A version of this article previously appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
What would you do if you opened a UPS envelope and there was nothing inside?
A scrappy startup inadvertently answered this question when they accidentally mailed several hundred empty UPS envelopes. Note: the company has asked to remain anonymous, as they don’t want to alert their competitors to the success of their Stealth Campaign.
The Stealth Campaign
Years ago, when a UPS envelope arrived at your home or office, it was like a long-distance phone call during the 1970’s. Only important messages were conveyed in such an expensive manner.
UPS envelopes don’t have the cache they once had. Even so, nearly everyone still opens them, unlike most of the junk mail we receive.
My friends launched a marketing campaign in which they were reaching out to owners of a certain type of lease, in order to offer them more attractive terms. These leaseholders were notoriously difficult to reach. However, the erroneously empty envelopes caused the company’s phones to start ringing. The prospects called to ask, “What were you trying to send me?” Over a multi-year period, the response rate of the empty envelope averaged 15%.
According to one of the company’s executives, “We were surprised when the calls started coming in. It took us a while to realize our mistake, but once we did, it was quickly apparent that the tactic worked and the Stealth Campaign became our core direct mailing strategy.”
Note: The company’s decision to make this tactic a core element of its marketing strategy has obvious ethical, and potentially legal, implications that every venture should consider before initiating a similar campaign. All marketing tactics a company deploys should be consistent with its values and be in accordance with its local laws, as well as those of all the recipients of its marketing materials.
The company felt that their campaign didn’t cross their ethical line because they clearly indicated who they were on the initial envelope’s return address, as well as in the follow-on letters, which were upon company letterhead. A quick Google search would inform a recipient of the company’s business model and it would not take a huge leap to determine why they might be reaching out.
The UPS mailing had the appearance of a typical UPS package but at the cost of a normal USPS letter. In addition to their address, the company’s 1–800 number was printed on the return address label.
When a prospect called, the person answering the phone asked, “Are you one of our partners?” The prospect would explain that they were not a partner and that the envelope was empty. The company representative would then tell the prospect that the package they received is identical to the UPS envelopes by which they send monthly checks to their partners, which allowed the conversation to segue into a discussion of a potential partnership.
Recipients of the empty envelope who did not call the company were sent a follow-up letter, in a standard envelope and on company stationery indicating, “We understand that you might have received an empty envelope from us. Please reach out to discuss the intent of our package.” According to a company executive, “This letter generated an additional 20% response rate and prospects called in, even more curious, though skeptical.”
A third letter was sent to the remaining non-respondents, in a normal envelope, indicating, “We understand that we might have sent you an empty UPS envelope. We have tried to contact you but without success. This is our last attempt to reach out and inform you of the intent of our package.” This final letter resulted in an additional 9% response rate.
Over the course of the Stealth Campaign, the company mailed over 15,000 empty UPS envelopes. The three letters resulted in a combined 38.12% response rate. In one year, over half of all of the company’s new bookings were generated by the Stealth Campaign.
To put this in perspective, a 2015 report by the Direct Marketing Association indicates that the typical direct mail prospecting campaign motivates 1% of the recipients to take action. Campaigns which utilized oversized envelopes, similar to the initial Stealth Campaign UPS envelope, generally result in a 5% response rate.
If you assumed these industry standard response rates, the same three mailings, with a letter in the initial oversized envelope, would have likely caused about 1,034 people to call the company. In contrast, the empty envelope and subsequent mysterious follow-up letters motivated 5,718 people to pick up the phone, an astounding 5.5x improvement over the industry norm.
Zeigarnik & Ovsiankina Effects
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. Albert Einstein
Without realizing it, the company tapped into two psychological phenomena, which academics have named after the respective researches, Bluma Zeigarnik, and Maria Ovsiankina.
The Zeigarnik Effect is the inclination to recall uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than those which are completed. Similarly, the Ovsiankina Effect describes the tendency for people to continue to think about an uncompleted, interrupted task until it is resolved.
Mses. Zeigarnik and Ovsiankina’s research is intellectually interesting, but what applicability does it have to your venture?
The human traits they identified drive our love of cliffhangers, mysteries and other narratives which hold us in suspense. Humans have a compulsion to finish the unfinished, thereby strengthening a marketer’s call to action.
If you can harness these aspects of human nature with your marketing campaigns, the results can be powerful. Getting people to remember your call to action and having it recur in their thoughts until it is completed, is marketing nirvana. The empty envelopes were a mystery. The follow-up letters underscored the enigmatic nature of the initial mailing, causing even more people to respond than from the initial, empty envelope.
As this marketing campaign makes clear, the lines between mystery and fraudulent inducement can be narrow. Thus, don’t trick your prospects into responding. Rather, intrigue them.
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