Direct mail is a fundraising standby, and rightly so. Neuromarketing research suggests that personalized mail is the best medium through which to deliver emotional messages and inspire action.

Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscience, a multidisciplinary science devoted to understanding the nervous system, to marketing. It draws on neuroscientific tools like brain imaging to measure consumer responses to marketing stimuli.

Canada Post recently partnered with neuromarketing experts True North Marketing to understand how and why direct mail still generates results in a digital-dominated world. Their results were published in “A Bias for Action: The neuroscience behind the response-driving power of direct mail,” which can be found online.

Their findings can be summarized as follows:

  1. Direct mail is easier to understand and more memorable then digital media, as it requires 21% less cognitive effort to process and elicits a much higher brand recall.
  2. Direct mail is far more persuasive than digital media, as its motivation response is 20% higher or even more when additional senses beyond touch are incorporated.
  3. Direct mail is visually processed in less time than digital media. When considered in concert with its higher motivation and lower cognitive load, this suggests it gets the message across faster.
  4. Direct mail is more likely to drive behaviours than digital media, surpassing the important motivation-to-cognitive-load ratio threshold of one.

Diana Lucaci, CEO and founder of neuromarketing firm True Impact Marketing has the following advice for fundraisers:

Elicit emotion but don’t overwhelm

Diana Lucaci, CEO and founder of neuromarketing firm True Impact Marketing.

Diana Lucaci, CEO and founder of neuromarketing firm True Impact Marketing.

“What I find working with non-profits is that you want to elicit the right amount of emotion because the moment you tell somebody about a situation in some part of the world and you’re requesting funds to help those people and you show imagery of those people the images are so hard to see that you’re heart just hurts. You’re actually creating the opposite effect [than you want], because a lot of people turn away. They either can’t handle it or they’re not in the right space for it—it’s really difficult.

“You can’t have happy images because that’s not going to trigger an action, but you can have imagery that is too depressing. You need to find the balance between enough negative imagery that it triggers an emotional response but then quickly flip it to: here’s what you could do, here’s how life could be better. Focus on the solution and end on a high note is what we found is the right sequence for a message like that. [Campaigns] that follow this structure tend to perform better because ending on a high note is directly correlated with in-market activity and what I mean by that is ending on a high-engagement mental motivation and engagement.”

Sometimes age is just a number

Lucaci reminds fundraisers to relate to people based on their values rather than their demographic profile. Keep this in mind when looking for new donors and segment prospects based on values wherever and however possible.

“When it comes to testing different mediums, such as print versus digital, we did not notice any significant age differences. What that is saying is in line with many other studies that have been published recently. A lot of people are realizing that Millenials are not a separate entity or different animal that we can’t decode. Our brains are wired the exact same way. At the core of our human nature we all have the same needs—security, safety, belonging and so on. What are different between generations are the areas in which they are interested in.”

Though they may not have as much disposal income as their older counterparts, Millenials and Generation Y still support causes they believe in and feel strongly about. “What is important is aligning with the values of that generation, not necessarily the channel. The channel of communication, print or digital, that has a very similar impact on the brain of a Baby Boomer as it does on a Gen Yer. People need to think outside the generational box and look at—what is this person’s digital fluency? And beyond that, what are the issues that matter to each generation? Many causes affect all generations, directly or indirectly. It’s about catering your message to that generation and tying it in in order to create something that is relevant to them.”

Stay focused on the positive

“One reason we have survived as a species, as homo sapiens, is that we are completely, blindly hopeful about tomorrow. We feel that things will get better, because otherwise you might not get out of bed in the morning. As a species, as an animal, we are designed to think about progress and the future and just hope that our kids tomorrow will have a better life than we did. So when it comes to creating a message, don’t focus on the technology, focus on the biology. You do that by showing progress and identifying that here’s a challenge and yes, things are really bad right now. Can you do anything? Yes, you can. You’re not insignificant; one person can actually make a big impact. Here’s how one person can make a big impact.

“Maybe you show a case study from before to after, or you show a huge transformation and the proof behind it. As long as there is that indication of, this is what we are going to do with your dollar.

“Fear only works temporarily and I think it affects the brand in the long term if you keep trying to sell on fear. Outline the problem but focus on the solution and how one person can make a big difference. End on a high note.”

Consider your copy in context

The classic fundraising letter “needs to be put in context and it needs to be viewed through environmental factors. I think direct mail needs to be part of an integrated campaign and guided by an overall strategy.” This allows you to stay connected to donors and get to know them better on an individual basis.

Make sure that you are in touch with donors make often than simply asking for money once a year. Look at the context as well as the content. “Sometimes context is more powerful than content because you can have great content that doesn’t stick because it’s just out of place. It’s not congruent with that person’s life and what’s going on around them.”

Give them what they want—themselves

“When we ran research on how people interact with an envelope and with a letter, we noticed that the fact that its addressed makes a big difference. People love to see their name and address. If the letter is not personalized and it says ‘Dear Madame or Sir’ it usually doesn’t create the same sort of personal engagement.

“I highly recommend you either make the name big or you make a sticker with their name or you personalize the heck out of it. If you can get their Facebook picture with their permission and put it on something they get in the mail, they are going to keep it because it has their face on it. People are ‘me me me’ first. Personalization really works and the amount of content needs to be looked at. What is the minimum amount of content that I need to put in this letter that’s going to tell somebody what I need them to do? Is there an extra word in there that’s of no consequence? Do they get what they need to do and is it easy for them to understand?

“In our culture, because we read from left to right, I would always recommend starting with an image on the left and then very little content on the right to tie in the message or call to action. I find that is the best layout for somebody to get what it is about and what they need to do.”

Use scents where they make sense

True Impact’s research for Canada Post revealed that the effectiveness of direct mail is enhanced dramatically when you can incorporate additional senses as well as sight and touch. This is a very effective tactic for fundraisers if you can find a compelling context.

“They have to be correlated or it just makes no sense,” Lucaci acknowledges. “When we test different senses we find that scent is one that people are not consciously aware of but that influences them a whole lot. In tests, people can’t put their dinger on it but their brains go crazy for the scented stuff.

“We looked at sounds and scent, and when we asked people, ‘did you notice anything different?’ people who got the sound version said, ‘yes, I heard the music playing.’ And some people liked it and some people didn’t. We saw their brain reacting to it and overall people were more inclined to prefer the version with the sound, they found it more engaging.”

When True Impact ran similar tests with scent, participants said that they liked samples with and without scents about the same. “So they didn’t notice a difference, but their brain reacted to it in a huge way. Their brain picked up on that scent. They couldn’t identify what it was, but they had a much better experience with it.

“This is a simple enough change or addition or enhancement to a DM piece, much simpler than adding sound. Adding scent is easy enough to do and as long as it’s in line with the message I would put my money on that.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Direct Marketing.

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Sarah O'Connor

Sarah O'Connor is the editor of Direct Marketing magazine.

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