When speaking at professional seminars, I tend to over-use the word “intriguing.” But there’s a very good reason I do it: too few nonprofit marketers are intriguing constituents in their printed and electronic communications.

In a mailed piece, your outer envelope has one job: to get itself opened. If the package isn’t opened by the recipient, then that expensive brochure inside will never be read. The unopened envelope will hit the recycle bin. Some marketers misconstrue this advice and think the outer envelope must do all the work–making the case for your organization, selling tickets to your event, soliciting a donation.


That’s what the interior of the package must do. The outer envelope only needs to begin the engagement process. It must intrigue the recipient enough that she opens the envelope and begins relating to the materials inside.

The same holds true with a self-mailer brochure. The cover of the brochure is the “outer envelope” in this case. If it causes the reader to break the seal and look inside, it’s done its job.

Electronic communication has its own version of the “outer envelope.” In email communication, it’s the subject line. In social media and online, it’s the hyperlinked text. These bits of copy don’t have to make your entire case, they only need to intrigue the reader to take further action (open the email, click the link, etc.).

Back in the days when direct mail was my bread and butter, we did all sorts of testing. We split mailings into two groups and sent each a package with slightly different outer envelope. Testing mail pieces is a difficult process, but it provides great rewards (ask any current high-volume mailer like Omaha Steaks or Geico Insurance).

The electronic age makes testing much easier. Do you have two solid ideas for email subject lines? Do a test! Send your email to half your list with subject line “A” and to half with subject line “B.” In a week, look at the statistics. Did one version have a higher open rate? Did one have a higher click-through rate among those that opened it? You’ve just learned how better to intrigue your audience. And all of your subsequent communications will be better for it.

In the world of social media, paid advertising is perfectly suited to testing. If you plan to promote a particular post on Facebook, for example, create three separate ads, each with a unique image and slightly different copy. Then run those ads to the exact same audience (for example, men aged 18-46 in Seattle who don’t already like your page). As long as the audience is consistent, the only variable will be the images and copy associated with your post.

Check in daily and see which version results in the most clicks (or the most likes, or the most event attendees). If one is over-performing the others, keep it as your baseline and try to beat it with subsequent tests.