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Direct Mail Premiums Here's What We Learned


Direct Mail Premiums: Here’s What We Learned [+20 Examples]

When done right, direct mail premiums can be a great way to raise your response rates. In this article, we’ll share some insights on how to use premiums effectively.

Reaching your goals with fundraising direct mail is challenging. For decades, nonprofits have looked to premiums as a way to boost response to their campaigns. Along with other tactics such as sweepstakes and matching gift programs, they can be a powerful incentive for donors.

→ Download Now: 5 Fundraising Letter Templates [+ Pro Tips]

But what premiums should you mail? When you choose to include them in your fundraising direct mail campaigns, what best practices should you consider?

To get some answers, we looked at the mail we collect at Who’s Mailing What! and included some examples from our files. We also reached out to several nonprofit industry experts for additional tips and insights to help you discover the best approach for your organization.

Our Data on Front-End Premium Use in Nonprofit Direct Mail

We wanted to share the results of our analysis of over 27,500 nonprofit creatives from our Who’s Mailing What! Collection. But to understand the findings, it’s important to differentiate between a front-end premium and a back-end premium.

A front-end premium or “freemium” is an object of some perceived value that’s inserted into a mailing package, usually an envelope.

A back-end premium is a product available only to those donors who respond to the solicitation.

We analyzed the use of front-end premiums in fundraising mail to determine:

  • What premiums are most commonly mailed to incentivize donations or memberships
  • What best practices can be learned for your nonprofit’s fundraising direct mail

To avoid over-representing frequent and multiple mailings of one type of premium (e.g., calendars), we counted premium use by the number of organizations that mailed them.

The Most Popular Freemiums in Who’s Mailing What!

The Most Popular Freemiums in Who’s Mailing What!

Name and address labels are the most popular premiums (by company) in our mailstream; nearly 25% (24.97%) of organizations include them in their fundraising campaigns.

This is not surprising. For decades, personalized labels have been popular because of their usefulness. Even as more Americans use mail less for sending personal letters or paying bills, they continue to be mailed in large volumes.

Calendars are the second-most popular premiums in Who’s Mailing What!, mailed by 13.21% of nonprofits. It’s a higher-cost item, which is why some organizations mail them on the back end.

However, be cautious when considering mailing a calendar. As Mary Cahalane of Hands-On Fundraising says:

Calendars can be wonderful! But there are only so many people need.

Mary CahalanePrincipal
Hands-On Fundraising

Because many donors tend to give money to organizations with similar missions, they may receive multiple calendars. Do your research first — by using Who’s Mailing What! for example — before committing to a particular freemium.

Bookmarks are the third-most-popular premium in our count; 6.61% of nonprofits have mailed them. Because of their size, they’re an ideal low-cost option for campaigns mailed in a #10 or #11 envelope.

Other freemiums that showed up in our analysis of the numbers include:

  • Maps (see below)
  • Stickers
  • Magnets
  • Notecards
  • Nickels
  • Flags

This map was mailed by medical non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders. It’s been part of its successful Grand Control campaign for years and supports its mission (see Best Practice #2 below)

Doctors Without Borders direct mail

What all these items have in common is that they are all tangible, physical gifts. And they all provide an opportunity for you to do something special for your donor, and as we’ll see below, for your nonprofit as well.

I’ve been working in nonprofits for almost 30 years, and I’ve seen the use of freemiums for many years. They are used because they:
a) make the donor open the envelope,
b) draw attention to the cause in a special way that just a story may not always do,
c) slightly ‘guilt’ the donor into making a gift.

Erica WaasdorpPresident
A Direct Solution

That last point — that freemiums operate on an emotional level — is emphasized by Brian Wagner, VP, Product Development for CMI Media Group.

The value proposition of the premium is guilt!

Brian WagnerVP, Product Development for
CMI Media Group

He notes, for example, that address labels are inexpensive and, at the same time, drive lots of low-dollar gifts.

Freemiums also usually bring in donors with lower retention rates. The other possible downside to them is that the donor acquired by them sometimes requires them in order to keep giving. In my experience, if you keep the freemium simple, you can minimize that.

Jeff BrooksFundraising Expert
Future Fundraising Now

There’s also another opportunity. “Those donors can be worked, honed, and upgraded” Wagner says.

Recommended reading: Nonprofit Direct Mail: Top 5 Best Practices

5 Best Practices for Premiums in Fundraising Direct Mail

Your job is to raise money with direct mail. How you do that is a fine balancing act. You need to carefully weigh several factors and think hard about how you can:

  • Increase the average contribution
  • Increase the percent response rate
  • Increase your donor base

Freemiums may not always be the right answer for every campaign or audience. But if that’s how you choose to go — or at least run tests — how you proceed can affect the balance of the factors named above.

These are some ideas to implement in your premium campaigns:

1. Follow the AIDA Model

Easterseals direct mail

You may know of AIDA (Attention-Interest-Desire-Action) as a formula for copywriting. So put it to work to highlight your freemium on the outer envelope.

Our analysis revealed that several common phrases appear to work well in enticing prospective donors, such as

  • Free Gift Enclosed
  • Special Gift Enclosed
  • [Premium Type] Inside

In some cases, to really stand out, maybe add an image of the premium (or part of it) to catch the reader’s eye. Once inside the envelope, you can remind them of what they’ve received on the letter, reply form, or buck slip.

2. Tie Into the Mission

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital direct mail

Above is another example: name and address labels mailed by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital include the artwork of children who are patients helped by the organization and its donors.

