the intended message. It would be feasible to try utilizing sample target audience members that are representative of the constituency the church is trying to reach. Pretesting can be helpful to examine whether the intended message is being understood by the recipients, whether there are any areas of confusion, whether any pertinent information is lacking, and whether the message is persuading or threatening. Pretesting is relatively inexpensive, does not take up too much time, and can be extremely helpful in fine-tuning the direct mail offering so that it can accomplish the intended objectives.
Once the direct mail piece has been pretested and any necessary modifications made, church leaders need to then determine the timing of the mailings. Walter Mueller believes that since many people are likely to attend church on Easter or Christmas, a mailing should be done prior to either of these seasons. An unchurched family, thinking of attending a church on one of these two holy days, is quite likely to choose to attend a church because of the mail they have received. If they plan to attend a church, it will likely be one they are aware of.11
The timing of the mailing is critical. If one receives notice of a special service or church activity many weeks prior to the event, the person is likely to put it aside and most likely disregard it or forget about it. Similarly, if the message is received a day or two before the event, this may be too sudden, and the individual feels pressured or threatened due to closeness of the activity and ultimately disregards it. Ideally, the direct mail piece should arrive 4-6 days before the date of the event. This timing is a “happy medium” between the two extremes and allows the individual time to process the information, evaluate the message, and ample time to make plans to attend if so inclined.
Another issue is whether to rely on only one piece of mail to accomplish the church’s objectives. It is obvious that multiple exposure to a message will increase the likelihood of impact. However, much will depend on the availability of funding for such a multiple-mailing strategy. Walter Mueller firmly believes that one piece is not enough. His church has used a series of four mailings prior to Easter quite successfully. The first three mailings consisted of what could be called flyers, while the fourth was an eight-page tabloid or newspaper. They were mailed at two-week intervals, with the first to reach the recipients prior to the beginning of Lent, and the last to be received just before the beginning of Holy Week.12
Finally, like any other means of communication, it is essential that some type of feedback exist to inform the church what works or doesn’t work. In using a direct mail program, a church leader should learn from each mailing what works or doesn’t work in the mailing design itself. As mentioned previously, one of the main benefits of direct mail is the ability to clearly measure the results and objectively assess the impact of the mailing. Similarly, direct mail’s flexibility allows for experimentation with different messages, use of colors, unique approaches, etc., to determine which approach is most effective.
Feedback from a direct mail program can also tell something about the respondent. Tom McCabe of International Marketing Group notes: “You know exactly who responds and why. . . . Every time someone responds to a mailing, you learn something about that person. Direct marketing is very efficient because eventually you will be able to know what kind of return to expect on every marketing dollar you spend.”13
Direct mail is one of the fastest growing areas of marketing. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated in many profit and nonprofit firms. It is, therefore, logical that churches should also consider direct mail as one way to reach out to their desired constituents and effectively communicate their message.
In spite of the limitations and cautions of direct mail, I firmly believe that direct mail can be an effective tool as part of a church’s communication strategies. However, the effective use of direct mail demands that the church is marketing-centered, has carefully identified the segment of the population it believes it can most effectively serve, and is aware of the needs of this targeted group it hopes to attract.
The above article, “Direct Mail: An Appropriate Strategy for Churches” was written by John J. Considine. The article was excerpted from chapter eight in Considine’s book, Marketing Your Church.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”