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National Mail Order Association (NMOA)
Direct Marketing
and Mail Order

Trigger Features, Agents of Influence, and other Vile Manipulations
By Alan Rosenspan

Consider the robin red-breast.

First bird of spring. Cheery voice. Definitely a morning person. But smart? -- well, we've all heard the term bird-brain. And the male of the species makes the female look like an absolute genius. (Isn't that always the case?)

The male robin is also very territorial. It will furiously attack any other male robin that wanders into its territory.

But here's the interesting part. The robin is so dumb that it will attack anything with a red patch on the front -- including a can of Diet Coke, a stuffed owl, a live cat, and just about anything else, regardless of size or shape.

On the other hand, it will positively ignore another male robin without that red patch.

How can we use that in direct marketing?

Scientists describe that red patch as a trigger feature -- one element that triggers behavior in a certain way. The robin is almost forced to act, based on deep instinctive needs.

But that's just a robin right? Poor, dumb animal. We humans are far above that.

We make our decisions based on rational, logical thought processes. We carefully analyze each factor, weigh our alternatives, and select the actions that represent the best choices for us.

We do all that, don't we?

A new book called "Influence. The Psychology of Persuasion" by Dr. Robert Cialdini, says absolutely, unequivocally not. But you've probably guessed that already.

It goes on to describe the powerful forces at work that make us do things, choose things, and act in certain ways.

And while the book is a fascinating study for psychologists, and anyone interested in how we humans make decisions -- it is a wealth of information for direct marketers.

What I'd like to do is take you through some of the strongest motivations, and describe how they might work in a direct marketing situation. Dr. Cialdini describes them in scientific terms -- I've given them my own names.

1. The Reason Why Factor

Or "I'll do almost anything if there's a reason..."

A study done at Harvard University demonstrated that when we ask someone to do a favor for us, we'll do much better when we have a reason. This is self-evident.

However, what the study proved was that the actual reason itself wasn't important.

Here's the experiment. The researcher went to the front of a line at a Xerox machine and said, "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I cut in front?" 60% of the people were gracious enough to allow it.

The message was then modified to, "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I cut in front because I'm in a rush?" Now 94% of the people studied allowed it. A huge lift but there was a good reason, right?

The experiment could have ended there, but they took it one step further. Now the researcher said "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I cut in front because I have to make some copies?"

93% still allowed it -- even though no real reason was given.

The study concluded that the trigger feature was the word "because" and that once people heard it, the vast majority simply nodded their heads and allowed the person to cut in without even thinking about the words that followed.

So what are some of the trigger features in direct marketing?

To start with, there are trigger words. As you might image, free" and "new" are two of the most important ones. But remember that people tend to look at things before they read them (actually, that's when they decide if they'll read them.) So the words shouldn't be buried in copy, but rather jump off the page.

The word "because" may be a trigger in direct mail as well. Too many direct mail packages drone on about features and benefits, without ever proving them. However, if you can cite a feature and a benefit and then support it -- chances are, it will be much more believable. And that may improve your response.

There are also visual trigger features, such as star-bursts, underlined words and other techniques that draw the eye. The presence of a coupon is also one, when it comes to advertising. Research has determined that advertising with coupons get 13% higher readership than advertising without coupons -- regardless of what the coupon says.

I think it's because the coupon alerts the reader that "there's something here for me" or even "it's not just an ad -- they're offering to send me something!" that is responsible for this lift. So if your advertising does not include a prominent coupon, maybe it would be wise to put one in.

2. The Perceptual Contrast Principle

Or, "Why Bait and Switch usually doesn't work."

There's an old joke where a man approaches another one on the street and invites him to buy an elephant for $500.

"Are you crazy? What would I do with an elephant?" the second man protests. "Where would I keep it? I live in a small flat..."

"All right, all right..." says the first man, "How about two elephants for $500?"

The second man says, "Now you're talking..."

You may smile because everyone wants a bargain, or everyone wants to feel special, but there is another important principle at work here, and that's Perceptual Contrast.

What that means is that we perceive things differently when they are presented one after another.

In direct marketing, one of the ways it is used effectively is by upselling. One of my clients produces a catalogue of office forms, business cards and other paper products. When someone calls in an order, the telemarketer is instructed to tell them the difference between their order and the next size up.

For example, you call in to order 1000 business cards. The telemarketer says, "Okay, that will be $79. By the way, did you know you can get another 1000 cards for only $29? Would you like to increase your order?"

They are successful in upselling more than half of all customers -- who would balk at the new total price ($108) but bite at the small increment of $29 over the larger first price of $79.

Another way it might work is in fund-raising. By asking for a larger donation first, you might be more successful in getting people to make a smaller donation. And good news -- the smaller donation could be the one you would have asked for in the first place.

The Perceptual contrast principle flies in the face of the typical sales "Bait and Switch" technique. This involves getting people into a store or car dealership by featuring an incredibly low price, and then selling them something more expensive.

Tests in the States have proven that the opposite works much better. By first showing someone a very expensive item (say a $500 sweater) it becomes much easier to sell them a more reasonably priced one.

3. The Obligation Factor

Or "We have to send them a gift...they sent us one"

What do you think is the strongest motivation for sending out Christmas and holiday cards?

