How to surprise people in a digital age

Recently, Sean McCabe shared this experience:

1,000+ unread in "Newsletter" folder.

I received a paper newsletter I never subscribed to, read the whole thing, and shared with friends. ?

— Sean McCabe (@seanwes) December 20, 2016

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:

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:


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.


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:

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:

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.

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Published on December 20, 2016