OPINION: The forgotten man of direct marketing fundraising?

When fundraisers try to fight off attempts by their colleagues to meddle with their DM letters, they’re often told to produce the evidence why they think it works they way they’ve written it. Adrian Salmon says that evidence is out there. But it’s in German.

Do you know what this is?

Vogele letter

Some of you will already know, or will have twigged immediately – it’s the order in which 90 per cent of us will read any letter. A great direct marketing practitioner and researcher called Professor Siegfried Vögele worked it out in the 1970s with ingenious eye-scanning experiments.

“Siegfried who?” you may ask. Precisely.

Most of us direct marketing fundraisers (no, all of us I dare say) have had the experience of showing our latest carefully crafted appeal letter to our superiors, only to be met with some or all of the following objections:

  • “It’s far too long. It should fit on one page. You’re wasting all that space. Bring it down a point size or two and it will fit on one, surely?”

  • “I don’t like the PS. It looks unprofessional.”

  • “Why are we talking down to people? The language isn’t serious enough.”

And a few more such in similar vein.

We all know the reasons why we have written the letter the way we have – years of testing has proved what works and what doesn’t.

But when I speak about the craft of direct mail at conferences, time and again my audience members raise their single biggest difficulty in getting approval on their appeals – citing readily accessible authority to justify what we do. Where are the results of these tests, ask our superiors? Well, they’re commercially confidential, closely guarded by the agencies, companies and charities that have undertaken them. It’s very hard to find any of them online, that’s for sure.

So you can imagine my delight when I finally got around to reading Mal Warwick’s excellent How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals (you should read it by the way, if you haven’t already) and first heard Siegfried Vögele’s name mentioned.

First heard. After 17 years as a fundraiser.

Now that may well be an indictment of me, and if so I’ll take it on the chin. But to be honest, outside Mal’s book, I haven’t heard much mention of Vögele in fundraising articles, blogs and conference sessions over the last decade or so. His excellent Handbook of Direct Mail is out of print – although you can find copies secondhand via Amazon and I recommend you do – and I can find no online versions of any of his research papers.

This neglect is a loss to all practitioners of direct marketing fundraising.

Vögele ­– who died in March this year – and his colleagues set out to understand how people read direct mail pieces, so that direct marketers could be more effective through understanding why some techniques consistently proved more successful than others. He called the framework he uncovered via his research the Dialogue Method of Direct Marketing. Vögele’s insight was that direct marketing communications are most successful when they engage the reader of the letter in an unspoken dialogue with its writer.

He didn’t just hypothesise this – he observed the process of dialogue either occurring or failing to occur in his test subjects, recorded on film, video and eye-scanning devices, and painstakingly watched and re-watched. Let’s have a look at that diagram again:

Vogele letter

Vögele observed that people would typically first check who was writing to them. (1)

Then – was it addressed to them, specifically? (2)

And had the sender taken the trouble to sign the letter personally? (3)

As you will see, from there the reader progressed naturally to the PS – if there was one (4). Was there something of sufficient benefit to them in the PS to encourage them to read the rest? (5) Which made the PS, not the first paragraph, the actual opening of the letter.

Assuming all these first five elements were satisfactory, the recipients would then go on to skim – but not necessarily read in depth – the remaining letter copy. (Vögele’s diagram shows a one-page letter for ease of illustration, by the way. He is by no means

Vögele’s insight was that direct marketing communications are most
successful when they engage the reader of the letter in an
unspoken dialogue with its writer

Siegried Vogele

Professor Siefgried Vögele

saying that direct marketing letters should only ever be one page long.) And this, Vögele observed, was just the first read through, or first dialogue. If the letter passed this, his subjects might then accord it a second reading in which they paid greater attention to the whole of the text.

Here he observed that if the letter could induce ‘amplifiers’ (unspoken yes’s from the reader) subjects would read on; whereas the letter would invariably end up in the bin if it induced ‘filters’ (unspoken no’s from the reader).

Vogele bookThere is so much more in Vögele’s book – including insights into precisely where on the page you should place the most engaging copy, and the importance of the placement of pictures. He doesn’t just examine letters, either – outer envelopes, inserts and reply devices were all subjected to painstaking experimental observation. Mal Warwick’s summary of Vögele’s findings in How to Write Successful Fundraising Appeals is very good. But he isn’t writing a book all about Vögele, so it is necessarily limited.

It is a crying shame that we have to find out about Vögele’s work secondhand, and have no direct access to his research and findings. His Institute is still active, based at the University of Hamburg, but to my knowledge no English translations of his papers are available and my attempts to engage with the institute on this matter were…well let’s say something was lost in translation.

I feel that making the evidence that Vögele so painstakingly gathered available in English could be invaluable to fundraisers, especially to those of us who feel we have to justify proven practices of our profession over and over again. Not only could we produce better fundraising appeals, but we could also say to our superiors that the proof that, for example, letters with a strong PS get better results, is in the work of Siegfried Vögele. We could show them the findings, chapter and verse.

Had you heard of Vögele before this? Do you agree? Let me know in the comments.

  • Adrian Salmon is Footsteps Fund Manager at University of Leeds and a member or Rogare’s advisory panel.

5 comments for “OPINION: The forgotten man of direct marketing fundraising?

  1. September 25, 2014 at 6:23 am

    For many years in the early part of my career, I fought about so much of this. What was “right” from a business letter point of view and what moved people, when reading, to pick up a pen and write a cheque. Now so much information is readily available that we can “debunk” many of the myths, but even of late I’ve had to argue about indented paragraphs and PS language. Thanks for finding this professor and sharing his work! Found a used copy on Amazon for a reasonable price to boot!

    • September 25, 2014 at 3:03 pm

      Beth, you’re very welcome! Would be great to see a revised and updated version of Vogele’s book – but even though it was written in early 1990s it’s still incredibly relevant.

  2. October 1, 2014 at 7:31 am

    Fascinating article – I’m amazed how many organisations don’t take this into account when writing their letters. Similar rules also apply to emails, where readers are even more likely just to skim through the contents. Examples are here: http://www.nngroup.com/articles/f-shaped-pattern-reading-web-content/

  3. October 6, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    HI, this is wonderful or as the Germans would say: Wunderbar!!

    Yes, I had heard of Siegfried Vogele before. In fact, I met him in person!! It was in the early 80s when I worked at Reader’s Digest and he came to do a workshop for our staff, both nationally (in Amsterdam at the office where I worked at the time) and for some of our foreign colleagues.

    It was incredible to be able to listen to all his knowledge and experience and see what the eye trackers looked like and what they saw.

    To this very day, I still love direct mail and I still truly stick to so many of his guidelines…

    So, thank you for renewing Siegfried Vogele’s knowledge and the science that’s part of our everyday art and science in writing direct mail and email appeals. It’s still true so many years later.

    thank you, or as we Dutch would say: Heel Hartelijk Dank!

    cheers, Erica

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