Three Keys to Successful List Testing in Direct Mail

Date Published
Amy Houke

Even the best direct mail fundraising programs need to be injected with new sources of good prospects for sustained file growth. We find those good sources by ongoing list testing. Acquisition direct mail and list building are expensive endeavors. You need each and every list to work as hard as possible for you.

Not every list you test will be successful, of course. But the testing process itself should follow some proven practices to mitigate risk and limit your exposure in new donor acquisition.

  1. Limit the quantity of any single test list, and the overall percentage of list testing in any given campaign. Looking at your list plan as a whole, all pure test lists combined should never represent more than 15-20% of your total mail volume. Further, any single test list should not represent more than 3 to 5 percent of your total mail quantity. Since list planning is done via gross, pre-merge quantities, simply divide your total target mail quantity by your average retention rate; 2-5 percent of that is the most any single list being tested for the first time should represent.
  2. Strategically identifying your test lists up front helps to increase your chances of success and lowers your risk. When considering a test list, do a demographic reality check. Review the known demographics of the list you’re considering. Do those demographics look similar to what you know about your current donors? If not, does the nature of the list strongly point to an affinity with yours even if demographics don’t look in sync? For instance, you are a local environmental organization focused on the cleanliness of rivers and lakes. You are considering testing a national environmental organization with a marine life focus. Chances are there are enough similarities between their donors and yours to warrant a test even though, perhaps, your donors are older and skew slightly more male than theirs.
  3. Strengthen your confidence in any test list by looking at who else is mailing it. Conducting a usage review is a wonderful way to leverage known information about a list to increase your comfort with testing it for the first time. Usage is reported in terms of tests and continuations. While many organizations will test a list, you want to look specifically at the continuations. Continuation on any file implies that the organization had success with it. If you see continuations by organizations that are very similar to yours, it’s a pretty good bet that the list will perform fairly well for you.
illustration of a balanced, risk averse list plan

A balanced, risk averse list plan puts the majority of your mailing in proven lists that you can rely on to perform. Lists mailed by organizations similar to you make up a much smaller percentage of your overall lists plan. The smallest percentage of all is in reach lists that you are hopeful will perform, but have no guarantee will do well.

Like any testing, list testing entails risk. The goal is to minimize that risk by setting up a sound list testing strategy up front. Allegiance Fundraising Group specializes in proven and sound testing practices. Let us put our testing experience to work for you – Contact us today!

About the Author:
Amy Houke
Media Director, Agency Services

Role at the Company

I am responsible for providing media research and recommendations to AFG clients. I work closely with other AFG team members to assure that prospect list and print recommendations are consistent with the overall strategic and creative direction of each program.

My experience has included media planning for many types of non-profit clients, including public broadcasting stations, animal welfare organizations and food banks.

What excites you about your work at AFG?

Successful fundraising is about getting your organization’s mission into the hearts of your current and prospective donors. My job is to identify your future donors. That comes from a deep understanding of who your current donors are and what they look like. That’s exciting!

What are your hobbies/interests outside AFG?

I enjoy serving in small group leadership and doing local mission work with my church.

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