Steve Cuno’s latest article in Deliver magazine
Note: Per its editorial policy, Deliver omitted the names of psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons from its published version of this article, plus made other, sundry changes. Chabris and Simons graciously provided me with advance permission to use their names, so the article appears here as originally written. You can view a PDF of the current issue of Deliver, where this article appears on page 8, by clicking here.
Imagine watching a half-minute video in which two teams pass a basketball. One team wears black shirts, the other wears white. Your task is to count how many times the team members in white complete a pass. If you are like most people, chances are you will report the correct number of passes. But there is about an even chance that you will completely miss the woman in the gorilla suit. Even though she walks through the game in plain sight, including pausing to face the camera for a bit of chest-beating before striding off.
We think this may provide a clue as to the continuing power of direct mail in an increasingly online world.
By means of the gorilla challenge and other ingenious tests, cognitive psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons have demonstrated that, try as we may, we humans simply cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. And though Chabris and Simons never marched a gorilla past a mailbox — at least, as far as we know — we cannot help seeing a possible connection between their research and this tidbit from a recent survey: about 79 percent of households read or at least skim their advertising mail, whereas only about 19 percent of commercial emails are even opened.
The same survey reports that it is emails from unknowns, or with too-long or irrelevant subject lines, that tend not to win attention. Seen in light of the gorilla test, this is hardly surprising. When people check their email, they rivet their attention on the “From” field for names they know and like, and on the “Subject” field for short, relevant items. When minds are engaged in that manner, emails from strangers, or with irrelevant or too-long subject lines, may as well be invisible gorillas, chest-beating and all. Assuming, that is, that they evade spam filters in the first place.
By contrast, as people retrieve and sort through their mail, they must focus on each piece one at a time in order to settle on which ones they will explore further. In its moment, each piece — including advertising mail — commands full attention. And not just so that people can avoid inadvertently discarding letters, bank statements or bills, either. Three out of four Americans say they like, trust and read advertising mail. In fact, for new product announcements, the open rate for direct mail is about 1.7 times that of commercial email. That includes Generations X and Y, even though they grew up with the Internet.
Moreover, a visit to the mailbox is a daily, anticipated event. Most people look forward to it. And, conveniently for advertisers, it’s an event that takes place away from the competing clamor of TVs, computers, stereos and video games.
The gorilla challenge and other ingenious tests are described in Chabris’ and Simons’ book The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. To view the above-referenced video and test your friends, visit www.invisiblegorilla.com.
Meanwhile, there’s no need to don a gorilla suit and saunter by a mailbox to prove that direct mail packs a punch. Direct mail’s unassailably high open and response rates, along with survey data, do that on their own. So if you’re looking for a solid way to keep the market’s eye on the ball in an online world, count on direct mail. It is the antithesis of the invisible gorilla.
Hmm. If “the antithesis of the invisible gorilla” becomes the next slogan for the USPS, remember, you read it here first.