Learning From the (Urban) Legend

“Please forward this to as many people you care about as possible.”

“Please read this ‘very carefully’… then send it out to all the people online that you know.”

“Please, please, please pass it on to everyone you can!”

Sound familiar?

As an email marketer, you probably want your messages to be forwarded to recipients’ friends and families. It’s a great way of acquiring customers, even if you’re only initially sending to your house list. Why not take a hint from emails so well traveled their virtual passports are overflowing with stamps?

Now, I don’t advocate lacing your marketing messages with stories of kidney thefts and scuba divers being dropped from firefighting helicopters, but there are reasons why these stories are forwarded so extensively. They have characteristics that make them compelling, and they inspire in people an urge to share. Perhaps you can incorporate some of these traits in your next marketing message or e-newsletter.

The Element of Surprise

I’ll start with one common element that needs to be incorporated with care, although it does characterize many traits of the urban legends. E-mail messages that are forwarded incessantly tend to be unusual or surprising.

Promotions to boost sales and collect customer information are nothing new, but when, in 1955, Burma-Shave offered to send a customer to Mars if he collected 900 empty shaving cream jars, it caught the attention of the public. The famous sequential roadside signs said:

Free — Free
A Trip
To Mars
For 900
Empty Jars

Even today, according to urban-legend-debunking site Snopes.com, talk about this promotion is circulating. Contrary to Burma-Shave’s expectations, someone did collect 900 empty jars. Thinking fast, the company sent the winner and his family to Moers, Germany, which pronounces its name “Mars.”

The trouble with surprise is the “too good to be true” factor. The Burma-Shave offer really was too good to be true. Still, those were vastly different times. In our age of scam-spam, you need to be careful not to jeopardize the relationship you have with your customer. Your credibility is one of your most important assets; don’t give people any reason to question your veracity.

Appeal to Basic Human Emotions

The email story that sparked the most discussion in my family was one about the ill treatment of a frail, old man who had come to live with his son’s family. Frustrated with the elderly man breaking dishes and spilling food at dinnertime, the son relegated his father to a table of his own, where he ate out of a wooden bowl. When the son saw his own four-year-old playing with blocks of wood, he asked him what he was doing. “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food from when I grow up,” the boy answered. The grandfather ate at the table with the family from then on.

This story, according to Snopes.com, has been around for centuries. Why? Because it evokes the emotion of sadness, and because it addresses a basic human concern: What will happen to us when we grow old and can no longer care for ourselves? It also teaches moral lessons: Do unto others what you’d wish to have done to yourself; and people are more important than possessions.

What can a marketer learn from this? Well, I wouldn’t suggest you send out a full-blown fairy tale complete with moral, but you can connect with consumers on a basic human level. Discussion of this approach abounded post-September 11, when companies tried to communicate with their customers as people, not just as prospects. Show your email recipients you share their values, and let them know you’re human, too.

Trusted Source

One of the most important characteristics of these messages is their purported source. They’re always forwarded from someone you know, who, in turn, got it from someone she knows, and so on. To generate this viral marketing effect, you need a pre-existing relationship with the recipient. He needs to trust you.

The Ask

Then, there’s the ask. That’s the part at the end of the letter (see above examples) in which the sender asks you to “please forward this to everyone you care about.” Maybe it would have occurred to the recipient to send it along to his entire email list, maybe not. This ending ensures the idea will be considered.

It’s simple, really. Your email can have all the characteristics of something people want to share with friends and family. But, they may not think of doing so… unless you ask.

(Please forward this column to nine people within the next 72 hours, and you’ll be blessed with good luck.)

Meet Pamela at the Jupiter ClickZ Advertising Forum in New York City on July 30 and 31.

Pamela is taking Friday off for Independence Day. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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