A Snail Mail Tale

(Listen to this post, here.)

Up until I turned 40, I never earned a cent that didn’t come in the form of a paycheck. But when I finally left my last job, I realized something: I prefer working alone.

Before that, working in restaurants through college and in companies later on, I was always involved in some sort of group effort.

It was fine. But for me, I now realize, doing my own thing is a better fit:

I make my own hours (10 – 6); I decorate my own office (postmodern college dorm); I choose my own clients (smart, friendly, disarmingly good looking).

I don’t have partners, employees, or subcontractors. I just sit in my office all week, occasionally talking on the phone, happily working by myself.

There is one place, though, where my preference for solitude is problematic: volunteering.

Whether it’s a community clean-up event, a clothing drive, or a public demonstration of some kind, I’ll go (with my wife Linda’s prodding), but the entire time, I’m pretty much waiting for whatever it is to end.

That’s why I am happy to have discovered letter writing as a volunteer activity. It’s a way for me to contribute something without having to talk to anyone or leave my office.

The approach is fairly consistent: Here is a list of names and addresses; here is what we would like you to say; here is the deadline to send it off.

This week, I have been sending postcards to registered voters in Pennsylvania, letting them know that they can vote by mail.

Along the way, as I handwrite the same paragraph over and over on one side of the card and add the name, address, and stamp* on the other, I’ve realized that this activity contains a number of important marketing lessons.

[*Note to Gen Zers, a “stamp” is a little sticky piece of paper that you buy at an old building called a “post office” and then… never mind.]

Important Marketing Lesson #1: Personal Connections Matter

Among the very specific postcard-writing guidelines were instructions to write “Dear NAME” at the top of the paragraph and to sign it with my first name at the bottom: “Michael, Volunteer.”

A good message is good (feel free to Insta-tweet-tock-tick that). But a personalized message from one human to another has more impact.

Which is why every newsletter I send, for myself and for my clients, is signed with an actual human’s first name. It’s like a little sticky note to say hello, in addition to the meat of the message itself.

[BTW, I don’t recommend personalizing the “Dear NAME” in a newsletter, since in addition to being subject to error, it’s an obvious bit of automation that does little to move the human connection needle.]

Important Marketing Lesson #2: People Take Their Cues from Other People

The first sentence of the postcard paragraph is “Join your neighbors in voting by mail.” The “join your neighbors” part is very deliberate.

That’s because if we believe that other people are taking a particular action – especially people that we perceive to be “like us” – we are more likely to do the same.

The corollary (SAT word!) in your marketing is testimonials. Whether it’s clients saying nice things about your work, or newsletter readers gushing about your words, showing potential clients and readers other people who have already taken the step that they are now considering is very effective in convincing them to do the same.

[BTW, don’t rewrite testimonials for clients, even if they invite you to. If the words are too polished, they don’t sound genuine.]

Important Marketing Lesson #3: It’s Not a Numbers Game

Think about how much effort goes into a postcard-writing program.

Not only do you need to identify and track people like me who are willing to pay for and obtain postcards and postage, but you have to also convince us to spend time writing these things.

Why not just take your mailing list, print the cards in bulk, and automate everything?

It would be a lot more efficient and you wouldn’t have to worry about volunteers accidentally spilling beer on some of the cards (in my defense, it was early in the morning).

Because it’s about impact, not volume. The objective is not to mail postcards … it’s to change behavior.

That’s why, when it comes to marketing for a small professional service firm or independent, I’m such a big fan of doing things that can’t be automated: phone calls, coffee and lunch dates, one-off emails, snail mail.

In addition to being things that your larger competitors will never do, you make a stronger connection than if you rely exclusively on impersonal, one-size-fits-all tactics.

[BTW, I don’t have anything else to say here, but since I used this BTW construct in the previous two suggestions, it felt like I should write something.]

Here’s the bottom line.

When it comes to 21st century marketing, there is a near-endless supply of things you can do and ways you can do them.

So, before you follow the latest trend or fixate on numbers that may or may not matter, STOP.

Think about who you are talking to, what you would like them to do, and which tactics are most likely to help you get closer to that goal. It need not be fancy, provided it’s effective.

