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A Tale of Two Mail Packs

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”

Except that in this tale, happily, our protagonists aren’t going to the guillotine. They were going to the public with two different direct mail appeals, for different projects and with very different budgets.

For their end of year scholarships appeal, the University of Sheffield created their mailing in-house, with the aid of a local design agency to add the final touches. The University of Southampton, meanwhile, engaged a direct mail agency for their appeal for their innovative Centre for Cancer Immunology.

Both mailings outperformed any mail appeals either university had previously sent. Why? They concentrated on a few key factors that unite all successful appeals, and made sure they executed superbly upon them.

The Envelope
The envelope or “outer” has one job: to get the piece opened.

In keeping with the more traditional nature of Sheffield’s appeal, they chose a traditional branded envelope with an URGENT notice on the front:

Southampton’s CIC appeal already had a tag line and visual identity, which they leveraged by using a poly-wrap:

The Letter
The letter is the heart of every direct mail appeal. It is where the dialogue between the writer and the reader takes place. Neither Sheffield nor Southampton made the mistake of viewing their letters as just a cover letter for a brochure or some other enclosure; both universities drafted an engaging, personal and persuasive message to their reader.

Both universities wrote a two-page letter. It is important to note that longer copy letters have consistently out-performed one-page letters in tests over the entire history of direct mail.

Both also chose a signatory who was relevant to the appeal – Sheffield’s letter was signed by the Scholarships Officer in their financial support team, and Southampton’s was signed by their Oncology professor, Peter Johnson.

Sheffield’s letter employed clever visual devices targeted at those who skim-read. A series of bullet points down the right-hand side of the page (where the eye naturally lands when reading) encapsulated the main points of the case for support. Bolded headlines on the second page highlighted the life-changing nature of the gift, and reassured donors that they would have a personal impact on a student:

In keeping with their signatory, Southampton’s letter employed a more formal visual style. But, as Sheffield did, they made sure to make their letter easy to read by using serif font, short paragraphs, and use of visual emphasis (bolding and underlining).


Both letters used the word “you” and spoke to the donor far more than they spoke about the institution.

And, of course, both letters made sure to have a persuasive post script (PS) that encapsulated the appeal.

The Enclosures
We’re all familiar with brochures, but have you heard of lift notes? In direct mail speak, a lift note is a shorter letter enclosed along with the main appeal letter designed to reinforce the message of the main appeal. The lift note is commonly signed by a direct beneficiary of donors’ gifts, and should increase response rates.

Sheffield decided to interview one of their scholarship recipients and designed the lift note as a handwritten message:

They made sure to include a photo of Megan at the end to make the personal connection even stronger.

Southampton’s appeal, being for a building, required a bit more by way of enclosures to get the whole scope of the project across. They produced a more high-concept brochure, featuring testimony from academics and clinical trials patients:

They made sure the brochure contained plenty of images of people looking directly at the reader (an old advertising technique!).

The Response Device
None of the wonderful design and copywriting will meet its purpose if donors don’t have an easy and compelling way to respond.

Sheffield’s response device is structured as a mini-appeal, with a picture of Megan to recall the lift note and the main points of the letter recapitulated. That way, even if readers discard the rest of the pack, they’ll still be reminded what their gifts will achieve:

Southampton’s form, although soberer in design on the front (in keeping with the look and feel of the rest of the pack), gave the entire reverse of the form over to the story of Xano, diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma at the age of four, and now happy and healthy thanks to immunology treatment:

Who wouldn’t want to give to help a wonderful little boy like this?

The Results
Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Or, in the case of a mail appeal, the giving.

How did these two very different appeals perform?

Sheffield had always had some element of direct mail in their annual fund programme. On average, each year they would bring in around £45,000 ($56,107) from mail. But this single appeal brought in over £60,000 ($74,810), nearly one and a half times their expected annual total, for a cost of just £10,000 ($12,468). Sent to 10,000 people, it generated an incredibly healthy 6% response.

Southampton had never had sufficient budget to do mail in addition to phone solicitation in any volume. Prior to the CIC appeal, they would only have expected to raise an average of £10,000 ($12,468) per year from mail. The CIC appeal alone generated £95,000 ($117,413) against costs of around £36,000 ($44,886). It generated a very healthy pledge rate of 3.7%.

These are two very different packs with two different purposes. Asking which is “better” in any narrow sense isn’t the right question. Let’s admire the way in which both these institutions have leveraged time-honored direct marketing wisdom, to achieve outstanding results.

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About the author

Adrian Salmon

Vice President

Adrian Salmon, Vice President, GG+A Europe, joined the firm in April 2015. He brings nearly 20 years of direct-marketing fundraising experience in the higher education, arts and culture, and wider not-for-profit spheres. His particular expertise includes direct mail fundraising, annual giving program management, and management of contributions from integrated mail…