Happy Birthday to {NAME}

(Listen to this post, here.)

I don’t really remember how it began.

But sometime, maybe five or six years ago, I started sending birthday cards to anyone who wanted one.

No charge, no rules – just send me your snail mail address and when your birthday rolls around I’ll send you a funny, personalized card.

It seemed like a pretty good marketing idea:

MK Birthday Card
  • Snail mail is an underused channel, so the cards stand out.

  • Everyone has exactly one birthday, so while it applies across the board, I only need to come up with one, new “birthday card idea” each year.

  • It’s an inexpensive way to stay in touch with lots of people. Forever.

Right from the start, I found a way to automate the entire thing.

Using a service called SendOutCards, I was able to upload a database of names and addresses, design a unique card, and have the system prompt me to take action as each birthday drew near.

Then, in 20 seconds (or less), I could send a personalized card from my computer to anyone on Earth.

Fast and easy.

Until, that is, the middle of last year, when the price went up, the service quality went down, and I thought, “There’s got to be a better way.”

There was. I had them mass produced, shipped to me, and I began sending them out by hand.

Handwritten. Hand addressed. Hand stamped.

It wasn’t that hard. In fact, writing out the cards for the coming week became a nice Friday afternoon ritual.

And, almost immediately, something changed: Lots of people started sending me thank you emails – something that rarely happened with the automated system.

And not just “thank you.” Questions. Interactions. Conversations. Things I believe the experts refer to as “buying behavior.”

Isn’t that interesting? An identical card with an identical message. The only difference was the balance of automation vs. human touch.

It appears I had crossed an important line. 

How Much Automation is Too Much Automation?

Every business, large or small, can benefit from systems, processes and automation.

If yours is a small (or solo) professional service firm, you won’t last a month if you try to do everything by yourself and manually (I have no idea how people ran a small business prior to the arrival of computers).

But, as I discovered with my inadvertent birthday card experiment, at some point, and particularly with activities whose very purpose is human connection, you cross over from efficiency to “Why bother?”

Like a gas station that prints “Have a nice day” on every receipt, it may be easy, but does it have any impact?

Some examples worth thinking about:

  • Do you participate in social media, or have you found a way to automate – or even outsource – the entire thing so you never have to look at it?

  • Do you make it easy for web site visitors to call, email, or snail mail things to you, or do you require that they answer lots of questions and fill out a form for the privilege of getting in touch?

  • Did you write anything on all those holiday cards you sent last month? Or did you just print the labels, stuff the envelopes, and mail them (or, again, did you outsource your “sincere holiday wishes” to a third party)?

Here’s the bottom line.

You’re busy, I understand.

Who’s got time to read and respond to social media posts, answer unsolicited email questions, send birthday cards by hand, or do any of a dozen other non-automated tasks in the course of a typical workday?

Well, when you put it that way, almost nobody.

Which is exactly why it’s worth doing. And, if you want more business, why I recommend spending a little less time trying to prove how smart you are and a little more time trying to demonstrate how nice you are.

It costs hardly anything, it rarely goes unnoticed, and it’s not the worst way to spend a Friday afternoon.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Speaking of which, what would be the worst way to spend a Friday afternoon (other than reading this)?

  2. Would you like me to send you a birthday card this year? Fantastic. Just fill out the form below (in triplicate), send me your social security number, and one of my minions will text you a warm, personalized, awkward it may be syntactically, written greeting when your big day arrives.
  3. You’re welcome.

Share your comments below!

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12 thoughts on “Happy Birthday to {NAME}

  1. Beth Mills

    Hi Michael,
    We’ve been sending out hand thank you notes to everyone who purchased a bicycle with us for 10 years. While our business is much more service oriented than retail based, we almost always get a “thank you” for our thank you note.

  2. Jenny Hohmann

    Hi Michael-

    Great idea–and cost effective. It looks like you’re using post cards and not the typical folded birthday card in an envelope. Is this so? Also, how many of your birthday card recipients go on to become customers or repeat customers?

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Jenny!
      I actually use standard, single fold cards in an envelope (I didn’t show the inside in that photo). I’ve tried postcards for various things but they tend to get pretty banged up in the mailing process so I think it’s worth the additional money.
      In terms of cards=customers, I really don’t know. The cards are part of a larger plan to stay regularly in touch with people, so that includes the newsletter, personal emails, networking events, etc. I can say, though, that 100% of my business is inbound – I never reach out looking for clients, I just wait for the phone/email to ring. All of these things are what cause it to happen!

  3. Tracey Geary

    How much automation is too much automation? Your question reminds me of something my college junior told me the other day. He’s a computer engineering/science person. Grad schools are starting to try to attract him to their programs. Last week he received an email addressed to “Dear [First Name] [Last Name]”. How likely is it that a person with a major in computers is going to be enticed to apply to a school that can’t even program their own emails to insert the names of the intended recipients? Clearly there was no human touch involved. Small business or large, your point is spot on.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Haha, great example Tracey! I’ve definitely received a few of those over the years, from companies of all sizes.

  4. Patricia Brubaker

    The worst way for me to spend a Friday afternoon is to have to respond with my credit card company to a credit card charge dispute from a customer. This happens very very rarely, but when it does, it is not a good day for me!

  5. Shannan L. Seely

    Just received one of your birthday cards yesterday. And after I post this, I’ll be emailing you a thank you. I’ve been saying I will copy you and do this, and then I don’t. I’m going to make this happen this year. Thanks for remembering me on my birthday!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I think you’ll enjoy it. I get them printed at Vistaprint (make sure you use a coupon; they always have some kind of sale going on).


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