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How can gender affect your direct mail response rates?

Updated: Apr 21


So much is made of the importance of the name of companies and products. We agonize over what it means, what symbolism it evokes and how it sounds. How is it that so little attention is made of the name and signatory that people choose to send out their direct mail?


I recently suggested to a client that they change the name of the person signing their acquisition letters.


I recommended they should have a female signature.


In the old days letters were signed with the names of real people who worked at companies. Generally letters were signed by whomever was the senior person in the marketing or acquisition team. For example in the US, Kenneth Chenault, later to be the CEO and President of American Express, then Acquisition Manager, used to sign the invitations to apply for The Card.


In the UK, American Express acquisition letters were signed by the General Manager; a certain Mr. John Robinson.


One day someone said we had to change the signature to Mary Lively. This was due to an organizational shake-up. Just to double check, it was decided to test the signatures in an A/B test. Nothing else changed. No big deal right? Wrong.


Mary Lively out performed John Robinson by 22%.


Over the next few years, Mary Lively was tested as a signature for American Express acquisition letters in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia. Everywhere it improved response rates over the then male signatures of the local market managers and marketers. I suspect that Mary Lively signed more letters in the 1990's than anyone else worldwide.


We attributed the success to it to being a woman. Since then I have persuaded clients to use female signatures on letters. Some have done so willingly; others have had their arms twisted a bit. But, honestly, I have never had a client test just that in a head-to-head since that first set of tests many years ago.


Most marketers would doubt that a signature would make much of a difference.


Recipients have a very different perspective. Recipients, believe it or not, care little for your choice of visual or typeface selection. They care much more about things like: the live stamp or indicia, the spelling of their name, whether there’s a middle initial, their correct address, the salutation, the P.S., who it’s from and the look of the signature.


So why did Mary Lively outperform John Robinson? Many people, me included, think that sex played a role.


Well there’s a reason more women’s magazines have a picture of a woman on the cover. Intuitively that makes sense.

There’s a reason Florida Sportsman Magazine regularly shows their female anglers’ success on their covers even though more of their readers are male. No psychology degree required. No need to know about Bateman’s findings regarding the fruit fly.


But I’ve also always wondered if it has something – may be just as much – to do with the sound of the name. Mar-y -- Live-ly. It sounds upbeat and fun and, importantly, interesting. You can picture Mary Lively. Your picture will be different to someone else’s picture, but you can picture her. John Robinson not so much. John Robinson is even less interesting than Jake from State Farm and he’s meant to be dull.


Today few companies use real names of company executives to sign their letters – unless it’s to a very intimate group of precious customers. The reason for this is simple. In the modern age of the internet executives prefer to remain somewhat anonymous. They don’t like complete strangers googling them, emailing them or turning up at their homes.


So if it doesn’t have to be real and you can just make it up, make it count. Choose the sex. Choose the title. Choose the name. Choose how that signature looks. Average customers are probably not handwriting experts, but they know a flourish when they see it. And they know a boring scribble.


Here’s an almost random selection I made from WhosMailingWhat.com. Each one tells a story about the brand, the product or the company mailing it. The stories they tell are not always that great.




I used to run an online wishlist business back in the day (2001-2009) called TheThingsIWant.com. It was a lucrative sideline for a while until Amazon offered a similar service. We noticed that we got much nicer and kinder email responses to customer issues when we used fictitious female customer service reps names than if we used fictitious male names.


I learned long ago that to some people "Guy White" sounds like a fake name for a member of a rather unfriendly supremacist group. "Ginny White" is more approachable. And names like "Prospero Kingsley" are better for fake senior manager missives – even if that one was a bit over the top.

Shakespeare knew this all too well. Juliet rhetorically asks: What’s in a Name? And then answers: “That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet”. She’s saying that she can see beyond a name. But she knows that family members, both Capulets and Montegues alike, take the names extremely seriously.

There’s lots of research into the response effects of different names used on job application. (For a quick review see the University of Manchester article)


It seems that it would be an easy and inexpensive test for emails. Because the response rates for emails are often low, statistically you may want to test it several times or in a very large email blast. (Since the “From” appears before you even open an email it might be even more significant for emails than it is for direct mail. There’s surprising little written about email “From” compared to “Subject” or “Personalization”)


I recommend considering both the projection of your brand and the short term ROI when deciding on your signatory.


I don’t have an answer as to what name you use to send out correspondence to prospects or customers. Nor is there a fancy algorithm that can tell you (like there are for suggesting what to call your children). But choose wisely.


Choose the sex. Choose a title. Choose a name. Test it. It will count.


Yours respectfully, Guy J.K. White



Nicola Watts (if that really is her name) has a good article about what’s in a name (10/2016)




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