Minor Elements That Make a Major Impact
The biggest psychological revolution in the past 30 years is the emergence of cognitive science: the study of the brain. And among cognitive science's biggest discoveries is that about 95 percent of our mental processes are unconscious. I'm not talking about Sigmund Freud's notion of the unconscious, with its repressed desires and childhood emotional traumas.
Research into the "new unconscious" is revealing how our brains perceive, process and retrieve information. And the biggest revelation from a direct response point of view is that people make decisions before they know they've made them.
The areas of the brain that involve choice are activated before we become aware that we've made a choice. For example, when we make a conscious decision like, "OK, I'll send for this," our unconscious mental processes already have made the decision. We become aware of "deciding" only when our unconscious informs our consciousness of the decision. No doubt this will provide philosophers with years of debate about the nature of free will. But we'll leave that to the philosophers.
Furthermore, our brains don't process information using words. Brain scans reveal that neurological activity occurs in other parts of the brain before it moves to areas involving verbal language. In the words of Gerald Zaltman, emeritus professor at Harvard Business School and author of "How Customers Think," "humans actually think in blurs of images, many of which don't penetrate our consciousness."
So how does this apply to direct mail? Cognitive science and other psychological research tells us that the physical, nonverbal elements in a direct mail package work because they exploit ways in which the brain processes information.
The Outer Envelope
As Ted Bartek and James MacLachlan wrote in a groundbreaking 1979 article entitled "Direct Mail According to Freud," when confronted with a direct mail piece, prospects immediately face a primal decision: to open or not to open?