In Non-Profit Direct Response, copywriting is king. This is not the case for typical, mainstream advertising, where design is premium. Beautiful, full-color, high-gloss, very expensive ads are the bread and butter of the mainstream advertising agency. Anyone who reads the New York Times notices the huge number of pages, content and ads, that are full color, with beautiful images, and type so small it’s nearly impossible to read. Clearly, in that environment, design rules over copy. And copy is relegated to the bottom right-hand corner with grey type against a black background that no one pays attention to.

Direct response: Copywriting is King

In Direct Mail, especially for non-profits, copy is the king. The words rule. This could be in a donation request letter, or a newsletter, or even a “Thank You” letter. “Both copy and graphics must be developed in parallel to ensure that the user experience is positive and doesn’t fail to reach its target,” but design must support the copy, not dominate it, not distract from it.

In direct response, it is the copywriting that drives the story and allows you to make an emotional connection with the recipent. “In the words of Jeffrey Zeldman, ‘design in the absence of content is not design; it¹s decoration’. And he couldn’t be more right!

In Direct Mail, sometimes beautiful design can actually hurt you, especially in a donation request letter. Think of someone who is in the perfect demographic for a non-profit donor. They receive an envelope that is full color, front and back. When they open the letter, they find a brief letter in hard to read type over top of an eleaborate image with a really nice picture of the signer and a very elaborate color logo on the letterhead. There is also a brochure in full color which, when they unfold it, discover is about the size of a poster. There may be another glossy insert and a reply form in full color. Anyone can see this is all very expensive.

This type of mailing (obviously dominated by design) will fail for most non-profits, compared to a letter that is faithfully designed in such a way to encourage the recipient to read the copy.

Design Supports Copy

Pictures are great in fundraising. If you’re raising funds to support an orphanage in Africa, a picture of some of those orphans will certainly help, but the words are the persuasive vehicle. The copy, whether it is a donation request letter or intended to get people to sign a petition, allows you to make a strong case for supporting the orphans. You are not wasting resources on fancy designs or expensive mailings. The recipient gets the impression that their donation will go directly to those orphans you just discussed.

So if you want to help these orphans, you need the words to do that. And whether I’ve convinced you of that or not, test it sometime. Test a design-heavy, full-color, expensive looking package versus a simple, more personal donation request letter. A lot of the donors, whether or not they articulate it , are going to say, “Wow, they spent a lot of money on this mailing. Why are they asking me to send them money when they’re already spending all this money on this very expensive piece of mail they sent me?”

In a donation request letter good copy will inspire the recipient to give. If written well they will get a sense of how these orphans feel, why they need your help and what your non-profit will do to help with the donors money. Design should only support that message. In direct response copywriting, it is the copy that delivers.

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