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Marketing Psych-Ops

February 15, 2015 Jeff Bradford

Unsolicited, someone I do not know just mailed me a $50 bill and a letter asking that I accept his phone call.

Here's the package I received that obligated me to do what the sender requested: An overnight cardboard envelope carrying a #10 envelope on which "Jeff Bradford, Personal & Confidential" was handwritten. Inside the envelope was a cover letter, several pages of testimonials and a crisp $50 bill.

Here’s the package I received that obligated me to do what the sender requested: An overnight cardboard envelope carrying a #10 envelope on which “Jeff Bradford, Personal & Confidential” was handwritten. Inside the envelope was a cover letter, several pages of testimonials and a crisp $50 bill.

Will I accept the call?

Of course. I don’t have a choice.

As Professor Robert Cialdini has proven in his extensive research into the psychology of persuasion, we humans are hard-wired to respond positively to a gift. It doesn’t matter whether we want the gift or not, or whether we like or even know the person who gave it to us. We are obligated to repay the favor. The giver, not the recipient, is in the driver’s seat. It’s the principle of reciprocity.

The extent of our obligation is proportionate to the size of the gift or favor. If my unsolicited benefactor had mailed me a $1 bill instead of a $50 bill, I might not accept his call, because I think the “3 minutes of my time” he is requesting is worth more than $1. But, $50 is just about right. It’s enough to get my attention and to engage my sense of obligation to repay the unsolicited favor. And, unlike the ubiquitous $20 bill, which many of us use on a regular basis, the $50 is not something we see every day, probably because most of the cash in our wallets comes from ATMs, which do not dispense $50 bills. This makes the $50 special, more likely to grab our attention. And a $100 bill would have been over-the-top, approaching the creepy zone.

Professor Cialdini explains our programmed response to gifts as evolutionary and fundamental to civilization, in that it gives us a reason to cooperate with others by giving us some degree of control over their actions. “We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation,” as famed anthropologist Richard Leakey said. Obligating others to repay the gifts we give them is a way to assure that what we are giving away is not lost to us, because the recipient is obligated at some point in the future to give us a gift in return. So, giving is not a losing proposition, but a winning one. From this perspective, the old adage, “It is better to give than to receive,” really means, “It is better to give because you will 

So, sending an unsolicited $50 to me was a sound decision psychologically, but was it sound economically? Let’s assume that the giver, Milton Milam, EVP of Sales for Benchmark Leadership Training in Chattanooga (a Crestcom International franchise) mailed his packet of testimonials and a $50 bill to 100 people, which would have cost $5,000 for the gift, plus another $500 or so for printing and mailing, or $5,500 total. And, let’s assume that, thanks to the principle of reciprocity, this small direct mailing results in a response ratio of 5% instead of the typical 2% to 3%. And let’s further assume that each engagement with Benchmark Leadership Training, which provides business consulting services, generates a minimum of $5,000 in revenue, which is probably on the low side. Based on these entirely reasonable assumptions, Mr. Milam’s $5,500 gift will generate $25,000 in revenue, for an ROI of about 5:1. Even if this effort only results in the typical 2% response rate, Mr. Milam will still just about double his money.

We’ve achieved similarly spectacular results when putting the principle of reciprocity to work for our clients. For example, several years ago, a client’s main marketing challenge was that its sales staff could not get past the receptionist when they called on prospective clients. We solved the problem by sending the prospects a marketing message in a gift. The marketing message was a five-minute video, which we loaded onto a new iPod, the gift. We placed the iPod in a specially designed box that displayed the expensive technology to best effect and provided simple, step-by-step instructions for turning on the iPod and watching our video. We placed a company brochure and other printed marketing materials in the box below the die-cut tray that held the iPod. We then gift-wrapped the box and FedExed it to about 100

Receptionists had no choice but to take our gift to their boss – to do otherwise would be theft. Plus, basic human decency dictates that we don’t steal others’ gifts. Can you imagine not passing on to someone a gift-wrapped package that had been overnighted to

Our client had no problem getting through to their prospects from then on. In fact, the program was so successful that we had to stop it. Our client rapidly got more business than they could handle. And it was an economic as well as marketing success. Our client sold a big-ticket service. Closing just one sale more than covered the cost of this very expensive mailing – and they closed a lot more than

The principle of reciprocity is just one of six Principles of Influence discovered by Professor Cialdini. To learn about the other five, click here.

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