The headline that appears over the salutation in a fundraising letter is known as the overline. Overlines have one goal: to persuade your donor to read your letter.
According to direct mail copywriter and author Hershell Gordon Lewis, the best kind of overline to use in a one-to-one piece of communication like a fundraising letter is a hand-written overline, one that looks like a spontaneous burst of enthusiasm. Hand-written overlines, says Lewis, should not look "produced." I agree.
Your goal, then, if you decide to use an overline, is to work up more enthusiasm in your readers than your letter can generate without the overline. Here are some guidelines to follow.
Don't give too much away
The goal of your overline, like the goal of your envelope teaser copy, is to arrest attention and arouse curiosity. The quickest way to depress enthusiasm in your readers is to ask them for a gift right up front in your overline. Or to say that you will be asking them for a gift later on in the letter. Don't give too much away.
So instead of writing this:
Your gift today will help us stop gun violence.
How do you keep a pistol out of the hands of a 12 year old?
Make the reader want to continue reading
You want to intrigue your reader, tease your reader into reading your opening sentence, then your second sentence, right on through to the end. So your overline, if you choose to use one, should set up a predicament, or pose a question, or suggest a paradox, or in another creative way compel the donor to read on.
Think about signing the overline
A handwritten overline is a little like a P. S. It serves as an afterthought, a spontaneous thought that the writer had just before dropping the letter in the mail. One way to emphasize the one-to-one tone of a fundraising letter is to have the person who signs the letter also sign the overline with his or her initials. Your overline would look like this (handwritten, of course):
Please be sure to read the important update I've enclosed. A. J. S.
Consider a 3M Post-it Note
Recent advances in printing and mailing machines let you attach a yellow Post-it Note to the top of your letters. To make these notes even more powerful, write them in the same color ink that you use for your signature, and address them to each donor by name.
Tie your overline into your envelope teaser copy
One way to use overlines is to make them answer a question or riddle that you created on your mailing envelope. But be careful here. Your letterhead overline is really the beginning of your letter and not the conclusion of your outer envelope teaser copy.
Your overline must work on its own after the envelope is discarded. Your readers, once they have read your outer envelope teaser copy, opened your envelope and started reading your letter, will not likely read your outer envelope teaser copy again. If they pick up your letter a week from now and start reading, they will not return to the outer envelope teaser copy and start reading there.
For this reason, your outer envelope teaser copy and your letter overline copy must work on their own as two grammatical thoughts. When your outer envelope teaser copy ends with ellipses, for example, your letterhead overline must begin with a capital letter, even though the overline may be completing the thought that you started on the outer envelope. Make each letter overline a complete thought on its own, one that begins with a capital letter.
About the author
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