4 ways to use behavioural science to improve the effectiveness of mail

Psychologists have conducted thousands of studies into why people behave the way they do.


Written by Richard Shotton, Author of The Choice Factory and founder of Astroten

Panel Photo -  focusing on a specific area of brain

These studies are relevant to marketers because they provide evidence-based insights into how to persuade consumers to alter their behaviour.

The studies can be applied to any medium but here I’m focussing on applying them to mail. It’s an important area to discuss as more than £1 billion is spent on mail each year and currently there are few discussions on how best to apply behavioural science in this medium.

Here, I’ve picked the four most relevant pieces of research and ways you can use it to make your mail campaigns more effective.

1. Tap into direct mail’s targeting power by reaching nine-enders

You might be a bit puzzled by the term nine-enders, but it’s nothing complicated. It’s a term invented by a New York University professor, Adam Alter, to describe people whose age ends in nine. Alter notes that this group is particularly open to changing their behaviour.

His argument is that our culture arbitrarily gives importance to the turn of a decade. So, turning 40 is a big deal, whereas hitting 46 is far less so. The fact that we value milestones means that as we approach the turn of a decade, we are more likely to contemplate the direction of our lives. Since we’re normally on autopilot, the fact that we’re even thinking about our lives means that we are more persuadable.

That’s not speculation on Alter’s part. He looked at three varied data sets — first-time marathon runners, men committing affairs and American suicides. For all, there is a pronounced spike in the behaviour among people whose age ends in nine.

The implication is pretty clear. If you want to change people’s behaviour in big ways, discretely target people whose age ends in nine. That’s hard to do on many media but straightforward in mail. After all, there are plenty of data providers who can help you identify this group.

So, maybe you want to encourage people to stop smoking, drink a non-alcoholic beer for the first time or go on a long-haul holiday. If that’s the case, then make sure you target nine enders!

2. Bypass the ostrich effect by using direct mail creatively

The ostrich effect is a term coined in 2009 by George Loewenstein from Carnegie Mellon. He looked at the behaviour of US and Swedish investors by analysing data from fund provider Vanguard.

This research showed that customers avidly checked their share accounts when the stock markets were rising. But when the market fell, they avoided checking. In a bear market, they metaphorically stuck their head in the sand.

Loewenstein argued that one deep driver of human behaviour is the desire to avoid pain. So if checking our portfolio causes us pain — and when the market is falling it generally will — we avoid that discomfort through a state of studied ignorance. It might be illogical since it’s just as important to understand our finances in desperate times as in a boom — but the behaviour is hard-wired.

So what has this got to do with mail? Well, communicators may need to reach people with messages that people would rather not hear. Maybe it’s about reaching disgruntled former customers, or rejecters of the category.

If that’s the case, then consider sending messages in plain rather than branded envelopes. Maybe use a postcard rather than a letter. Or put the key message on the envelope. In each case, people will have interacted with your message before they have a chance to stick their heads in the sand. Mail offers plenty of ways to avoid the ostrich effect.

An example of this idea being applied in practice comes from a campaign from the Behavioural Insights team. In 2015 they wanted to encourage reluctant resident to pay their sewage fees on time. So, on the outside of each envelope, they added a handwritten note addressing the customer:

‘[Person’s name], you really need to read this.’

This novel tactic for avoiding the ostrich effect increased the likelihood of a customer making a payment by 34%.

3. Harness costly signalling

Costly signalling suggests that believability and trust in a message are proportionate to the perceived expense of the message. The most relevant experiment from our perspective comes from Amna Kirmani at Duke University.

She gave 214 participants a magazine article describing the launch of a new trainer. The article discussed all the facets of the trainer, as well as how much the brand was spending on advertising. Some heard the brand was spending $2m; others $10m, $20m or $40m.

After reading the details, participants were asked about the quality of the trainers. The basic finding was that the more they thought a brand had spent, the higher they perceived the quality of the shoe. They assumed that a brand would only spend heavily if the product was genuinely great.

This study is of more than just academic interest. You can harness it in your next campaign.

Consider a campaign from Ogilvy and Christian Aid. In 2018, they sent out 200,000 envelopes and randomly tested six different interventions. Some tried very direct ways of boosting generosity by stressing that the government’s Gift Aid program would top up donations, or by emphasising the urgency of the appeal. These were quite successful. But the most successful idea harnessed costly signalling and wasn’t based on messaging at all.

They used thicker paper for the mailer. And when they used expensive-feeling paper, the level of donations went up 16% versus control. This subtle cue of premiumness increased people’s perception of what a reasonable amount to spend was.

You don’t have to apply this finding directly — heavy paper stock isn’t the only way to suggest premium quality. But, if you want to boost perceptions of quality, somehow hinting at your spend could work wonders.

4. The benefits of tactility

The final study comes from Anne Mangen of the University of Stavanger in Norway.

In 2013 she asked students to read two texts, each about 1,500 words long. Half the students read the texts on paper, while the other half read them on computers.

Afterwards, Mangen gave the students reading-comprehension tests consisting of multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Her key finding was that students who read the texts on-screen performed worse than students who read on paper.

Why this happens is a matter of debate. However, the explanation I find most convincing is that giving a fact a physical location boosts its memorability. By that, I mean that when we recall information, we often remember where we saw it. So if you sketch out a mind map of facts, you often remember that a certain fact was written in the top left-hand corner, for example. It seems that information on paper naturally presents more of these location cues than a screen.

The application is straightforward — if you want your message to remembered, put it in print.

I’ve picked just four studies that are relevant to mail. However, there are hundreds of other equally relevant experiments out there. If you want to make sure your marketing is as effective as possible, immerse yourself in the world of psychology.

And remember Mangen’s advice. If you want to remember the findings you discover, make sure to read them on paper.

Further reading

Marketreach and Accenture report: Customer Mail, The Physical Connection That Transforms CX Neuroscience

Why mail cuts through: Measuring mail’s effectiveness with neuroscience

Physically Irresistible: Discover the power of physical

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