Anatomy of a Control: Dated Tale of Fallen Movie Icon
or some wildlife donors, their knowledge of a certain mountain gorilla named Mrithi might be limited to the critically acclaimed docudrama "Gorillas in the Mist," in which he starred with Sigourney Weaver and Bryan Brown in 1988. What many donors don't know is that just four years after the film hit theaters, Mrithi was shot and killed while roaming through the forests of Africa.
That's precisely what freelance copywriter Fred Vallejo was banking onthe overwhelming sense of shock and dismay felt by prospectswhen he scribed an appeal effort for the African Wildlife Foundation in January 1998a mailing that has served as the nonprofit organization's control ever since.
"People respond to fundraising mail out of emotional reasons, not cognitive ones. I wanted to do something that would humanize this gorilla and make people feel a connection to him via the movie, so that they almost felt as if they lost somebody they knew," shares Vallejo, a writer of direct mail since 1980.
The current appeal's 6" x 9" carrier envelope features a black-and-white image of Mrithi, with adjoining teaser copy that reads: "Please Do Not Abandon Them In the Mist!" The package includes a four-page letter, an 81/2" x 11" insert, a buckslip, address labels and a BRE.
"While there are a lot of species being threatened that really resonate with
humanswhales, elephants, jaguars," Vallejo says, "you really keep your eye out for powerful, compelling stories about notable wildlife. And when I saw this tragic story about this gorilla who had been famous, if you will, I thought that that would be a good hook to hang our fundraising hat on."
Letter and Insert: A Classic Pairing
Vallejo found the inspiration for his letter in several gripping diary entries journaled by the vice president of Bachurski Associatesthe nonprofit agency that had the African Wildlife Foundation account at the time of the mailing's launchwho spent time in Nairobi, Kenya visiting the mountain gorillas. Vallejo parlayed the vice president's firsthand account of the gorillas' plight, as well as the death of Mrithi, into Johnson Box copy for the letter:
"There is a profound silence in Africa just before the dawn, when the creatures of the night have finished their shift and the creatures of the day have not yet begun ... "
The letter continues in gut-wrenching, journalistic detail about the demise of the mountain gorilla in Africa. "I read [her diary] and thought there was an
emotionally powerful hook there," Vallejo affirms. "[Our] overarching objective was to take this story and make it as compelling as possible."
On page three of the letter, Vallejo outlines what each donation amount will provide to the African Wildlife Foundation, for example:
* Your contribution of $20 will help purchase a pair of high-powered field binoculars.
"This philosophy came out of the charity sector," Vallejo says, "where you assign a dollar amount to an action taken to lift response. Donors have a better understanding of how their money is being spent."
The letter, which ultimately "fell into place fairly quickly and wrote itself," classically punches the emotional hot-buttons of prospective donors, while a trusty insert is on standby to work on the more rational part of their brains.
"There's always a balancing act. We didn't leap to the conclusion that people were going to spend all the time we wanted them to spend with the letter," Vallejo shares. "[The insert] fulfills the role that a table, chart or quick graph has in a magazine article."
On the front of the insert, the African Wildlife Foundation presents a roughly sketched map of Africa highlighting key areas where mountain gorillasalbeit endangereddwell. To the left of the map, the foundation lists seven important facts about gorillas, for example:
Mountain gorillas have been listed as an endangered species since 1970.
And on the backside, the foundation conveys to prospective donors what type of wildlife-preservation accomplishments the organization has made since 1961.
"The letter obviously tugs on emotional chords, but you have to provide enough information so that a donor understands both the issue and what's at stake," he says.
According to Vallejo, the insert and letter currently being used in the control package remain relatively unchanged.
In 1998, Bachurski Associates employed the use of four-color decorative stamps as the mailing's freemium, with no premium offer. But in June 2001, the African Wildlife Foundation direct mail account changed hands from Washington, DC-based Bachurski Associates to Richmond, VA-based Huntsinger & Jeffers, who had it until February 2003. One of the few tweaks Huntsinger & Jeffers performed was featuring premiums and address labels "much like environmental groups do," says Vicky Lester, the agency's president.
The control package arrived to the Who's Mailing What! Archive late last summer with a sheet of address labels and a buckslip teasing a windbreaker premium offer.
At the time of the initial launch, though, Vallejo and the team at Bachurski Associates felt that while address labels proved successful as freemiums, everyone was using them. "So we left them out," says Vallejo. "For all the times [Bachurski was involved] with this mailing, we continued to mail the stamps in lieu of address labels."
When asked whether or not he considered the windbreaker premium to be a suitable complement to the appeal, Vallejo replied flatly, "No. Not at all. I am not a big believer in premiums. I believe that we should be getting prospective donors to [contribute] out of the goodness of their hearts and belief in the cause, rather than for incentives. Unfortunately, a number of organizations over the last 10 years have gone to [premiums], and it has really changed the character of fundraising."
To some extent, you create a buyer rather than a donor when you use premiums, Vallejo says, often times paving an arduous road for renewal efforts that may be devoid of premiums. "From a practical standpoint, you have to use them to compete," Vallejo says with a laugh. "I don't have the luxury to take the high road."
Presently, the African Wildlife Foundation is offering the windbreaker to new members who give a gift of $15 or more.
Tweaking the Copy
From a copywriting standpoint, the goal for Huntsinger & Jeffers was to gauge whether the letter still had bite.
"When we got the package, some of the information in the letter was so outdated, we thought it would begin to fatigue," says copywriter Willis Turner. "As ['Gorillas in the Mist'] got older, we were concerned that not as many people would connect with the [outer envelope] teaser and letter. But our fears were unfounded."
Turner's aim was to sharpen the package and "bring it up to date." But testing of different teasers on the outer envelope, for example, proved uneventful, as Vallejo's original concept and copy beat out new tests.
One copy tweak Turner performed was adding a post-post script that reminded prospective donors what their $15 would fetch them. "The theory was to make it look like it was personally added by Patrick [J. Bergin, Ph.D., president of the African Wildlife Foundation]," Turner says. "Handwritten copy has a certain spontaneity."
Other than that, Vallejo's original copy stands. "Not that there was anything wrong with [the original package]," Turner says. "Our goal was simply to conform the package to what was successful in the nonprofit sector at the time."
Turner did tweak several minor, date-specific elements in the letter, but response results proved that Mrithi's story still had impact.