Siegfried Vögele was a German professor of direct marketing. While you may not be familiar with him, Vögele’s many years of research in the 1970s and 1980s were very influential in shaping our understanding of how humans read and interact with direct mail. 

Vögele’s experiments utilized eye motion cameras and other technology to watch and record people interacting with direct mail. From this research, Vögele was able to get firm answers to many questions direct marketers had been pondering for years.

The Dialogue Method

Vögele’s research showed that direct mail is most effective when it engages the reader in an unspoken dialogue with the writer. What does that mean?

An easy way to understand the dialogue method is to think of receiving a direct mail letter as being similar to receiving an unexpected visitor at the front door. What are the questions you would have going through your head when you opened the door, and while you listened to their pitch to buy a product? A good salesman will read and respond to your body language in addition to answering your questions. 

Vögele’s insight is that people approach direct mail with roughly the same questions, in roughly the same order, as they do a salesperson knocking on their door.

People silently ask themselves questions as they pick up the mail, decide whether to open it or throw it out, decide whether to read it or not, and, finally, decide whether to respond or not. 

Your job as a direct marketer is to anticipate what the donor’s questions will be and answer them within your letter. You may want to spend some time putting together a list of possible questions. Then go back and check to make sure that your direct mail package successfully answers all those questions.

Here are some examples of questions donors may be asking themselves:

  • Who did this letter come from?
  • Have I heard of this organization before?
  • What do they want me to do?
  • Do they really need my help?
  • Is there a deadline?
  • Do I have to put a stamp on the return envelope?

Order of Reading a Direct Mail Letter

Vögele’s eye-motion research revealed the surprising order in which most people read a direct mail letter.

That order is:

  1. Check who is writing to them
  2. Look for their own name as the addressee
  3. Go to the end and see who signed the letter
  4. Read the P.S.
  5. Go back to the first page and skim the letter 

Note that the PS is the first text read by over 90% of all people. Keep that in mind with your own fundraising appeals. The PS is essentially the lead sentence for your readers most of the time. That means the PS deserves your full attention. It is often read word for word, so make sure your PS states the one thing you want the reader to know.

Be sure to read through your own direct mail letters in the order described above. That way you can make sure the letter is as compelling as possible for the readers who are jumping around. Remember, most are skimming your letter and not reading it from top to bottom. 

Amplifiers and Filters

Vögele defined amplifiers as anything that increases engagement with direct mail. 

Think of amplifiers as little yeses along the journey towards the big yes of a contribution. An amplifier is anything that makes the reader want to read on or gives them a positive answer to one of their unspoken questions.

Filters are the opposite. Those include anything that is confusing to the reader or gives them a negative answer to one of their questions. 

Filters are little no’s. They cause friction along the way and very often lead to the reader deciding not to make a contribution.

Both amplifiers and filters can be related to the language used, but they can also include things like formatting, ease of reading, and so on.

As you might have guessed by now, your goal is to use lots of amplifiers throughout the letter to encourage readers to read on and get to the big yes of donating.

Siegfried Vögele taught us many important lessons about what makes direct mail effective. While we can’t change how donors interact with our direct mail, we can use this knowledge to create a better experience for donors, by anticipating and answering their unspoken questions with clarity.