P.S. If you live in Pennsylvania and happen to get one of my postcards, sorry about the beer.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When was the last time you handwrote a card or letter?
  2. Have you ever moved the human connection needle? Explain.
  3. Do you prefer to work alone or with others?

Share your answers below…

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45 thoughts on “A Snail Mail Tale

  1. Wendy Bornstein

    I totally agree and also did postcards this past week for Georgia. It is getting what matters to you out there in a way you are comfortable with to benefit a cause or goal you believe in.

    I am following you and look forward to your next post.

  2. dee

    Didn’t you have a service where you sent a postcard( or they sent it for you?) I am wondering if you still do that and how that went – and if it worked for you – Who was it

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Yes. I used a service called Send out Cards for years. It was (is?) a slightly creepy MLM scheme with the worst web site on earth but … the cards were beauitful and cheap. They eventually tripled the price so I left. I now do it mostly by hand, which is actually a lot more satisfying.

  3. Chalres Alexander

    Sent a hand-written thank you card this week.

    I once stayed at the space needle in Las Vegas. Does that count?

    Like you, my corporate life was always working in groups and I’m extroverted, so I thought that was what I should be doing. Now I work on my own and love it.

  4. Rose

    I sent a postcard to my granddaughter yesterday. I write her 2 or 3 times a month–usually about the books we’re both reading (just finished the 3rd book in the Humphrey the Hamster series, highly recommended!).

    I have moved a needle.

    Please, please, please. Let me work alone!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That’s a nice way to stay in touch. I have no grandcnildren, but if/when I do they will not be local, so I will try to remember that tactic!

  5. Terry Matlen

    Great newsletter, Michael! I would handwrite and snail mail a note to that effect, but you’d never be able to read my horrific handwriting.

    1. When was the last time you handwrote a card or letter?
    In February, I wrote a poem for my newly minted 4-year-old grandson’s birthday. I don’t believe his parents read it to him, though. 🙁

    2. Have you ever moved the human connection needle? Explain.
    Yes- before COVID, I presented at national conferences and always made a huge (and fun) effort to draw people out and get to know them. I used to volunteer locally, running a support group, and made many connections that way.

    3. Do you prefer to work alone or with others?
    I’m a super duper introvert, so alone works best for me, though I do enjoy collaborating (ONLINE).

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Does 4 years old still count as “newly minted?” He will appreciate the poem at some point, I’m sure!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      A fine example of how the answer one provides depends upon the question one hears! But I think your math is technically more accurate than mine.

      1. Nick Fielden

        Michael, the question one hears depends upon the question’s wording.

        You refer to the ‘numbers’ in the date, 4/22/22. These are ‘four’, ‘twenty-two’ and ‘twenty-two’.

        Did you mean we should add up the ‘digits’?

        1. Michael Katz Post author

          I did, but the other Michael’s interpretation probably makes more sense. I saw digits, he saw numbers!

  6. Laurie Schnebly

    Michael, this is one of your best ever!

    (No, not just because of the beer, although that gave me TWO laughs.)

    But the explanation of why specific human contact matters generated a realization that I can start sending individual emails to my group-newsletter readers at random moments.. That’s such a lovely idea; thank you!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Yes, those one-on-one connections are priceless. And fun, despite how much i like generating mass audience content!

  7. Gina

    1) My handwriting is fairly unreadable (missed my calling… I should have been a doctor), so I tend not to hand-write anything.

    2) I don’t know. Maybe?

    3) Alone. Definitely alone. Did I mention I like to work alone? 😉

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      It’s so funny how doctors are still known for bad handwriting. And I’ve had to work on mine, as writing legibly is apparently very important in these postcards making a difference!

  8. Don Sadler

    My experience as an employee-then-self-employed is exactly the same as yours. 20+ years in corporate American getting a paycheck and the past 13 as a full-time freelancer. I don’t have (and don’t want) any partners or employees or subs. I sit in my home office all week and happily work by myself. The thought of being on a work “team” makes me shiver in terror!

    BTW I’m not an introvert or anti-social at all. Like you, I just like doing my own thing work wise.

  9. Scott Borland

    Great reminder about the ‘personal touch’ aspects to our marketing. Blast from the past for the Box Tops, I can almost sing all the words to the song from memory. Joe Cocker’s rockabilly super energized version is how it really needs to be enjoyed!!!

