Anatomy of a Control: Covenant House Sends a Gift to Get a Control
Covenant House, a nonprofit that raises money to fund homeless shelters for runaway kids, has had many successful control mailings over the years. From the long, narrative letters of Father Bruce Ritter (who founded the charity) to the more inspirational-focused efforts of Sister Mary Rose McGeady and the format-driven appeals of recent years, Covenant House has been effective at finding the right approach for the times and the market.
In large part, Covenant House's success is due to its ability to learn what works and adapt it to future direct mail efforts to stay ahead of the curve. While the marvelous paperback books included in many control efforts in the 1990s are still being used today, the nonprofit has branched out to other freemiums, personalization and a variety of sizes and shapes for its direct mail efforts.
When lightweight cardboard box-style mailings started popping up from nonprofits in early 2001 (the U.S. Olympic Committee was the first nonprofit out of the gate with this format), Covenant House got in on the cutting edge of this trend with its own box mailing. Since the secret of the box mailing's effectiveness is the ease with which a freemium with high-perceived value can be inserted and mailed intact, most mailers who have used this format turned to jewelry or even watches. Covenant House also decided to go with jewelry: a pin freemium.
The guardian angel theme of the mailing provided a lovely image for both the pin and the creative, as well as offering Covenant House a strong call to action for donors who want to be more than just check-writers. With this effort, respondents were given the chance to be saviors of sortssomething very important to Americans after the September 11 terrorist bombings.
Covenant House could never have anticipated this box mailing would go out the same month of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; like many other direct marketers who mailed in September 2001, the nonprofit went back into the mail stream in November 2001 (this version included a lift letter that addressed the tragedy of the terrorist attacks)perhaps to get a stronger read on results to the box effort.
Apparently the second time was not a charm for the box mailing, because not only did we never see the dimensional mailing in the Archive again, but a new package with the same guardian angel theme and copy made its debut in December 2001.
A Spin-Off Idea
While Covenant House might not have stuck with the box mailing, testing the 3-D format had a secondary benefit: The nonprofit identified a message strategy and freemium that struck a chord with prospective donors.
Covenant House adapted the guardian angel platform to a 5" x 6-1/2" envelope mailing, following several of its nonprofit colleagues who have chosen smaller formats in these lean times.
The letter copy and donation form are nearly identical, save for the smaller size in the recent effort. The new mailing also features a card stock insert, onto which the pin freemium has been fastened. A courtesy reply envelope is provided for responses, as it is in all Covenant House mailings.
The Outer Envelope
Compared to the box mailing, with its four-color image of an angel on a blue background, this outer presentation is quite different.
The envelope is fairly simple in appearance, but a closer look reveals some smartly conceived creative touches. One, for example, is the light gray undertone of the paper, which is also flecked with gray. It's cost effective but does not look as cheap as plain white stock at this weight would.
Two elements bring a human touch to the front of the envelope. The address is printed in a handwriting computer font, and the printed label features a drop shadow around the white outer edge to look hand-applied.
The use of two nonprofit live stamps is intriguing, since the earlier box mailings only required one nonprofit live stamp. Perhaps the extra postage was a lettershop miscalculation, or the double stamps are part of a creative aesthetic to give donors the idea that something of value is inside the mailing, so the package required additional postage.
Another intriguing footnote on this campaign is the tiny type on the back of the outer envelope that tells you the mailing was designed in the U.S. but assembled in Hong Kong. According to Debora Haskel, vice president of marketing at Instant Web Companies, many freemiums are manufactured in China. We assume it would also be cheaper to have the hand assembly of the pin and insert taken care of overseas too. This is likely a move that saves money for Covenant House, at a time when holding the bottom line is tough for all nonprofits.
A single page, printed front and back, makes up the letter. Quite a change from the lengthy letters of Father Bruce Ritter, this missive provides a quick explanation of who Covenant House is and the mission it serves.
Signed in blue ink by Sister Mary Rose McGeadywho replaced Father Ritter as spokesperson for the charity after he scandalized the institution by being accused in the press of endangering the welfare of minors and was investigated by the New York State Attorney Generalthe letter sticks to the main idea of everyone needing a guardian angel. An important part of the letter's effectiveness is found in the first sentence: "I wish I could give the enclosed Guardian Angel Pin to every kid in America." The crux of the request is finished in the next five paragraphs, as McGeady tells recipients to enjoy their pins and to remember that they could be a guardian angel to the children Covenant House protects.
The middle of the letter works in the reasons why children end up on the streets, but does not offer any detailed stories of abuse or neglect. It also presents the reason why donations are needed: to provide a safe haven for children who have fled to urban areas that are rife with opportunists who would take advantage of naive youths.
The final message just before the ask ladder is introduced, helps readers relieve any personal guilt they might have about not personally helping abused children. Readers are reassured that Covenant House is more than willing to take on this societal burden, so long as it has the funds to do so. All prospects have to do is send a donation.
The postscript takes an interesting turn, in that it repeats the call to action within the context of explaining Sister Mary Rose's religious calling and her certainty that God wants her at Covenant House. In a way, this copy is saying that if you turn down Sister Mary Rose, you're spurning God's faith in her to do this job.
This element is the only piece in the entire package that is printed on card stock. It's a necessary splurge, since this insert holds the jewelry pin freemium.
The pin in this effort features a much different look than the one that was used in the box mailing. That pin had an oval plastic base on which the angel image from the mailing's creative was repeated. The current pin features a gold-tone base on which the angel image is captured in enamela much sturdier creation to withstand the mail stream without needing to be wrapped in plastic. Additionally, the card stock insulates the rest of the mailing elementsand postal workersfrom the hazards of the pin.
The insert cover features the guardian angel image and assumes support with the headline, "You are an Angel to our Kids." The emotion being played on is guilt, as the short letter from Sister Mary Rosealso signed in blue inktells prospects they can be God-like by taking care of children the way God takes care of the mailing's recipients. It also presents the pin as a thank you to donors to remind them of what they have done to support the welfare of children. The finale is Sister Mary Rose letting donors know that she prays for them. All this copy works together to produce an emotional reaction.
The only other element in this mailing to use color is the donation form. It's illustrated with the same angel on the freemium insert and the jewelry pin. It echoes back the same ask ladder presented in the letter by Sister Mary Rose, and adds extra options for larger donations.
The headline of the donation form"My Guardian Angel Gift to Covenant House"helps it stand on its own, regardless of whether prospects have read the letter or just skimmed the freemium insert.
Rather than add more cost to the mailing with another form or muck up the freemium insert, Covenant House prints on the back of the donation form the required legal notice of how interested prospects may request copies of financial and operating reports from the proper authorities.
Longer Life for a Good Idea
When using extreme formats, such as three-dimensional packages, it's hard to tell how much of the success of the effort is due to the eye-grabbing look or the copy platform and offer. One thing is certain: Extreme creative approaches wear out their welcome faster than their more plain brethren, as prospects recognize these over-the-top efforts more quickly.
In this case, Covenant House was smart enough not to throw the baby out with the bath water, but to pair less expensive creative packaging with a strong message. From here on out, easy tweaks can be made to keep the effort alive and kicking for a while, such as a new angel image for the pin, graphics for the outer and different inserts. The trick is in how you work it.