Published on April 13, 2016 by

When NOT to copy the competition

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Last week, I got an email from a client sending me a direct mail sample from another charity. She suggested we do something similar.

I opened up the sample… and did a facepalm.

It was not the most terrible piece of fundraising communications I’ve ever seen… but it broke all the rules of effective direct response.

And not in a good way.

The problem is the client thought it was good simply because their much bigger competitor did it.

Now I’m not against adapting a good idea or approach from another charity. That’s the reason why I’m on numerous charity mailing lists and email lists. So I can keep on top of what others are doing.

And I’ve found fundraisers to be very generous in sharing tips and ideas. And because so many charities don’t have resources, copying what the competition does is actively encouraged.

But as a fundraiser with limited resources, you need to be able to evaluate whether the competition is doing good work… and whether it will work for you.

You can’t just say, “Let’s do this because that’s what Very Large Charity did.”

Most important of all is the question: “Did it work?” You may not be able to find this out.

So in the absence of this information – as was the case with my client who sent me the DM sample – we can only do an evaluation based on what we know works most of the time.

The sample sent to me ticked none of the following boxes – even though it was mailed by a large charity.

  1. Absolutely nothing about the donor – no thanks for past support, no reference to “you”, no attempt to relate the ask to the donor’s own interests or concerns.
  2. Problem and solution was not well defined – yes, it did say was the problem was. And the solution. But in a very long-winded way that made the copy very hard to understand.
  3. No emotion - filled with facts and statistics but absolutely no feeling.
  4. Poor formatting – long unscannable paragraphs, important points not highlighted.
  5. Fuzzy call to action – no ask to DONATE. Just PLEASE HELP.

So don’t get sucked in simply because your competitors are doing it.

The reality is they get stuff wrong too. Staff change. They may be trying something new. Someone’s having an uninspired day. Or the higher-ups have interfered.

Yes, watch what they do… but mindfully.

When you see something you like, run it past the above checklist. Although not exhaustive, it’s enough for you to make a reasonable judgment on effectiveness.

If it fits all the criteria, then yes, feel free to adapt.

If it fits some of the criteria, then see whether you can take what’s good and improve upon it.

If it fits none of the criteria, well, then proceed at your own risk.

And one more thing… if you honestly can’t tell whether a piece is good or not then ask someone like me who does. (Yes, I’ve worked with fundraisers who actually can’t tell – that’s one of the reasons they engage me).

1 Comment

  1. NS

    Loved it!

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