Glinda the Good Witch said, “it’s always best to start at the beginning.”
Either direct mail donors don’t care that much about The Wizard of Oz or what she said only rings true when we’re talking about the Yellow Brick Road. It’s definitely not the case when we’re talking about fundraising letters.
Professor Siegfried Voegele, the researcher who wrote the handbook of direct mail (seriously--it’s called Handbook of Direct Mail: The Dialogue Method of Direct Communication), famously studied subjects’ behavior while reading direct mail letters.
Voegele ‘s studies are responsible for many of the best practices we use in direct mail fundraising, but a standout conclusion from his research was readers almost always read the end of a letter first.
In his research, he handed a letter to groups of “donors” and just sat back and watched while taking notes on their behavior. He noted eye movement especially. What he observed was one person after another flipping to the last page moving their eyes directly toward the P.S.
But why do so many people prefer to read a P.S. first? I mean, it’s the POSTscript. When all of the details, stories, and explanation come first--the stuff I’ve written to build your trust and convince you my cause is worthwhile--why are you instinctively skipping over that and straight to the end?
...Who knows? I know it’s a little anticlimactic, but it’s our best guess why so many people like to start at the end instead of the beginning.
I think it could be a few things. For one, a P.S. comes after the signature. If donors are looking to identify the sender, why not read the short paragraph after the signature, too?
Second, because it comes after the signature, it’s separated visually from the wall of text that makes up the letter body. That may make it more tempting to read. Voegele, himself, classified three steps to reading a letter. Step one is scanning or skimming, and step two is choosing and thoroughly reading a text block. Perhaps donors are simply choosing an obvious text block to read closely after skimming the letter to find it.
Third, and most importantly, I think readers expect a good P.S. to provide a to-the-point summary of the information in the body. If there’s a problem, ask, or reason why you’re writing, that will be stated immediately and directly in the P.S. A four or five-page letter body, on the other hand, may take much longer to arrive at the same points.
Whatever the reason, Voegele estimated over 90% of the readers he observed read the P.S. before the letter. In fact, they did it so much that he called the P.S. the first paragraph, not the last.
Though Voegele published his findings in 1992, more recent studies found this behavior hasn’t changed much at all. Recent research has indicated as many as 79% of readers are still opening a letter and skipping right to the good stuff.
Knowing that, it’s wise to take the Professor’s “first paragraph” advice on this one and treat your P.S. with as much care as you’d treat your very first paragraph:
· Make your ask. Make it immediately, directly, and repeat it.
· Treat your P.S. like the condensed version of your letter. Any important information like offers, deadlines, reply devices should be mentioned right away.
· Make a very strong and direct call-to-action. If it’s true that donors skip ahead to the P.S. to cut to the chase, they’ll want to know what you want them to do and how you want them to help your cause. After reading the P.S., they should have no questions about why you sent it to them.
· Thank you, thank you, thank you. Donors need to be thanked--thanked for taking the time to read your letter, thanked for taking a moment to consider your cause, and thanked for their generous gift in advance. Always thank your donor in your P.S.
· Pick the most critical points of your body message (“with your help, we can change the lives of X,” “without your help, we won’t be able to Y,” “your generous gift today will make a difference by...”) and distill them into just a few sentences. After reading your P.S., your donor should have a solid understanding of what your cause is, who is helped by it, and what his help will do for the cause.
A quality postcript will do two things: it’ll tell the donor everything he needs to know about what’s in your letter (because we know readers tend to skim the body of the letter, it’s good to ensure your reader absorbs the most important parts by including them in the P.S.), and it will compel the reader to double back and read your full text to learn more about your cause.
So, no offense to Miss Glinda--starting at the beginning worked out pretty well for Dorothy and her friends--but in direct mail fundraising, it’s bottoms up!