Thursday, September 29, 2011

New direct mail technology allows letter to plead "Don't throw me out"

The system in action
A new breakthrough in direct mail technology is giving fundraisiers the ability to stop recipients throwing away charity appeals. Called the Snidely Fundraiser Talkback, the new system from Snidely Direct Marketing can actually tell recipients not to throw it away.

"We've brought together a host of existing technologies to revolutionize direct mail. Basically, we've married a talking greeting card to a tiny audio sensor and powerful mini-computer that actually talks to direct mail recipients and pleads with them to open it," said Snidely Direct Marketing CEO Larry Snidely.

The system, demonstrated last week in Metro to top national fundraisers, looks like a normal direct mail piece from a charity hungry for donations. The only difference is a one inch sensor on the front of the envelope which listens for sounds and also acts as a stereo speaker. When the recipient picks it up, looks at it and begins to throw it away the Snidely Fundraiser Talkback system begins to plead with them.

"Our system is very smart. It can figure out when someone has picked it up and not opened it. That's when it starts talking. But the real beauty of the system is not that it can talk, but what it says," said Snidely.

In the demonstration, the test scientist who began to put the letter back down after initially picking it up received a "Please don't throw me out -- I'm important!" audio message.

Most direct mail pieces from fundraising charities usually wind up in the garbage can, said Snidely. Fundraisers have been looking for a way to get more "opens" without success. Other methods, such as letters that smell like freshly baked bread or ones that include naked models cavorting on the back of the envelope haven't worked. Even strapping loose change to the outside of the envelope has not been that effective, except to enterprising postal workers. Snidely said that their new system is much more effective.

"As soon as the first message is played, the computer takes over and begins to interact with the potential donor. Initially, it just answers questions about being a computer and assures the donor that there is really no one inside the letter and that they aren't having a hallucination caused by drinking or drug use," said Snidely.

The system gives the recipient a predetermined series of points about why the letter should be opened and acted upon. These include a short overview on the charity and why supporting it is necessary.

"Please support Metro children's school lunch programs -- our children can't learn when they are hungry," the system said in the recent demo.

If, after several minutes, the recipient does not move to immediately open the letter the Snidely Fundraiser Talkback system switches to a second series of responses. These include stressing the need for the charity's work and also mocking the recipient.

"Hunger in our schools is a major problem in Metro," said the letter during the demonstration. "What's the matter with you? Do you want our children to be hungry?"

"We've given it the responses similar to that of a new major gifts officer who has a quota to fill and plenty of donors to see. We've determined that's the best tone to use in interactive direct mail like this," said Snidely.

"You getting this? Hunger in our schools! H-U-N-G-E-R!" the letter said in its mocking response during the demo.

If the recipient has still not opened the mailer at this point the system switches to a last ditch attempt to motivate them. This involves incentives, such as offering to send them a photo of the person who will be helped by their donation. It also involves "consequence" statements designed to cow the recipient into opening the letter.

"If you don't open the letter and make a donation I'm going to tell everyone," the letter said in the demo. "Everyone will know how hard-hearted you are. Do you really want that?"

"If at this point the recipient hasn't opened the letter we realize they never will, so the system shuts down and terminates after calling them 'bastards who don't give a damn about anything'. We feel that that is sufficient," said Snidely.

Under laboratory testing the Snidely Fundraiser Talkback letter achieved an astonishing 47% open rate and a doubling in actual donations. Snidely says there are still however a few bugs to be worked out in the system.

"Several of our test letters mistakenly activated during mailing. In one instance, it caused the Post Office to look through a pile of mail to see if someone was underneath it. We've fixed that."

The system was created from an extensive study of the verbal utterances of more than 50 hospital fundraisers. The voice was synthesized using one of the most shrill female fundraisers available.

"Research shows that most people respond better to women's automated voices because it reminds us of our mothers. Our research showed that the best voice to use with this letter system is a female voice that sounds like your mother scolding you for not doing something you should have," said Snidely.