Yes, it's out of the goodness of your heart. And, of course, you want to share your warm wishes with your family and friends. I would never suggest any other reason.

But what about those people you never see anymore? Or even those who you don't really think of as friends or colleagues? And how about those people who -- you have to admit -- you don't even know why their names are on your list?

Psychologists did a study a few years ago where a researcher sent out cards to absolute strangers, picked at random from the telephone book. The response was amazing -- dozens of people sent back cards, even though they had never heard of the person.

When someone does something for you -- you are almost compelled to do something for them.

This, of course, is a noble trait, and much of civilization has been built on this principle. But, as direct marketers, how can we use this to our advantage?

Fund-raising companies already know the power of this principle. That's why, in the States, they will often include a small gift in their solicitation package. It could be name and address labels, it could be a small selection of greeting cards -- anything to make you feel obligated to return the favor.

Other companies send out samples of their product, such as a pen imprinted with your name on it, or a small address book. This works for two reasons: First, it is a gift and it does make you feel obligated in some small way. Second, it is very, very hard to reject something with your name on it.

The obligation principle is also effective when it is used to provide a free trial of a product. Once you've used something, and benefited from it, you are much more likely to buy it.

So, if you can do someone a favor -- even a small one -- they will be much more likely to respond to your direct mail package.

4. The Consistency Factor

Or "What kind of person do you think I am?"

Dean Rieck cited a California study in the March issue of Direct Marketing magazine. They asked people to put a large billboard-type sign on their front lawn that said, "Drive Carefully." Only 17% agreed to it -- which shouldn't surprise you.

They then went to a second group of similar homeowners and made the same request -- and a whopping 76% agreed to it.

What made the difference?

The second group had already been approached two weeks earlier by other researchers, who had asked them to place a tiny 3-inch sign saying "Be a Safe driver" in their windows. Almost everyone agreed to this reasonable request.

But when they did, something changed inside them. The second group now saw themselves as "concerned citizens" and "people who care enough about driver safety to take a stand." Also, they believed that's how other people saw them.

So, when they were approached again, over three-quarters of them agreed to something unreasonable just to be and appear consistent.

How this might work in direct marketing is by using an assumptive close. In other words, you might not ask people to respond, you might say something like this.

"You've proven to be an excellent judge of collectible art in the past. Your purchase of our last item has already shown to be a wise investment. That is why I know that you will want to reserve this new..."

This principle can be used even more powerfully in telemarketing.

Many companies have discovered that they can increase response when they start off the call by asking "How are you feeling this evening?" or "How are you doing today?"

They usually get a polite, friendly answer -- and dramatically improve their response.

The theory behind this tactic is that people who have just said that they are doing fine will consequently find it awkward -- and inconsistent -- to be rude (and hang up on the caller) or stingy (and refuse to help).

But then, they went further. They conducted a study where the telemarketer didn't start with a question, but rather a warm and friendly comment. So instead of asking, "How are you this evening?" the telemarketer said, "I hope you are feeling well this evening."

It was less than half as successful.

By the way, I think it was not only the consistency factor, but also the principle of involving the person.

5. The Authority Figure

Or "I'm not sure, but they must know what they're talking about..."

You may remember this famous TV commercial.

It opened on a well-known personality, who confided, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." He then went on to extol the virtues of an over-the-counter headache pill.

The campaign was extremely successful. After all, who wouldn't want a headache pill recommended, an actor?

We're all looking for authority figures who can tell us what to do. In particular, we want authority figures who are on our side, who can take us "into the tent" and share some insider secrets with us.

The way we can use this principle in direct marketing is by providing those authority figures for our prospects. These can be testimonials, client lists, awards or certifications, or even case-histories.

There's also another way. My colleague, Nancy Harhut, who is an extremely talented creative director for the Mullin agency, once said, "General advertising always uses celebrity presenters. Why can't direct marketers have somebody famous sign the letter?"

Wouldn't you like to get a letter from Tiger Woods?

6. The Scarcity Principle

Or, "The last one? I don't care what it is... I've got to have it!"

The Collectibles companies have known about this principle for years. They intentionally limit the number of plates or statues they sell, because they know it will increase response.

But the principle can apply to just about any product or service. I tested a package for a new client several years ago, where we tried to get people to attend a high-level seminar. Our goal was to get as many people as possible (the goal of most seminars). We averaged about 12 people, and the client was satisfied.

But I wasn't.

I created a very similar package with one change. We limited the number of participants to 18 -- "to ensure personal attention" and we encouraged people to reserve their place as soon as possible. Our new average number of attendees was 18, and we even had a waiting list.

7. The Special Consideration

"Make me feel special, and I'll follow you anywhere."

One of my clients is Brink's Home Security. They wanted to sell a deluxe system to people who lived in more expensive house.

The outer envelope I designed for them said, "This mailing will go to only 1 out of every 5,000 homes. Here's why yours is one of them..."

If you can make your prospects feel special; if you can make them believe that they're getting some extra consideration; they will respond at much higher rates.

And if you can make your customers feel special, you will never have to worry about prospects.

So do you have to be a psychiatrist to create effective direct mail? Maybe not, but a good understanding of what motivates people and how to use it to your advantage, will certainly increase response.

Besides, our time is up.

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