Want to effect social change? Try direct mail
Years ago, Brian Mullaney worked on TV advertising campaigns for national consumer products, pitching burgers and beers, respectively. Then he tried direct mail and experienced what he calls “an epiphany.”
He co-founded Smile Train, a charity to raise money to help children who are born each year with cleft lips and palates. Most cannot eat or speak properly or attend school. In Uganda, they’re called Ajok, meaning “cursed by God.” Smile Train funds cleft surgeries, which cost as little as $250.
The first Smile Train mailing in 2002 reached 50,000 prospective donors and jump-started the organization. “That’s when I became aware of the sheer power and magnitude of what direct mail can do,” says Mullaney.
Fast forward 10 years: Smile Train has transformed the lives of more than 750,000 children.It is financing 320 cleft surgeries a day, helping one child every five minutes.
Mullaney says 95 percent of Smile Train’s fundraising is through direct mail. This year, the organization will send out 120 million letters. Next year, the group’s cumulative fundraising will top $1 billion.
The power of mail has driven Mullaney to his next challenge. He has co-founded a new organization called WonderWork — where he uses direct mail to raise money to help fix five of the world’s problems — clubfeet, burns, holes in the heart, cataracts and hydrocephalus (the buildup of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling).
Why does direct mail work?
“Because people still read and respond to it,” Mullaney says. “Everyone loves the Internet and social media, but imagine what your mailbox would be like if mail were free. The fact that there is a threshold — that mail requires a name, a stamp and usually an envelope — plays into the power of mail. Communication vehicles that are essentially free lack the filtering, which make them not functional yet for effective commerce.”
Direct mail strategist John Schulte adds that, for several reasons, the nature of mail makes it an ideal medium for effecting social change.
“Mail is personal. It has emotional impact,” says Schulte. “With mail, you can take your time and tell your story so that it affects your audience the way you want it to. It’s a luxury you don’t always have with online media.
“Mail is also about targeting your audience,” he adds. “For example, you can target those who have helped in the past, increasing your chances of success.”
And mail is particularly effective with fundraising efforts, says Schulte, because the demographic most likely to donate is the one that is very comfortable with mail.
Changing the world starts with changing personal behaviors. And to do that, it takes a personal approach. Here’s another example of about how effective and powerful a personal appeal can be.
Tangibility — direct mail’s chief attribute — helps raise awareness for abandoned babies
Each year in Israel, about 300 babies are abandoned in hospitals throughout the country. A nonprofit organization called Hibuk Rishon (First Hug) is dedicated to providing those babies with the warm human contact they need in the critical first weeks and months of life.
To build awareness, First Hug turned to Tel Aviv ad agency BBR Saatchi & Saatchi.
“We were asked to call attention to First Hug activities and raise the level of donations to the organization,” said Yossi Lubaton, CEO of BBR Saatchi & Saatchi. “People were not familiar with the association, let alone its activities. Also, they didn’t necessarily feel a connection to the abandoned babies because it’s something that’s beyond them — not part of their everyday concerns.”
The agency team knew that people feel a stronger connection to things that are tangible. “Abandoned babies are not just a statistic in some report,” says Lubaton. “They are real and defenseless and in need of people’s help.”
The PSA campaign included printing lifelike photos of babies on doormats and leaving them at doorsteps. The message read: “Every year hundreds of babies are abandoned in Israel. You can help them.”
The doormats grabbed people’s attention when they opened their front door in the morning.
As a direct result of the campaign, there was a 162 percent increase in the number of calls made to the First Hug hotline, plus a steady rise in the level of donations made.
The use of mail to effect social change is not new
Last year, the New York State Senate voted 33-29 to legalize same-sex marriage. According to a campaign director for a same-sex marriage advocacy group, mail played a role in the bill’s passage. A coalition called New Yorkers United for Marriage spent $2 million on a media and mail campaign to raise awareness among the public and lawmakers. The result: For the first time, a Republican-controlled legislative body legalized same-sex marriages.
So, if the power and personal appeal of mail can change the world, what can it do for your business?