In an earlier post, I wrote about Mal Warwick’s discussion of Siegfried Vögele’s eye tracking studies, and how the P.S. line is the first thing that gets read in an appeal letter. This assumes, however, that the reader has opened the envelope, and most readers never make it to that point. According to the 2015 DMA Response Rate Report, standard-sized envelopes have a 3.5% open rate, and oversized envelopes have a 5% open rate. Put another way, over 90% of potential readers never open the envelope.

While this has led some to question the value of direct mail appeals, many organizations believe the ROI is still high enough to justify the expense. Contrary to popular belief, direct mail is not dead. Well-crafted appeals still have a place in modern fundraising. Bad or poorly conceived direct mail, however, is dead before it ever leaves the mail house. The challenge is getting the reader to open the envelope. The more writers understand about how readers engage with direct mail, the better chance they have of maximizing their open rates.

Vögele’s research found that, if a reader decides to look at a direct mail piece at all, then his or her first pass over the material typically lasts about twenty seconds. That is all the time one gets to make that all-important first impression. Vögele further found that this twenty-second period can be broken down into three distinct phases.

Phase 1: 8 Seconds
During these precious few seconds, the recipient examines the outer envelope, noting who it is from, if there are any messages on the outside, and how/if to open it. Remember, the DMA study above found that only 3.5% to 5% will make it past this point.

Implication: The appearance of the outer envelope is critically important. Like a siren song, it must beckon, “Open me!”

Phase 2: 4 Seconds
The reader does a quick look at the contents, noting any inserts and what they are. No actual reading is occurring yet, just a brief mental inventory of the contents.

Implication: It is vital that what goes in the envelope be eye-catching and make a good first impression.

Phase 3: 8 Seconds
The reader who has made it past the first 12 seconds now does an initial scan of the appeal itself, looking first at the P.S. and signature lines, and then jumping back up to the top and scanning headlines and short blocks of text.

Implication: Make sure the essence of your message is scannable. The use of call-outs and bold text is necessary for making your case, because that may be all that gets read. Put another way, the reader should be able to get essence of your case just from reading the bold text. Only the most engaged readers will go back and read the letter in its entirety.

Vögele’s research is helpful because it provides data about how people engage with direct mail appeals, taking guesswork out of the equation. It is clear that one has a very brief window of time to capture a reader’s interest, and the visual elements of every part of the package are integral in sustaining the reader’s attention long enough to get your message across.

Question: What design elements do you find most helpful in bridging those critical first 20 seconds? Please leave a reply below.

Posted by Mark Zobel PhD, CFRE

I help nonprofits accomplish their missions and achieve their visions for a better world through donor-centered fundraising and comprehensive development work.

One Comment

  1. […] to read more closely, or set them aside. In a previous post, I cited some research that shows an average of 20 seconds from the moment the outer envelope is first glanced, to when the reader finishes making the first […]


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