Dear CMO:

The problem with work is that we’re really busy. Too busy, sometimes, to understand how the impact of a small thing relates to the success of a big thing. And sometimes, winning at small things is more important that anything else.

Here’s a story that animates this point from a few years ago. The goal was to approach C-level executives in Fortune 500 companies in the New York Metro area with an idea that would save their companies money and increase productivity.

Our agency came up with a great hook: we’d deliver our “direct mail” piece in a steel safe, about one cubic foot, weighing in at about forty pounds. After all, it was valuable, secretive, and very important. So, from a “big concept” standpoint, we had a reasonable degree of confidence that we’d achieve breakthrough. Our proof points were rock solid. Sounds like a winner in the making. Right?

Here’s where we saw the problem begin to emerge. The plan relied on getting an appointment to deliver the safe, but the script didn’t get the same attention the “packaging” did. I won’t belabor the specifics, but the general narrative went along the lines of, “hello… we want to deliver this big SAFE to Mr. Big’s office… when can we drop by?”

We stopped the bus here and un-packed the entire program, re-arranged it, re-packed it and re-launched it. The script now relied on the following touch points:

Point #1: Who is the real target? And how are we reaching them?

Our aim shifted from Mr. Big to Mr. Big’s administrative assistant. The gatekeeper, the trusted confidant, and the person who would most likely be treated without the kind of respect we were about to give them. (Core influence principles: reciprocity, because these people are usually overlooked and talked down to, and liking, because we have to build meaningful bridges with our gatekeepers or we’ll still be standing outside the gates).

Point #2: Winning hearts and minds

Our strategy now was geared towards getting the assistant on our side. “Hello, Administrative Assistant Who We Know By Name, this is Acme Corporation calling… I’d really like to get your advice on something – is now a good time to talk? (Reciprocity). We’ve been happy business partners of your company for years (which was true, and shows Consistency) and would like to get a new idea in front of Mr. Big… but we need your help. It’s a bit fun, its not embarrassing at all – no chicken suits, no singing telegrams – but we’d like to deliver a package to him (Liking). It’s a VERY SMALL SAFE (Contrast Phenomenon). We’ll give you the combination, of course (Liking), and let you see inside of it. It’s got a product inside for him to look at – your IT people already know it well (which was true, again, and is Consistency). WHEN CAN WE DROP BY TO SEE YOU?”

Point #3: Finishing well

All of the administrative assistants were female, as it turned out. We showed up at the office at our appointed hour to meet with the assistant. Delivering our safe were two identical twin male models. Just in case that kind of thing mattered (which might be Liking. You never know). They showed the insides of the safe, gave her the combination, smiled a lot, made sure everyone was happy and comfortable, and then delivered it to the inner sanctum of Mr. Big’s office. As they turned to leave, almost as if it slipped their minds, they turned and delivered a small gift to the assistant – a Kate Spade purse with a $100 gift certificate at a very nice local restaurant (I forget which one, but that’s textbook Reciprocity).

Throughout the process, we relied on a few key points of influence: likeability, consistency, and reciprocity — plus the application of the contrast phenomenon. By re-framing the entire campaign to focus on an over-looked, under-appreciated, and pivotal point — the gatekeeper — in an ethical, honest, and up-front manner, we succeeded where countless others have failed. This is a unique psychological take on what I termed “aikido” in Killing Giants.

* * *
Key Takeaways:

> Peel back the layers and see how each consumer touch point can be re-engineered to maximize your program’s success. Sometimes it’s the little things that bring the big things tumbling down to earth.

> Turn gatekeepers into co-conspirators using liking, consistency and reciprocity: a good gatekeeper’s job is to guard the entrance against unwanted intrusion, so ensuring that you’re not an unknown commodity helped us get past this hurdle.

> Contrast Phenomenon and Consistency: what’s the definition of a “small” safe, just so we’re all clear? Who knows? A cubic foot version is one of the smaller ones, but I still don’t want to try to lift it. Once it shows up at your office, though, it’s going back through the door unless you’ve built up some social capital. She did say you could drop by, didn’t she?

* * *

The program was a great case study in winning at the small things.

And it was successful. We delivered safes to Chief Information Officers at Fortune 500 companies like Merrill Lynch, Viacom, and others, setting up meetings to discuss enterprise-wide adoption of our “big idea.”

We hand-delivered a forty-pound closed steel container into the executive suites of companies that made up the alpha level of the US economy in New York.

While most similar direct marketing efforts of this type garnered a response of 2% to 3%, we were successful with 33%, placing over 30 safes in our target accounts.

A month after the World Trade Center was destroyed.

It’s not just about Big Ideas. Win at the small things.


PS: The lessons learned above are core elements of Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Science of Persuasion.” These are invaluable lessons. I’ve handed out dozens of copies of this book over the years. It’s worth your time.

Copyright © 2007 Stephen Denny