The thrill of an unexpected parcel


Why thoughtful direct mail gets opened and remembered

Ever received a parcel you weren’t expecting? It’s fantastic! I love it when something that I did order arrives, but when something arrives and you have no idea what it is, it’s even better.

At my house, we probably receive one or two deliveries from Amazon each week. In the 90s, there was a question mark for some people over whether ecommerce would take off. A counter argument used was that so many people like going shopping. I don’t think that argument took into account the endorphins experienced when we receive a parcel.

I’m sure that part of Amazon’s success is connected with the rush we get when a package arrives. Obviously most of the success was down to Jeff Bezos and his business model, but the endorphins help.

Anyway, every now and then we receive a delivery from Amazon and it’s addressed to my name. I don’t remember ordering anything, so I ask my wife if she has. She says no. The thrill! An unexpected package. Where has it come from. Is it something pre-ordered? A gift?

The Zeigarnik effect

In 1927, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik observed the effect of interruption on memory processing. Her professor had noticed that waiters seemed to remember incomplete tabs better than the ones that had been completed and paid for. Zeigarnik decided to test this hypothesis. 1

Zeigarnik conducted a study where participants were asked to conduct a series of puzzles. During half of the puzzles, students were interrupted. After the experiments, Zeigarnik interviewed participants, asking them to recall details about each task that they published. She found that more than 90% had a better recollection of the tasks during which they were interrupted than those which they weren’t. Zeigarnik published her findings in On Finished and Unfinshed Tasks. 2

The Zeigarnik Effect as it is known states that if we are interrupted in the middle of a task, we’re left with the tension and desire to complete that task, which is manifested in a better recollection of that task.

We need closure

In 1972, Heimback and Jacoby conducted their own research into the Zeigarnik effect and how it is used in advertising. 3 Heimback and Jacoby hypothesised that when a participant hears part of an advertising message, which is then interrupted, a tension is generated within the participant along with an innate desire to hear the remainder of the message. This in turn enhances the recollection of the advertising message in question.

Following their experiment involving interrupted advertisements, Heimback and Jacoby found that participants had a better recollection of the details and product in the advertisements which were interrupted over the adverts that weren’t interrupted.

Tension is a powerful sensation, and the subconscious urge to complete a task or hear the end of a message, joke or story is in-built within us all.

Back to our Amazon package

At that very moment, when this parcel arrives, it has my complete attention. I don’t know why it’s here, I didn’t order it, and yet it’s been delivered to me. It doesn’t look like spam, it’s intriguing. The tension to find out what’s inside is an itch that needs to be scratched.

I’m not putting it down and coming back to it later. It’s not getting shoved to the back of my desk. I’m not dumping it in the bin because I didn’t order it. I’m opening it right now to find out what it is.

Undivided attention

That’s the kind of attention most marketers dream of. With a little effort and thought, you can create that attention, but not by simply sending another spammy message to a few thousand people. If you work thoughtfully with your direct marketing, there is nothing to stop you sending this kind of parcel. One that needs to be opened.

Junk mail looks like junk mail, and it’s treated as such. But, if you create a package that looks like the type of package I would want to open, I’m going to open it. In doing so, you’ve created the tension of the Zeigarnik Effect.

The first challenge in direct marketing is having the right person open your delivery. With this technique, you overcome that barrier and it’s highly likely you also enhance the possibility that the recipient will remember the contents of your message and product.

Whether they take any action after that depends on the effectiveness of the message inside.

  1. The Zeigarnik Effect Explained, Psychologist World
  2. Zeigarnik, B. (1927) On Finished and Unfinished Tasks“Über das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen,” Psychologische Forschung 
  3. James T. Heimbach and Jacob Jacoby (1972) ,”The Zeigarnik Effect in Advertising“, in SV – Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 746-758.
Avatar By Liam Curley

Are you looking for ways to find more sales leads? This site is for you!

Liam CurleyHi I’m Liam. I created this site to help businesses in B2B make the initial breakthrough with prospective customers that are otherwise unaware of what you can do for them –  You can read more about my background here.

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