Recycling in NYC: Use Positive Motivation & Clarity

I live in a co-op apartment building in New York City. The building is managed by an outside company that cares for functions such as heating, cleaning common areas, and trash disposal.

Our building maintenance crew is spending a disproportionate amount of time caring for recycling – sorting out trash that should have been recycled, separating items in the recycling bin that should be disposed as trash, and preparing recyclable items to be picked up. This issue has led the building management company to send the below letter to co-op residents.

New York City Recycling Notice
Recycling Notice

Thinking about this from a viewpoint of consumer motivation and marketing, the letter merits a Fail for Creative for tone and clarity.

Below is a rewrite of the letter.


Proper Trash Disposal and Recycling Helps Everyone – Including You

We recently noticed that some people in your cooperative building are not properly disposing of trash and recyclables. While most residents are taking the right steps, a few are not following procedures. This is illegal and can be costly. If the NYC Sanitation Department detects recyclables in the trash, the building can be fined up to $10,000 – a fine that would have to be passed on to residents through maintenance fees.

Here’s a reminder of what, as residents of [REDACTED], you need to do:
  • Sort and place all your recyclable items in the proper bins in the basement. It is your responsibility to sort items, so please do not leave unsorted bags of recyclables in the trash area.
  • Place non-recyclable items in the compactor chutes in your floor’s hallway or in the trash cans in the basement.
  • Do not put recyclable items in the regular trash cans.
  • Never put recyclable items in the compactor chutes.
  • When you have a large box or bulky item, take it to the recycling area in the basement, dismantle it, and be sure to flatten it out.
  • When you have an empty paint can or item that requires special handling, take it to the basement recycling area for proper disposal.

Please keep in mind these items that are recyclable:

  • Paper of all types, including newspapers, magazines, flyers, mail, and restaurant menus
  • Glass, including all bottles
  • Plastic, including all bottles and containers
  • Metal, including clothes hangers
  • Cardboard, including small store boxes as well as shipping boxes from Amazon, Blue Apron, and similar companies.

If you have any questions about recycling or trash disposal, please speak with [REDACTED], your building superintendent. Thank you for helping to keep our costs down, follow city regulations, and support recycling in New York City.


This rewrite captures the key messages of the original letter while applying some communication Best Practices.

  • Personalization. I included the name of the building and the name of the building's superintendent. (Ideally, I would include the name of the recipient. However, this type of letter is placed under every resident's door, making individual personalization impractical.)
  • Normative Messaging. In the opening paragraph, I mention that most residents are good people. They take the right steps. The implied message is to be good – like your neighbor.
  • Shared Responsibility. While the original letter mentions that the "building" could be fined $10,000, my rewrite reminds co-op residents that such a fine would personally impact them.
  • Clarity. My rewrite explains what can be recycled, and how, in carefully laid-out bullets rather than in brackets.
  • Positive Reinforcement. I thank residents not only for cooperation but also for helping to save money and support a good cause.
Consider these elements not only when selling something but also when explaining process, procedure, and product.

  1. When motivating consumer behavior, consider utilizing personalization, normative messaging, and a positive focus.
  2. When explaining recycling procedures, be clear about what can be recycled.


The Citi Never Sleeps, or Stops Mailing

In February, I wrote about Citi sending solicitations to their credit card customers for their Citi Rewards+ Card at the same time as offers for their current credit card. This practice appears to be continuing.

In that February post, I mentioned someone who received an offer to trade in their current Citi card around the same time as receiving an activation offer. That was confusing to him. Since then, that person received the upgrade offer for the Rewards+ Card again, twice. All three mailers were the same self-mailer -- right down to the visuals and copy. I also received the same Rewards+ Card upgrade offer twice.

While it is a well-proven direct marketing best practice that reaching the same person with the same offer multiple times will result in incremental response, this technique is typically utilized by communicating variants of the same message. Benefits messaging might be rotated, or the second mail (or email) with the same offer would include a message that calls out “Second Notice,” “Time is Running Out,” or something similar that resonates with a heightened level of urgency. But sending the exact same mailer three times is, IMHO, a Fail for CreativeIt reminds me of the Urban Dictionary’s definition of “insanity,” which I prefer not to write out myself. My supposition is that the idea was to save money on creative by having one base version to mail -- and mail and mail.

