How to Write Zinger Teasers for Direct Mail Fundraising Packages

Deal Maker, or Deal Breaker?

Sample of a direct mail package for fundraising.
••• Screenshot by JFritz

When you pulled that direct mail pitch from a charity out of your mailbox this morning, what made you open it or dump it?

I bet the teaser on the envelope made the difference, for reading or tossing.

Mal Warwick in his book, How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters, gives us a ton of quick tips, ranging from compelling teasers to a list of strong leads for your letters, to ways to start a P.S. 

Start With Your Goal for the Teaser

To create an effective teaser for your envelope, Warwick tells fundraisers to think about the "need" or "function" you want the teaser to fulfill before you write it.

Here are some functions he suggests and corresponding examples of teasers:

  • Function: Describe the contents
    • Example: "Membership Card Enclosed"
  • Function: Establish urgency
    • Example: "Your response needed within ten days."
  • Function: Hint at advantages
    • Example: "R.S.V.P."
  • Function: Flag the importance of the contents.
    • Example: "Membership Survey."
  • Function: Start a story
    • Example: "She was only 11 years old. She was as old as the hills."
  • Function: Offer a benefit
    • Example: "Your Free Gift Card Enclosed."
  • Function: Ask a question
    • Example: "Would you spend $1 a day to save the life of a child?"
  • Function: Pique Curiosity
    • Example: "What do these people have in common?"
  • Function: Challenge the reader
    • Example: "Take this simple quiz to learn your Health I.Q."

​Do Teasers Work?

Warwick says none of these teasers guarantee that your reader will open your appeal. And, indeed, there is a lot of argument about teasers.

What we do know is that, in the words of one fundraiser, "lame" teasers don't work. In fact, no teaser is better than a bad one. Warwick even says that terrible teasers can make a direct mail envelope look more like junk mail than something from a friend.

Warwick's teasers, however, are not lame. He gives us 30 real life teasers that are his favorites. I include just eight here, and believe me; it was hard to choose!:

  1. ENCLOSED: Your first real chance to tell the National Rifle Association to go to hell...
    1. (Handgun Control, Inc)
  2. Because many people who sell alcohol think pennies are more important than human lives...
    1. (MADD)
  3. Would you go to jail to keep a puppy from being tortured? WE ARE!
    1. (Last Chance for Animals)
  4. PULL HERE FOR YOUR FREE BACKPACK (details inside)
    1. (National Audubon Society)
  5. P.S. We named the duck Harold.
    1. (Community Service Society of New York)
  6. Why don't woodpeckers get headaches?
    1. (Boston Public Library Foundation)
  7. How Sister Alice became GRANDMA
    1. (Missionary Sisters Of The Immaculate Conception)
  8. Will you be killed by a handgun in the next 23 minutes? (Back flap): Someone will be.
    1. (Illinois Citizens for Handgun control)

What functions does each of those teasers serve?

Teasers Should Work Within the Context of Whole Package

Of course, teasers only work within the context of the entire direct mail package...the envelope, the typeface, the colors, even the postage.

For example here are a couple of teasers from my collection. The images on the envelopes are as important as the messages:

  • From the Environmental Defense Fund: "Please Help Me" (envelope features a photo of a disconsolate polar bear)
  • From Best Friends Animal Sanctuary: "Madge finds her dream home." (envelope shows picture of dear Madge, an elderly dog with big eyes.)

The best teasers and envelope designs flow right on through the entire package. A teaser is not only words but design and images. Seeing those elements repeated in your letter, brochure, donation form creates a holistically pleasing experience for the recipient. A good example is at the top of this article - the St. Baldrick's campaign mailing.

How will you know if your teaser works? Only by testing. So think carefully and test more. 

To write great teasers, collect a lot of examples and not just charity direct mail packages. Commercial examples (and you have a ton right in your mailbox) often have the best teasers of all.  Keep a swipe file (mine is just a big box) of everything that comes in and then sort it out every few weeks Save the inspirational packages, dump the rest.

You're bound to find many envelope teasers to spark your imagination. Another great source is the websites of direct mail vendors. They often have pages of sample campaigns they have created.

Although many nonprofits create their own direct mail campaigns, it might pay to hire a professional. There are many companies that have experience with charitable appeals and some that specialize in them, such as TrueSense Marketing and Blackbaud.

Don't lavish days on writing your letter, and then just dash off the teaser. It deserves your most creative effort. And remember, a bad teaser is worse than none.