Andrew Rogers, Creative Director of TrueSense Marketing elaborates on the value of premiums:

Some of the best freemiums, across giving levels and time-on-file, are signs of affiliation and recognition like membership cards and certificates — things that tell the donor “we know who you are and appreciate your support.” It’s not so much that those things have the donor’s name on them (which is important), but more that people like being reminded, and being able to show others, that they are part of a cause or movement that is achieving something they believe in, from medical research, to feeding the hungry, to rescuing animals or supporting the arts.

Andrew RogersCreative Director
TrueSense Marketing

Rather than generic gifts that may only have a slight connection to your organization, think about how you can use them to subtly (or maybe not so subtly) promote your cause.

Veterans groups, for example, excel at mailing flag stickers. Here is an example from April 2021 by Disabled American Veterans.

Disabled American Veterans direct mail

Wildlife aid and environmental nonprofits love sending calendars with animal pictures. The calendar below was mailed by Defenders of Wildlife.

Defenders of Wildlife direct mail

3. Build Your Brand

Arbor Day Foundation direct mail

This one follows naturally with the previous tip. Your front-end premium should be part of your overall strategy by reminding your audience of the importance of your group to furthering the mission you share. A calendar, for example, could include reminders of your activities, like the one above mailed by Arbor Day Foundation. Or those address labels and notepads? Your logo would fit on them nicely.

4. Provide Quality Products

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture direct mail

A good print job generally doesn’t cost more than a bad one. Some printed products — cards, seals, certificates, labels, etc. — can more easily smear, wrinkle, or tear, lowering their perceived value. Don’t confuse low cost with poor quality; instead, get samples when planning your campaign.

In the above example, the membership effort mailed by the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture included bookmarks that were printed on heavier card stock paper. This has the benefit of adding some heft or weight to the mailing, intriguing the recipient.

5. Segment Your Audience

UNICEF direct mail

Do you know who your donors are? Instead of mailing the same gift with the same generic appeal to everyone on your house file, mail smart by mailing less frequently to your list’s least productive segments.

High-priority donors – perhaps ones you’ve targeted for an upgrade based on their past giving – can be incentivized with higher-value premiums. The average cost to raise a dollar might be higher but then result in larger donations. After all – not all donors are the same. Many who can afford to give more can be persuaded to do so and have their loyalty strengthened by being recognized with more personalized, visible, and special premiums.

Another possibility: mail a back-end premium as a front-end premium to a select. For example, as shown above, UNICEF has mailed a tote bag to prospective donors. This practice stands out in the mailbox, and if purchased and mailed at a low cost, may result in higher donation amounts.

Non-Standard Freemiums in Direct Mail

To boost your response with your fundraising direct mail, you can also try freemiums that stand out because the prospective donor or member will see or feel that they’re unusual.

Lumpy Mail

Feel? Yes, when they’re “lumpy mail.” This is a mailing whose tactile quality easily gets the donor’s attention. It’s not even or smooth; it feels lumpy or squishy, with something inside that shifts around when you flip it. The UNICEF campaign above is one example.

Here’s another: gloves. The copy on the outer as well as the letter inside tie the gift to the campaign message – that veterans need help.

National Association of Blind Veterans direct mail


Or think about mailing a coin in your campaign. Although dimes and quarters by far appear most often, a higher value coin has been used by Adopt-A-Platoon (see below).

Adopt-A-Platoon direct mail


Another good alternative was cited by Brooks. “The one thing that I always saw beat address labels: A magnet. Some kind of pretty picture and inspiring quote.”

A magnet in your direct mail can serve as a constant reminder to the donor of their connection to your organization and its mission. For example, United Farm Workers recently mailed a strawberry magnet to its supporters for helping to organize workers at non-union strawberry growers.

United Farm Workers direct mail

Other premium ideas

  • Toothbrushes (mailed by Adopt-A-Platoon) help demonstrate your group’s activities.

Adopt-A-Platoon direct mail premium

  • Key chains (example mailed by National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial) are a practical sign of support.

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial direct mail

  • Flags (example by United States Deputy Sheriffs) appeal to patriotism.

United States Deputy Sheriffs direct mail

  • Bracelets (this one from March Of Dimes) have long been a way to show support for a particular cause.

March Of Dimes direct mail

  • Pens (example mailed by Covenant House) are a popular, practical freemium with your brand name and logo.

Covenant House direct mail

  • A rosary (mailed by Food For The Poor) works well for donors with strong religious devotion.

Food For The Poor direct mail

  • Bumper stickers (example by United States Deputy Sheriffs) remain a very public way for supporters to display your message.

United States Deputy Sheriffs direct mail premiums

  • A holiday stocking (example by Adopt-A-Platoon) can be tied to a specific holiday campaign.

Adopt-A-Platoon direct mail premiums

  • Including a lens cloth (example by National Federation of the Blind) makes sense as it ties into the group’s mission and its appeals that promote eye health.

National Federation of the Blind direct mail

How to Search for Freemiums on WMW!

Here’s how you can perform an advanced-level search for front-end premiums to help inspire your own direct mail fundraising campaigns. In the main search box, use quotations around freemium-related search terms to require these exact phrases in the mailing.

For example: “free gift enclosed” “special gift enclosed” “note cards enclosed” etc…

Use a Free Look Up tool to search for freemium direct mail examples.

free look up tool direct mail

Final Thoughts

When done right, front-end premiums in direct mail can be a great way to raise your response rates. But a larger question remains: “Do freemiums still work?”

According to Waasdorp, the answer is “It depends.”

“We first must define what ‘work’ means … that depends on the nonprofit’s goal and the type of nonprofit you are, how your donors have historically come to you and what you have in place to get that second gift and upgrade them to higher levels,” she says.

After focusing on your audience or audiences and their needs, you can dedicate your efforts to find or develop the right balance between your costs while meeting your fundraising goals.

Direct Mail Evangelist

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