Have you ever received a printed invitation to, say, a charity fundraiser, and found that someone you know on the organizing committee had hand-written a short note encouraging you to attend? (Or sat in a room with other people actually scribbling such notes, periodically asking questions like, “Who knows Elmer and Dolly Pennington?”) It turns out that this activity has some good research underpinnings, and may point the way to boost success rates in a variety of marketing endeavors.

Direct marketers and market researchers have long employed a variety of personalization techniques to boost response rates, including the handwritten note. Back in 1989, a paper by Maheux, Legault, and Lambert looked at the problem of increasing physician responses to mailed surveys. Even twenty years ago, doctors were apparently too busy to respond to surveys at a high rate. But, the study showed, merely handwriting a “thank you” note at the bottom of the cover letter boosted the response rate by 41%.

In Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Robert Cialdini describes an interesting twist on the handwritten note. A survey was mailed with three cover letter configurations:
1) A printed letter.
2) A printed letter with a handwritten message.
3) A printed letter with a handwritten message on a Post-It note.

The response rate was a mere 36% for the plain printed cover letter. Adding the handwritten note improved the response rate by one third to 48%. The Post-It more than doubled the response to 75%. A second test to examine the possibility that some magic in the Post-It note itself was responsible for the higher response rate included cover letters with a blank sticky note attached. That approach generated only a slightly higher response rate of 42%.

It seems that what is causing the boost is a “reciprocity” effect. The recipient recognizes that the sender apparently put some personal effort into the mailing, and is more likely to reciprocate with some effort of his own. Indeed, the recipients who received the handwritten Post-It note were not only more likely to respond, but they also responded more promptly and answered the questions more thoroughly. And, as suggested by the 1989 Maheux study, adding a “Thank you!” and initials to the note further lifted the response rate in yet another Post-It test.

Savvy Direct Marketers

Direct marketers are, as usual, well ahead of the academics in behavioral research. The Post-It note study was published in 2005, but I recall receiving very clever direct mail pieces more than a decade ago that employed a mass version of the same strategy. A sticky note with the pre-printed (but real-looking) handwritten message,”Check this out!” and cryptically signed, “H.” was attached to a document of some kind, usually what looked like a newspaper clipping but which, of course, was really an advertisement. The first one of these that I saw had me scratching my head to figure out where it came from. Henry? Harold? Of course a minute of study revealed the trick, but I found it quite ingenious. And, it seems, the marketers who crafted the piece were well aware of the power of a personalized sticky note to boost response rates.

Beyond The Post-It

Does this mean that you should run out and buy a carton of Post-It notes and start scribbling away? If you send any direct mail requests, you could probably do worse. However, other kinds of personalization may work as well or better. While the studies showed that writing a note on the mailing piece itself was less effective, one approach I’d like to test is a note on personal stationery. An informal “From the Desk of…” note penned by the CEO would, in my opinion, invite a high degree of reciprocity in business mailings. Similarly, if the honorary chairperson of a major fundraiser includes a handwritten note on her engraved notecard, it would almost certainly be more effective than the usual scribbled, “Hope you can make it!” on the cover letter.

What to Personalize

Here are just a few kinds of mail communications that could be improved by enhanced personalization:

1. Event invitations – both non-profit and for-profit.
2. Surveys and questionnaires.
3. Donation requests.
4. Requests to schedule an appointment.

Even communications that don’t require an action by the recipient, like a “thank you for your donation” note, can be enhanced by stronger personalization.

Of course, the effects of personalization and apparent effort on the part of the sender have to be weighed against the desired action. It’s easier to get significantly more people to fill out a five-minute survey than to cough up $1,000 to be a patron at a black-tie fund raising dinner. Nevertheless, making even difficult requests in a more personal manner can’t hurt.

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