By Daniel Gaugler
Marketing works not just because of the message, but because of the signals it delivers, both consciously and unconsciously.
Although much of marketing focuses on reach and scale, science backs up the idea that other strategies impact recipients in deeper and more meaningful ways. Tapping scientific theory and neuroscience, I presented this case at our client event, Big Sky Big Ideas. In my presentation, I explained the theory of signaling, the idea that implicit communications drive a large part of perception and the results for marketing programs.
That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let me unpack what it means.
Signaling in the Natural World
Before I steer this conversation into marketing, you should first understand that the scientific theory of signaling isn’t exclusive to marketing or even to the human race. Nature presents interesting examples of signaling, some that baffled even Charles Darwin. He found two species that seemingly broke his theory of evolution: the male peacock and the male bowerbird. The male peacock has an enormous tail, one that should make them easy prey for predators. Meanwhile, the male bowerbird spends valuable time building a stylish bachelor pad — time that Darwin believed should have been spent collecting food or creating a safe home. However, in both cases, these odd traits are dominant in the gene pool even though they’re costly in terms of safety and energy.
This apparent conflict with the theory of evolution wasn’t resolved until the mid-1970s, when another biologist developed the theory of costly signaling. The theory states that “costly signals are harder to fake and are, therefore, more believable.” His point is that the more you spend on signals, the more believable you are. In the case of our bird friends, their genetic traits stay in the gene pool and thrive while less fit specimens — those who have small tails or don’t have the time available to build a lavish nest — fail in the gene pool because they can’t find mates.
What does all this have to do with marketing? Take a look at a few examples of how you can use signaling in your marketing efforts.
What? If I’m trying to sell something, shouldn’t I tell my audience members that they can buy it? Maybe, but consider the story of an infomercial copywriter, Colleen Szot, who changed just three words in her call to action and revolutionized the industry. Announcers used to say, “operators are available for your call,” but Szot’s approach was to say, “if operators are busy, please call again.” The brilliance of her edit is that she signaled scarcity and triggered the human instinct to acquire things of value. Psychologists have found that while humans desire to own something, that instinct can be amplified by the news that it might be hard to get if not acted on quickly.
Advertising as Information
Another concept is advertising as information. An economist evolved ideas similar to the costly signaling theory we mentioned earlier and found that the act of advertising is itself a form of information. There are intrinsic qualities in all marketing that signal value and audience impression, beyond the actual words or images used. For example, the pace and production value of advertising affects how people think and feel about the messages. Some companies out there have mastered this approach. Apple, for instance, puts incredible thought into the quality and quantity of their advertising, and even in the quality and customer experience found in their product packaging.
The Real Impact of Signaling on Marketing
So, marketing works not only because of the visible messages, but because of the various signals it sends to us. Marketing that makes good use of signals speaks to the heart and mind in subtle and undeniable ways. Marketing that makes us feel something — such as curiosity, happiness, amusement, hope, trust, or a host of other emotions — compels us to learn more or even to buy something.
The Signals You Send with Direct Mail
Direct mail is a powerful way to use signaling in your marketing efforts. By sending even the simplest of tactile pieces to your audience, you signal that:
- You’ve put extra time and effort into making the connection.
- You’re willing to invest monetarily to win the recipient’s attention.
- Your company has necessary resources to be able to send the direct pieces.
Those are good signals, but that’s only scratching the surface of what direct mail can accomplish. The next step up is to personalize the messaging in the direct mail with the recipient’s name and other information. You can even ensure that the content is relevant to that person’s specific interests. In this way, you take the signaling a step further and signal that:
- You understand the recipient on a deeper level.
- You care about the same things that matter to the recipient.
- Your company is professional and savvy enough to use advanced marketing strategies.
That’s great stuff to communicate. And yet your signaling can still get even better.
When you send a well-branded, attractively designed mailer or kit with personalized messaging, you elevate your direct mail from simply a package to a memorable brand experience:
- You convey concepts about your brand through the tactile experience of the package, such as texture, weight, and design.
- You give the impression of thoughtfulness and careful attention to detail.
- You signal the value of your brand through the high quality of the piece and the experience.
PFL can help you automate personalized direct mail. With our 20+ years in print manufacturing, we guarantee our quality, so you can be certain that you’re sending the right messages about your brand. Ready to start sharing powerful signals that increase engagement?
Learn more. I encourage you to watch the video of my presentation on this idea to better understand how your use of signaling can increase engagement and results for your company. In it, I explore real-world examples of PFL clients that have applied signaling in the most clever ways, and blew away their campaign results!