Battle of the appeal letters: Four-pager versus two-pager

If I’ve heard this one once, I’ve heard it a thousand times…

Dear Tom:

My boss wants to know which is better, a four-page letter or a two-page letter?

Signed, Direct Mail Novice.

This is one of those great “it all depends” questions.

First, you need to distinguish between acquisition letters and renewal letters. Which are you sending out?

Four-page letters, I would venture to say, are not all that common when you’re renewing gifts from current donors. But they are common for acquiring new donors, especially when professional writers are running the show and there’s a lot at stake. It’s pretty axiomatic in the direct mail industry that a four-page letter will outpull a two-page letter, when you’re trying to acquire new donors. For this simple reason: a four-pager gives you four times as much space to fill with interesting stuff as a one-pager.

Current donors already know who you are, thanks to your newsletters and other “relationship- building” communications. Assuming you’ve done a good job keeping your current donors informed of your cause’s accomplishments and needs, a brief appeal letter should work.

But people who don’t know you at all (those whom you’re trying to acquire as donors) need a lot more convincing to take the plunge.

For the average person (a boss who hasn’t read up on direct mail fundraising, say), the idea that a four-page letter often gets a better response than a one-pager is painfully counterintuitive. The average person thinks, “Four pages? That’s crazy. I wouldn’t read one. It’s far too long and a big waste of my time.”

This is the place for a caveat: true enough, a four-page letter filled with uninteresting stuff and tedious writing will not work. But professionally written four-pagers are marvelous experiences, filled with drama, human interest, surprises, and hope.

People do not read direct mail in the way one might read a novel or news story. With direct mail, they skim. And if your mission and organization is new to them, they will skim your letter to see if you have anything to say that interests them.

Which, incidentally, puts a high premium making things easy to read. Use lots of bullet lists, short paragraphs, etc. Successful direct mail writers favor one- and two-sentence paragraphs for that reason: because people can speed through them.

Do four-pagers always work better in acquisition mode? Nothing always works in direct mail. It’s an empirical medium. You test, test, test. And on some rare occasions, a one-page acquisition letter ends up outpulling a four-pager. Rarely, but it does happen.

This is a brief answer to a complex question. For those who want to learn about direct mail letter writing from a real expert, I highly recommend Mal Warwick’s How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters. Good direct mail fundraising is a sophisticated form of advertising; it is only superficially similar to ordinary correspondence. The more training you have, the more effective you’ll be.

See also:

How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money

Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes

Content Marketing for Nonprofits

Image credit: GettyImages,

This was originally cross-posted at CausePlanet on 4/26/2011 with special thanks to Tom Ahern.

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