The reason for my supposition is that I also received the exact same creative (only twice), as did my wife (only once). All the preprinted elements were the same. The only differences between her self-mailer and mine were in the variables regarding our respective current Citi cards and how they compared to the new Rewards+. I presume this to be Citi’s high-volume Control packageIf so, they really should consider A/B testing different layouts.

Not only that, but I and my wife also received concurrent bonus offers for using our current credit cards. Taking a step back here, let’s remember that the consumer credit card industry is mighty competitive. It’s not enough to convince a consumer to obtain your credit card. Once that consumer becomes your customer by applying for and being approved for your card, you need to motivate the customer to actually use your credit card. In industry jargon, that is known as “activation.” One way to accomplish this goal is by offering a bonus reward for use; another is to solicit the customer to accept a product upgrade. Fine -- but doing both at the same time merits Fails for Targeting and Timing.  

We both received upgrade offers and activation offers on the same day. In other words, we found four pieces of Citi mail waiting in our mailbox. 

Citi has business-to-customer relationships, but perhaps they should think about this like a personal relationship between two people who are casually dating. Using this analogy, Citi is having dinner with it's significant other.  While enjoying the salmon, Citi says both "I want to move in with you." and "It's ok to see other people."

1) If at first your targeted offer doesn’t succeed, you can try again -- but at least try something different.
2) Prioritize your business goals; then, prioritize your customer communication tactics.

Rewards+ Upgrade offer I received twice

Activation offer I received twice

My activation offer letter - front

My activation offer letter - back.
Not valid if I chose to switch to Rewards+

My wife’s upgrade mailer

My wife's upgrade mailer - inside.
Same base copy, different personalization.

Different product comparison table,
specific to current Citi card.

My wife's activation offer letter - front.
Same visuals as mine, with card-specific offer.

My wife’s activation offer letter - back.
Also not valid if she switches to Rewards+.


Santander Bank: What To Do to get $300?

As competition in retail banking increases, brick-and-mortar banks continue to offer incentives in the form of bonuses to open an account. I recently wrote about TD Bank’s self-mailers. This one from Santander Bank is a simple postcard—in fact, it’s too simple. That’s why it merits a Fail for Creative.

Santander New Customer Postcard
Postcard Front
The front of the postcard prominently messages the opportunity to get a $300 bonus for moving to Santander Bank, but does not explain what that means. The only hint of an explanation is a small message to “See reverse for important information.”

Santander Bank New Customer Offer
Postcard Back

The back of the postcard communicates some of the benefits of banking with Santander and includes a Call to Action to visit a website or visit a nearby branch with the postcard. That’s nice, but what about that $300? What does a prospective customer need to do to get the bonus? The explanation is buried in the long Disclosure. (If you can read the explanation without visual support, you don’t need glasses.) While the 17-line Disclosure is concise, it is not clear to a casual reader. That lack of clarity is a Fail, because who wants to put on reading glasses just to figure out what hoops to jump through to get the bonus?

I’m not a lawyer, so this isn’t legal advice. As a marketer, however, I think the lack of clarity may not only be bad marketing, it may also be a violation of FTC regulations. Current regulations state
“When making ‘Free’ or similar offers all the terms, conditions and obligations upon which receipt and retention of the ‘Free’ item are contingent should be set forth clearly and conspicuously at the outset of the offer so as to leave no reasonable probability that the terms of the offer might be misunderstood.” 
While the terms of the offer to get the free $300 are clear, they are not conspicuous. The offer landing page explains the terms adequately; however, it refers the customer back to the postcard.

Top of landing page

When presenting an offer to a prospective customer, clearly and conspicuously explain what needs to be done to obtain that offer.


Hertz: App Offer "Terms Apply" - What Are They?

Hertz has had a challenging time with their customer app. In fact, execution of their app redesign was so bad that, only a few weeks ago, Hertz sued their marketing partner Accenture (pdf here). So, when Hertz finally had a newly redesigned app ready for prime time, it made sense to promote it.

