How to surprise people in a digital age

Recently, Sean McCabe shared this experience:

This reminded me of a chapter I have in my book Jolt. It's timely, so I thought I'd share it here for free:

You've got mail

It's hard to dazzle me with an email. I get hundreds of them every day. They're mostly garbage. Plus, they give me anxiety.

Compare that feeling to getting a package delivered to your home. You're curious and excited. It's a little piece of Christmas, but on a regular day.

One of the most effective marketing techniques I've used this past year is sending people surprise packages. It's so unusual to receive something fun by post, that people's first reaction is usually to post photos on Twitter.

A letter in the mail from Justin Jackson, MegaMaker stickers

In an age where electronic communication is cheap and ubiquitous, the way to stand out is to send something the old fashioned way.

Expensive but effective

The biggest downside to sending stuff in the mail is it's expensive. Here's the typical cost of one my packages:

  • Stamp to the USA: $1.20
  • Envelope: $0.07
  • Paper: $0.02
  • Ink: $0.01
  • Subtotal: $1.30
  • Stickers: $1.44
  • Total: $2.74

However, when you compare that to Cost Per Click advertising, snail mail is definitely cheaper than a lot of keywords.

It costs more but the value you get might make it worthwhile. The payback could be getting a new customer, or having someone share your letter online with their friends.

There's something about a physical artifact that you can't ignore. With email, I can close my laptop and walk away. But an envelope sitting on my kitchen counter demands my attention.

The psychology of gifts

In his excellent book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert B. Cialdini describes the rule of reciprocity.

The rule says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.

This rule has evolutionary roots in human history and is deeply embedded in our psyche. The power of a gift is that when it is received, it immediately makes the receiver feel obligated to return the favor.

Give first, then ask

It's because of reciprocity that it's better to give people something of value before you ask for the sale.

A surprise in the mail isn't just memorable. You've given the receiver a gift. Your initial act will have them thinking about ways to return the favor.

Frequently asked questions

I'm sure you're asking questions like: "How do I get people's addresses? What kind of stuff should I send by mail? How do I use this tactic to increase sales?"

Here are the answers.

Getting people to sign up

When you're asking people to sign up for your email list, you give them an incentive. The same tactic works for postal mail.

Here are some incentives you can offer:

  • Stickers. People love stickers. They'll put them on their laptops, on their cars, and on their notebooks.
  • Notebook. A small notebook is flat enough that it will fit in a regular envelope. It has utility: people always need a place to jot down notes.
  • Tattoos. Fake tattoos are a nostalgic way to get people's attention.
  • Printed photographs. The game Firewatch allowed people to take virtual photographs while playing. You could then have these photos printed and mailed to you.
  • Printed checklist. In this paperless age, many folks don't have printers anymore. However, they may want a printed copy of a checklist, or guide, that they can put up on their wall. Offer to mail it to them!
  • Posters. A bit bigger, but still fairly inexpensive to ship. The advantage is that if your poster is awesome, it becomes a free billboard for you in that person's office or home.
  • Postcard. Getting a postcard feels personal. It could be a photo of your team, your town, or somewhere you're traveling.
  • Thank you card. The Product Hunt team sent handwritten thank you cards to early community members. A truly memorable gesture!


Technology can also help you scale your mailing operation. These providers will ensure you don't have to do any of the heavy lifting yourself.

  • Postal Methods ( In the past, I've used this service to print and mail simple letters, invoices, and receipts. You can use their interface, or their API (if you're a programmer).
  • Lob ( The best-known API for having letters and postcards, printed, stuffed and mailed.
  • Try Paper ( Another API for printing and mailing letters, invoices, and postcards.
  • Kite ( An imprinting and shipping API built for software developers. Allows you to create and ship over 250 types of items, including T-shirts, books, and other promotional items.
  • Peecho ( Allows you to create magazines and books on-demand. They print them and ship them for you.
  • Pwinty ( Order and ship photo prints.
  • Sticker Mule ( Create your own stickers, magnets, and buttons.
  • Straytats, Tattify, Tatyoo (,, Create your own custom temporary tattoos.
  • Printful ( An easy way to create posters, mugs, T-shirts, pillows and more.


Here are a few other scenarios where snail mail could work.

Software signup

When someone signs up for your web application, have them enter their billing address. Put an automated event in your onboarding flow that triggers a mailing.

There's a variety of items you could send new customers:

  • Team postcard. Send a photo of your support team, with a message on the back that says you can call them anytime.
  • Letter from the CEO. Have the boss thank them for signing up.
  • Keyboard shortcuts postcard. If your software has keyboard shortcuts people might be printing them so they can memorize them. Why not send it to them so they don't have to?

Reward ratings and reviews

Apps, software, books, music, movies, and podcasts all have online reviews. If you notice someone giving you a good review online, message them and ask if you can send them a thank you package.

Here are things that work well:

  • Stickers. If they love your product, they might want to put your sticker on their laptop.
  • Fake tattoos. Fun and easy to mail.
  • T-shirt. A T-shirt is the ultimate thank you. Now you have a fan who is also out wearing your brand!

Wake 'em up

People are in a slumber. They have thousands of messages thrown at them every day. Their inboxes are full!

This gives you an opportunity: Be different, break out of the mold, and surprise folks. Everyone else is sending email. Want to stand out? Send them something to the mailbox attached to their house.

Like this? You'll love my book Jolt.

Get Jolt

Published on December 20th, 2016
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