As marketers, we constantly hear that we should think shorter:

  • For email subject lines, keep to 40 characters or fewer.
  • Headlines should be 5 – 10 words, max.
  • Emails should capture a reader’s attention in 5 seconds or risk losing them forever.

If you work for a nonprofit, charity, foundation, or other organization involved in fundraising, get ready to have your mind blown: The average length of the best-performing direct mail letters is about four pages. In fact, longer letters beat short ones about 90% of the time.
This is excellent news (and job security!) for writers. But before you sit down to create your next fundraising appeals letter, let’s consider the long and short of what goes into a successful mailer.

Why and How Long Letters Capture Longer Attention Spans

We’ve all become accustomed to writing short in a desperate bid to elbow our way into someone’s attention span. If you’re marketing a pair of shoes or a hamburger, it can be tough to stand out in an inbox and convince someone to read your email.

But what makes a fundraising letter sent by mail unique is that you’re talking to people who genuinely want to hear from you. If you’ve built your list organically and maintained list hygiene, you’re reaching out to people about things you already know they care about.

Mailers hit different, too. Consider that the average person receives over 100 emails a day. Direct mail is the medium people choose to bring into their homes, spend time with, and hold onto: on average, recipients spend up to 32 minutes reading through direct mail and keep mailers in their households for up to 17 days. Compare that to the lifespan of an email, which is about 17 seconds.

It’s a Long Story

Storytelling is crucial to getting your audience on your side by conveying facts and weaving a narrative that will resonate with an audience on a deeper level. Long letters allow you to tell a more robust, richer story that you can bring to life with many different elements, including text, images, graphics, and pull quotes.

Even if you’re telling the most compelling story, not everyone will read or retain the entire thing. People have different reading preferences, and not everyone consumes information the same way. Typically, readers fall into one of three different categories:

  1. Walkers are those who want to spend time with your letters. They’ll carefully read almost all of the copy and study the images.
  2. Joggers will skip around, skimming information and looking at the pictures.
  3. Runners usually only look at the pictures, read a few headlines and glance at the subheads.

A well-designed, four-plus-page direct mail piece gives you enough real estate to appeal to each of these readers. Just make sure that the headlines and subheads tell the whole story so that even if someone doesn’t read the body copy, they still get the gist.

Use Shorter Copy When You Can

Long letters don’t mean wall-to-wall text. Remember what we said about runners, joggers, and walkers? Shorter text can help appeal to them all, sustaining their attention and keeping their eyes moving down the page and onto the next one.

Text that’s broken up into more digestible chunks is easier to retain and provides appealing white space. Headlines and subheads should be concise, and each should include a benefit. Keep paragraphs to no more than two to three sentences, max, and make sure the ideas flow from paragraph to paragraph.

Keep Your Letter Short on Frills and Finishes

When it comes time to produce the letter package, think no-frills rather than flashy. Otherwise, your audience might worry that their donations are funding your organization’s marketing instead of the cause they care about. Use high-quality, durable materials, but skip extra touches such as embossing, varnishes, or die-cuts.

Of course, a well-executed fundraising mailer only looks simple. In reality, a tremendous amount of expertise goes into producing a successful letter package. We can help you do it all—design, production, mailing, and tracking—for less time and money than you might imagine. Contact us to learn more.

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