When promoting engagement of an app, offering an incentive for use is an effective tool. This week, Hertz is offering customers a free car rental day. I recently received the below email as a Hertz Gold Plus Rewards member.

Terms Apply

Terms Apply
Hertz new app promotional email with message that "Terms Apply"

According to the email, I can get a free rental day when I use the app. The headline message has an asterisk—or, in this case, a paragraph symbol (¶)—indicating there is a Disclosure on the page regarding the offer. Based on the corresponding paragraph symbol, the Disclosure reads simply, “¶ Offer ends 06/30/19. Taxes and fees excluded. Terms apply.”  

OK, so what are the terms?

I thought the landing page might perhaps have more information; however, it includes only the same Disclosure that “Terms Apply.”

Terms Apply
Landing page. Disclosure circled.

I thought there might be at least a link here to the terms that apply, but there is not. We know from the email that the offer is valid on rentals of 5 days or more and expires on June 30, 2019. The landing page includes the additional Disclosure that the offer is available only in the United States and Canada, but what else? Is it valid in Hawaii? At airport pick-ups? For Hertz Local Edition? Can I combine it with a free upgrade offer? Do AAA discounts or my CDP number combine with this offer? Do I need to reserve at least 7 days in advance?

These are details, but are relevant details that may or may not drive decision. By not sharing them and merely stating, “Terms apply”, this email and related web page merit a Fail for Creative.

I messaged Hertz via Facebook yesterday and asked what terms apply to this offer. They didn’t know. At their request, I shared the above email and landing page. They responded that they will research this. I received some follow-up questions, so they are still researching.

Update 5/17/19: Hertz communicated to me via Twitter:
Hello Marc. When on the app, you will stay on the home page, under the YouTube video, you will click on the promotion that states " App Exclusive", when you click that you will see at the top "Get a free day when you rent for five" and scroll up. It states the offer summary and the Terms and Conditions. If you are still having trouble, please reach back out for further assistance. We will gladly walk you through the steps. Thank you. -DR
This reinforces my point -- that terms are not upfront and hard to find. There is no reason both the email and landing page could have disclosed at least "Please review the offer in our new app for additional terms that apply."

When you present an offer, share the terms of the offer upfront. At the very least, know what they are.


Uber: Too Little Urgency, Yet Too Little Time to Save

I recently wrote about an offer from TD Bank that lacked urgency because of a hard-to-find offer expiration date. This targeted offer I received yesterday from Uber also merits a Fail for Creative for missing the mark regarding urgency. It may also merit a Fail for Offer.

Uber sends an offer with a compressed, hidden response window
Email from Uber 2/21/19

The Subject Line is smartly personalized with my first name with an offer to “enjoy 50% off.” There appears at first glance to be a significant discount opportunity. The body of the email is also prominent in messaging 50% off not just my first ride, but my next 10 rides with Uber. However, down in the Disclosure, one would learn that the offer expires 2/25/19 at exactly 6:00:00 am. The email was sent on 2/21/19 at 6:54 am local time, which means that I, as a customer, have fewer than 96 hours to take advantage of this offer. (Or maybe I have 99 hours. Perhaps the offer expires 6:00:00 am Pacific Time while I live in the Eastern Time Zone.)

Let’s assume the offer is targeted based on my customer history with Uber. I used Uber’s service only twice in the past 18 months. So, perhaps this offer was targeted at me to encourage me to be a more active customer. If true, I don’t understand why Uber would target a basically inactive customer with an offer that would apply to as many as 10 rides in as few as 4 days. Is Uber expecting me to say, “Wow! Uber is cheap now! I’m going to skip the faster subway or not use my own car for four days?” It doesn’t make sense. If Uber wants me to try out their service again more than once or to prioritize it above Lyft or other services, why not expand the offer applicability window to at least a week?

If I were to write this, I would start with an upfront, clear, honest message with an adequate opportunity for customers to hail an Uber.  It would open with:

“Thank you for being an Uber customer. 

Enjoy 50% off your next 10 rides in the next 10 days.”  

  1. Include a clear, prominent respond-by date.
  2. Allow customers an adequate opportunity to respond to your offer.
  3. If your offer is specific to time of day, specify the applicable time zone.


