Does Your Membership Program Need a Little Mystery?

A mail-order mystery service is sparking some surprise and delight in its rapidly growing membership. Here’s what associations can learn from an old-school engagement tactic: Leave them guessing—and wanting more.

Last week, I wrote about the “five-minute member” and the avalanche of information that competes for your members’ time and attention. Well, this week I’m looking at a decidedly old-school method of engagement, direct mail. Believe it or not, snail mail is not dead, even for those we call “digital natives.”

We saw evidence of this during the 2016 election. Last year, the U.S. Postal Service and the American Association of Political Consultants surveyed millennials and found that they were likely to read, discuss, and use political mail.

Direct mail may be slow, but it still holds an important value for membership-based groups. Keep in mind that, according to Marketing General’s 2016 Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 30 percent of associations surveyed said they use direct mail to recruit domestic members. And mail was the second-most-popular method, behind email, for associations to spark membership renewals.

Clearly there’s some value to snail mail. But how do you prevent your message from ending up in the junk-mail heap? We know that association professionals love experiences that surprise and delight, so why not apply that same sort of thinking to your membership mailing?

In fact, there’s a new phenomenon to learn from, something called mail-order mystery, that’s doing just that—delivering a “whodunit” mystery to your mailbox.

Unlike most services, we don’t intentionally make all of the things transparent at first. You have to become a member to learn more.

Delivering the ‘Art of Surprise’

Mail-order mystery has been around a few years. I recently signed up for one of the services, called Mysterious Package Company, which started four years ago and has more than 500,000 members to date. Here was my welcome message:

My Dearest Tim,

It is my great honour to grant you membership to The Mysterious Package Company. Your membership includes the exclusive right to access and send packages through our company to those you hold in highest esteem… I am hoping that you will aid us in forming a community of like-minded individuals from around the globe who have long thought that life was too mundane, and sought out something… more. So welcome, and please feel free to visit us at any time. I look forward to getting to know you better.

Your Servant,
The Curator

Needless to say, I was hooked from the start.

“It’s an odd thing, but we sell mystery to our members,” says investor and cofounder Jason Kapalka. “Unlike most services, we don’t intentionally make all of the things transparent at first. You have to become a member to learn more.”

That’s an odd but critical lesson for associations. If you’re looking to build engagement, especially with new members, it’s OK to leave out a few details. You want your members guessing, at least a little. It’s what Kapalka calls the “art of surprise.”

Add Urgency and Action

What’s interesting about the USPS survey is that millennials not only read their mail, but they also took action—66 percent of them were likely to research a candidate and 54 percent visited the candidate’s website after receiving a piece of snail mail.

We are all living what Kapalka calls “hybrid lives,” straddling the digital and physical worlds. A mail-order mystery may seem old-school, but it’s predicated on a growing base of digital subscribers who find unique novelty in receiving mail.

Those letters and packages catch the attention of subscribers with clear calls to action. For the Mysterious Package Company, it means your mail might look more like a game of Clue.

“The first envelope comes with strange stamps and markings. Then, we might send you a wooden crate that’s been nailed shut and contains a small artifact,” Kapalka says. “In effect, we are trying to break you from the mundane of life. Many of us just get bills in the mail.”

The most intriguing part about Mysterious Package is that members pay a premium for these experiences, or “stories”—about $100 to $300 each. You can chase spies, solve a murder mystery, or prevent a zombie apocalypse all through a series of clues, which are sent individually.

Associations probably don’t have to scare their members and prospects about the zombie apocalypse, but they may want to consider surprise incentives with clear calls to action in their messages. For instance, a call to renew membership might be coupled with an incentive, like a free e-book, or a future savings at an event or conference.

Create Delight, Not Fear

Of course, not everyone loves surprises. The team at the Mysterious Package Company has worked hard to develop the right kinds of stories.

“We go out of our way to make sure that it’s a fun experience. Nobody wants an anonymous piece of mail that shows up at their door and looks threatening,” Kapalka says. Since the stories are the stuff of fiction, that means keeping it lighthearted, like a game.

Associations also don’t want to scare individual members with too many surprises. That means avoiding the creepiness factor that comes with being too friendly or personal with your member. Kapalka says there’s power in revealing just a little bit of information.

“Remember, members pay for the privilege of getting a little surprise,” he says. “A membership or product should be a little mysterious. That’s unusual in this day and age. People tend to overcommunicate or explain too much.”

In other words, leave something to the imagination.

Do you add mystery to the membership recruitment, retention, and engagement process? What surprises have worked well for you in the past? What didn’t? Share your answers in the comments below.

(Mysterious Package Company)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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