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And how snail mail can beat online

When was the last time you sent a letter or parcel as part of a marketing campaign? It may be more expensive than online methods, but it’s also probably the best channel you’re not using. Daniel Kahneman tells us that surprise is “an indication of how we understand our world and what we expect from it.” 1 Surprise is when something happens that we weren’t expecting. This could be an Actively expected surprise when you expect an event to happen, but it doesn’t. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. It could also be passively expected, when something happens that’s normal given the context, but you weren’t expecting. Like when a parcel arrives that you didn’t order. It’s not abnormal to receive a parcel, but you’re surprised because you don’t remember ordering anything. Surprise grabs your attention. When something surprises you, you’ll pay closer attention and rack your brain to find a story that makes sense of the surprise.

Every piece of direct marketing that gets opened contains an element of surprise

When you received email in the 90s, you opened it. You didn’t check who sent it and you didn’t scan the subject to decide if it was junk. You read it and opened it. If it was sent by a name you didn’t recognise, that was a passive surprise. You don’t often receive email from people or businesses you don’t know, but it’s not out of the ordinary to receive the email. As you start receiving more email from people you don’t know, it stops becoming a surprise. Yes, you weren’t expecting it at that very moment, but you often receive this type of message from an unknown person, so it no longer grabs your attention. Soon, as you receive more of these unexpected emails, you start to notice patterns, both consciously and subconsciously. The clever marketing trick that used to get your attention in the subject line is getting repeated by more marketers, so they no longer surprise you because you recognise what they are and who they’re from (a salesperson). Your subconscious is actively scanning the environment for changes because, according to our caveman operating system, changes represent threat. When unexpected emails become the norm, you stop paying attention to them and it’s impossible to sell to somebody that isn’t paying attention.

When a channel gets noisy, the element of surprise is lost

This sequence of events happens in every single medium of communication. It happened with the telephone. It’s happened with Facebook, Twitter and it’s now happening with Instagram. When users aren’t expecting your message, they pay attention. The early marketers see great results in email marketing or TV ads. But, as more marketers follow, only the best emails or ads get noticed. Then, when the user becomes completely conditioned to receive and filter out marketing messages through that medium, attention is rarely given. Surprise is a key element of earning attention and if you can’t generate surprise in a specific medium, it’s time to move your efforts to a new medium or change your game.

To earn attention, do what everyone else isn’t doing

It’s difficult to generate surprise on a medium where the user is receiving large volumes of traffic and noise. Your Facebook feed is noisy because it’s cheap and easy to send an unsolicited message, so most marketers do just that. The alternative is to send a message through a channel that doesn’t receive as much noise. Nowadays, there are few better than snail mail. Marketers don’t tend to send letters because it’s cheaper to send email, and even fewer send parcels or packages. That means there’s a very real opportunity to surprise the recipient, which will get their attention and subsequently get opened. The open rate of a campaign using snail mail to cold contacts will be far higher than an email campaign. In fact, in previous campaigns that I’ve been involved with, we’ve achieved a response rate of up to 47%. That’s not the number of people opening the package, that’s the number opening it and then getting in touch. To put that into context, the average click through rate of email marketing is around 3.5%. Surprise won’t lead to the recipient taking an action beyond opening your message, that’s where the actual message itself kicks in. But, it’ll certainly reduce the number of recipients falling at the first hurdle in your direct marketing campaign. This article originally appeared on
1 Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p.72