  10. Jean Feingold

    I tried handwriting a letter to my pen pal I got on Twitter (you can meet nice people there, by the way, which might be needle moving). I took pity on her and did it on the computer instead. By the way, her handwriting is beautiful, but she uses a paper/ink combination that makes her words mostly unreadable.

    Not sure what this question means (maybe I need to reread the nl), but I find it easy to meet people and strike up conversations which often turn into real friendships. Much of this happens through our shared love of music and regular attendance at Univ., of FL concerts.

    I have to work alone because I am too easily distracted by the presence of others (see above). I’ve worked alone since 1990. Sometimes it’s lonely, but I’m more productive on my own.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I agree on the distraction factor. I find it hard to believe that I ever worked at a cubicle with everyone on the phone and walking around all the time!

  11. Norman Daoust

    BTW I am picking up letters to PA tomorrow. It’s a test to see if people in PA will register to vote by mail more if we give them a stamp.

    I also am a sole proprietor and it’s for me. More than half of my business resulted from my volunteering.
    I’ve been a solo consultant for about as long as you. (Remember the Society of Professional Consultants meetings in Burlington when Bruce was President?)

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Indeed I do, Norman! Those were some fun meetings back then and Bruce was always entertaining as meeting MC!

  12. Mark Wayland

    Thanks Michael. Like you I’ve found most of my time in business (and life…sigh) has been spent reconciling paradoxes. As you say .. the trade-off between one-size-fits-all with one-size-fits-one.

    The joy and excitement of your own business – you’re on your own, doing your own thing!

    The pain and frustration of your own business – you’re on your own, doing your own thing!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Totally agree. When you have a job, everything is constrained, except they pay you. When you work for yourself, you can do whatever you like, except now there is no paycheck!

  13. Mark Wayland

    Oh… and BTW… just a reminder that today… Monday 25th April is….. World Penguin Day. But you knew that….

  14. Lovelynn Ivey

    Hi Michael,
    I absolutely agree! Nothing beats a nice handwritten note in the sea of digital abbreviations.

    1. I volunteer as the corresponding secretary for my Temple and write hand notes to new members to welcome them and to grieving members who have lost a loved one. So, the last time I wrote a note was yesterday!

    2. I have come to realize that the thing that replenishes me the most is not sleep or exercise, but actual human connection. My idea of a perfect day “off” is chatting with friends and having a small dinner party. Even if it is over zoom, I just need connection. Perhaps that comes from being a dancer and learning to lead & follow (the ultimate connection).

    3. I prefer a hybrid model. There are days I love being by myself in my office getting as much done as I choose. Then there are days I love being in a client’s office and working with their team.

    Great thoughtful questions.

  15. Hilary

    Mostly alone, though I can, and did for many years, work with others. These days though, I find I can mostly get my ideas down on paper (I also prefer to handwrite first) if I can’t feel other people in the room. Also, I like being alone when I work

  16. Daryl Gerke

    1. Christmas cards – although we do a short newsletter (how about that?) we include hand written notes for that personal touch.

    2. Moved the needle over fifty years ago with 100+ hand written letters to a young woman going to school 400 miles away. We are still happily married.

    3. Prefer working for myself, as I have for the last 35 years. After the first month, there was no way I could ever go back to a cubicle!

  17. Gina Abudi

    In response to your questions – just yesterday I wrote a handwritten card to a client thanking them for their business (just finished a project for them.) But if you count personal – I send birthday cards all the time – friends, family AND clients!

    Moving the human connection needle…maybe. Had a client who was particularly difficult and wanted limited engagement. I like engagement. Was going to give up on the client but then decided to take her to lunch. Told her I like you but feel like we don’t connect very well and would love to continue to work for you, but the relationship doesn’t really work for me. It actually got us moving in the right direction! On a personal level – weekly Thursday Happy Hours with a group of girlfriends!

    And I prefer working alone! Love when I am engaged with my clients but can’t imagine going back to an organization to work.

      1. Gina Abudi

        Yes, it took me a while to figure out that step. Kept debating with myself if it was a good approach. Was pleased when it turned out to work!

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