TD Bank: New Account Offer Missing Urgency

I recently wrote about an email from Vanguard that lacked a respond-by date -- and, therefore, lacked urgency. This self-mailer from TD Bank also lacks a clear respond-by date and thus merits a Fail for Creative.

TD Bank New Customer Offer

TD Bank New Customer Offer
Outside of Self-Mailer

TD Bank New Customer Offer
First fold-out panel

The folded self-mailer includes an offer of up to $500 if the customer opens a checking account and a savings account. The amount of free money is as low as $150 if the customer opens only one type of checking account, but that’s not chump change. The call to action is to open the banking accounts at a local banking branch, TD Store, or by visiting a special landing page. The landing page reinforces the offer with the same imagery as the self-mailer. That’s nice creative coordination.

TD Bank New Customer Offer

TD Bank New Customer Offer
Inside panels
However, the mailer buries the offer expiration date in the disclosure. The first line reads, “Offer valid from January 15, 2019, through March 13, 2019...” It is found in small, light gray type (e.g., not designed to be read). The only sense of urgency conveyed is in the call to action to “Get started today.”

TD Bank New Customer Offer
Only mention of offer expiration date
(I added the red circle)
The landing page includes mention of “Offer expires March 13, 2019” above the fold and in the pictures, making them hard to miss. That’s smart. However, the person who receives the mail needs to visit the website to be able to clearly see the offer expiration date.

TD Bank New Customer Offer
Offer landing page: td.com/Earn500

If you want customers to respond to your offer, include a clear, prominent respond-by date.


Citi: Thank You Card Offer Conflicts

One of my responsibilities when I worked at Citi’s Credit Card division was profitable balance growth on their Citi AAdvantage Credit Card. A common way to grow balances then (and still now) was to mail to customers balance transfer checks they could use like regular checks to pay off higher-interest credit cards or use to make significant purchases.

These checks were directly tied to the credit card number and existing account. The functional implication was that, if a customer changed his or her credit card number, the check would bounce. This occurred when a customer’s credit card was replaced due to theft or fraud, or if the customer switched to a different Citi credit card. Poor customer experience!  

Occasionally, the business priority would be to solicit customers to upgrade their existing Citi AAdvantage Card to a more premium product—say, from a basic card with a $50 annual fee to a Gold-level card with an $85 annual fee. The upgrade solicitation list would be prepared in advance and deduped from the balance transfer check solicitation list. This not only prevented checks from bouncing, it also allowed our customer communications to focus on only one aspect of the credit card product during a time period.

Outside of Upgrade Mailer
That policy from years ago comes to mind when I reviewed these two offers, which the same person received related to his Citi Thank You Preferred Card around the same time. In late January, he received an offer to switch his existing Citi Thank You Preferred Card to the new Citi Rewards+ Card. This new card offered a different points accrual method. It’s a shiny self-mailer complete with details, comparison of the customer’s current Citi Thank You Preferred Card to the new Citi Reward+ Card, and more disclosures than you can shake a stick at. Creatively, this is a pretty persuasive mailer.

Upgrade Self-Mailer Inside Panels

A week later, in early February, the same person received a self-mailer with an offer to add an authorized user to his Citi Thank You Preferred Card. Specifically, the offer was an opportunity to accrue 2,500 Thank You Rewards points—worth $25 in gift cards—if the customer adds an authorized user to the card and spends $2,000 by 2/28/19.

Outside of Citi Thank You Add A User Mailer

The first Fail here is for a combination of Offer and Timing. Setting aside the upgrade offer, this offer has a response window of under 30 days. Normally, 30 days is an ideal response window to allow a customer enough time to read the mailer, consider the offer, and take action. But this offer requires the customer to take two separate actions. First, the customer has to request the card for the authorized user. Subsequently, the customer and/or the authorized user have to spend, together, at least $2,000. If there is an expectation that the authorized user would do the spending, the customer would have to wait for the card to arrive in the mail, activate it, give it to the authorized user, and hope that authorized user already had plans to make a pretty significant purchase or two. That’s a lot of activity to expect of a customer during the cold month of February.

