Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.”

–Henry Ford

The Model T Ford, America’s first mass production auto,  only came in black because the production line required compromise so that efficiency and improved quality could be achieved.

The service is provided by a score of agencies that syndicate and gather en masse the mailing lists, creative and production components to spread the cost and increase the cost efficiency.

The all the nonprofits in a particular sector that participate in this syndication process receive a good and fair price for sending out anywhere from 6 to 12 appeals a year and maybe a newsletter or two—usually the exact same copy where generally the only change made for the organization is in its logo and address.

Same schedule.  Same copy.  Same asking formulae.

Frankly, I’m not knocking the process because I’m sure there would be hundreds of organizations that would struggle to mail one appeal, let alone meet a more frequent schedule with decently prepared copy and execution at a reasonable cost.

What I’m curious about–and hope some Agitator readers with experience in these syndicated communications will weigh in—are answers to these basic questions that the process raises:

  • It’s clear that it’s cost efficient. What isn’t clear to me is what opportunities are lost because every recipient is swimming in the same sea of sameness?
  • Do the firms that provide this service use predictive modeling, donor identity or psychological information to create different tracks. For example, we know that when it comes to some types of organizations parents have different motivations than non-parents.
  • I’m not picking nits, I’m trying to understand how this sort of mass approach that has been around for years is changing to take into account contemporary research and technology to avoid the one-size-fits all downside.
  • Is there a process for suppressing or specially tailoring mailings to larger-gift donors, Board members and other special audiences? If not, and if the organization is putting its list into a common granary of names and addresses what are the downgrading or attrition risks?
  • For those organizations that participate in syndicated acquisition is there a process segmenting the lists for different content depending on the donor identity and interest? I ask this because if a particular zip code is being carpet bombed simply because it fits some demographic (income or other profile) this strike me as ignorant and wasteful. Why? Because it’s based on the faulty assumption that two families living side-by side are motivated by the same factors.

Again, I’m not condemning this practice that has been used for the 50+ years I’ve been in the trade.  What I’m asking, because I really don’t know, is how far and how sophisticated has the approach become? Has it moved toward Tesla or is it still stuck on Model-T?

I haven’t been able to find any cases where an organization tested their use of the syndication process against a more tailor-made approach customized to the individual organization and its donors.  I suspect there are some organizations that would like to find out, but are afraid to invest in a test that would provide some answers.

We’ve checked the copy from some of these syndications with DonorVoice’s CopyOptimizer  and the ‘readability’ scores are pretty good. There are no big words.  Unfortunately, they’re weak (devoid of) on individual stories related to the particular organization.  Understandable because that gets in the way of scalability and efficiency.  The ask strings are generally the same with a low-dollar bias.  And that’s understandable for the same reason of efficiency.

Virtually every organization I’ve ever dealt with believes their group is unique. Their footprint in their community is unique.  That the prospects and donors over on Maple Street don’t all think alike and behave alike.  Yet many seemingly abandon that set of beliefs in favor of the ease and efficiency of the syndicated approach.

I certainly realize that most of the time mailing something beats mailing nothing.  BUT…what is being sacrificed in the name of one-size-fits all efficiency?  In an increasingly competitive and difficult environment we need some answers.

What’s the experience out there?  Please share.  Thank you.