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Case Study: Direct Mail vs. Email Calls to Action

Date: December, 2013 --

In this Fresh Data Case Study we will review how a nonprofit tested the effectiveness of direct mail versus email calls to action within the same campaign. The results of the campaign will be broken down by medium with respect to the effectiveness of both direct mail and email messaging in generating not only response but in their ability to resonate with those receiving each type of communication. This case study is presented by Data Services, Inc. in cooperation with our friends at the Prescott Report.

The Danish Post studies scientifically whether direct mail is a more cost-effective method of moving people to action. Last month we showed how an electric utility used the Danish Post test methodology to prove that it would be paid faster and at less expense using paper invoices rather than digital invoices.

The Danish Cancer Campaign did something similar, but with an added research element to measure recall and opinion impact.  

The Campaign is a charity lottery with cash prizes up to 1 million Danish kroner ($185,000). This lottery constitutes a substantial portion of its operating budget and is known as the "Harvest Lottery", since it occurs in the Fall. 

 In 2010 the Campaign wanted to determine which media would be most effective in reminding addressees that the annual lottery was occurring and, of course, to drive action. 

Three groups of 2000 each were selected from the Campaign's database of registrations in the previous lottery, which numbered some 200,000 participants. 

First, each of these 200,000 files was sent a written invitation to participate in the annual fundraising event. The physical mail pieces included an envelope containing a letter, a promotion folder and a giro form. The latter is a form of direct money transfer in common use in Europe containing bank money transfer instructions which the money sender completes with details of the amount and his own bank account for debiting.  

Two weeks after the letter was sent, reminder messages were sent to the test groups via email or as a physical mail. 

·         Group 1 had given the society email permission.  They received an email reminder.

·         Group 2 had also given email permission, but received a reminder letter through the post.

·         Group 3 had not given email permission and they received a reminder letter through the post.

It should be borne in mind that in Denmark communications via email of a commercial nature require affirmative opt-in and the authorities are extremely strict. Even fundraising approaches by nonprofit associations are considered commercial in nature and are not exempt from the regulation.

The content of the reminder letter and email and its creative were different from the first letter. In order to encourage participation and recall, recipients of the reminder communication were given additional lotto numbers. The piece was also somewhat more understated. The physical reminder was a plain envelope containing an opener encouragement: "We will win." The envelope also had an opener enticement on the back stating that the Society received only 7% of its income from public funding, underlining the critical importance of lottery proceeds.

Telephone interviews were conducted with the test targets to determine recollection of the first and second communications.


In regard to spontaneous recollection, letter mail showed overwhelming power. Only 25% of Group 1, who received the email reminder, recalled receiving the reminder email.  However, 58% of group 2 and 55% of group 3 spontaneously recalled the reminder direct mail letter.

Even after prompting, groups two and three had better recall of the reminder letter than the email community, recalling at 85% and 80%, respectively, against 63% for the email recipients.

Timing & Impact

It also appears that the call to action of the letter is more powerful than an email, especially when repeated. 12% (Group 1), 24% (Group 2) and 29% (Group 3), respectively confirmed they had reached their decision to play only after receiving the reminder letter. In short, the direct mail letter produced twice the response of the email reminder.    

The conclusion is a powerful one.  The interviews and the reaction of the public disclosed that the public opinion of the Society’s campaign was that it was trustworthy, meaningful and informative. Test results indicate the respondents preferred receiving a physical direct mail letter to an email. In the words of the report of this campaign, "Direct mail signals care, trustworthiness and seriousness.  Since it is considered personal, it is a media well-suited to charitable lotteries."

As a consequence, the Cancer Campaign has elected to continue to use direct mail as the core of its communication to donors.

Look to Data Services, Inc. to ensure your domestic and international direct mail, and email, programs reach your intended target and demonstrate to your audience those values you wish to project.