Citi Thank You Rewards Mailer

Citi Thank You Rewards Mailer
Inside of Citi Thank You Add A User Mailer

Most credit card bonus points offers for new customers have a window of 90 days to meet a spending threshold. Perhaps Citi could have structured this offer such that the customer would have 30 days to add an authorized user and another 60-90 days to meet the spending requirement.

The second Fail is a combination of Offer and Targeting. The fine print on the offer to add an authorized user includes the line, “If your account is closed for any reason, including if you convert to another card product, you may no longer be eligible for this offer.” In other words, if the Citi customer accepted the offer he had received one week prior to this one, then this offer is void. Poor customer experience!

When I worked at Citi, we took measures to avoid overlapping offers. That does not appear to be the case today. It does not appear to me that one of these mailers was delayed in the mail for a long time, so let’s rule out bad postal delivery. Maybe the Citi Rewards+ Card Product Manager wasn’t aware of what the Thank You Preferred Card Product Manager had planned, or maybe they had conflicting business objectives so neither of them cared. I can only speculate.

  1. When planning the timing of your mailing and determining the offer response window, consider customer actions required to fulfill the offer.
  2. When you mail an offer to your own customers, be sure your offer doesn't conflict with other offers or create a negative customer experience.


Vanguard: Transition time is when?

This email from Vanguard merits a minor Fail for Creative.

It appears that Vanguard is moving its investment platform from one system to another, and needs customers to take action to support the move. The email explains to the customer that a “3-step transition” is required, and doing so would take a “few minutes.” It includes four FAQs, but that’s all. The Call to Action is to “Transition Now” by clicking a button, which leads customers to the typical login page.


Vanguard email to customers 

This email was sent to consumers. While one can assume consumers who uses Vanguard for investments has some savvy, because they avoid the high fees of other investment companies, that does not mean they are familiar or comfortable with technical terms like “transition.” The opening, in all-caps — “YOUR ACCOUNT NEEDS TO BE TRANSITIONED” — has a tonality of forcefulness that is generally not in the Vanguard communications style. To the uninformed, the fact that the account where one’s retirement savings is managed needs to be “TRANSITIONED” is scary.

There is some explanation regarding the rationale for the move, but why not position this transition as an upgrade from the onset? Sell the benefits upfront.

Furthermore, the request to the customer lacks any immediacy. The Call to Action should include a respond-by date. Internally, perhaps a decision was made not to include a date in the communication now because the IT folks have a year-long implementation plan. But even a soft request to take action by a specific date would help a customer decide to take action. Otherwise, the customer might ignore this or prioritize this task somewhere between, say, replacing the baking soda in the refrigerator and watching the last season of House of Cards.

Below is my attempt to rewrite the main message in a communications style I more typically see from Vanguard. It includes an upfront communication of customer benefit and a timely (but soft) call to action, but avoids using industry jargon and scary words.
Dear [Customer Name],
We have upgraded our platform for customers like you to make and follow your investments. This new, flexible platform will allow us to save money and make continuous service improvements, which will benefit you as we can lower our costs to serve you and improve your online experience.
Please help us move your account to the upgraded investment platform by completing 3 easy steps. It’s quick and easy—taking less than 5 minutes of your time. Just log into your account using the button below to get started.
If you could complete these 3 steps by February 28, 2019, that will help us help you. Thank you for your consideration and your time.
It would also be useful to label the FAQs below the Call to Action simply, “Frequently Asked Questions” and consider offering a separate page on the Vanguard site with additional FAQs. Doing so would boost customer confidence while reducing the expense of calls to their customer service center.

  1. Avoid industry jargon in customer communications.
  2. Any request for a customer to take action should include a date.


National Emerald Club: Don't Nuke the Rabbit

My father once told me, “If you need to hunt a rabbit, you can use a bow and arrow or a hunting rifle. You don’t need a bazooka to hunt a rabbit - and certainly not a nuclear missile.” I later adapted that thought to a slogan of “Don’t Nuke the Rabbit.” This applies to marketing: Don’t Nuke the Rabbit in marketing communications. Take a sensible, simple approach to conveying your message.

National Rental Car could have taken that approach with the Subject Line of a recent marketing email.
National Rental Car
National Rental Car
Subject Line:
"Marc B, you're on the road to your first ONE TWO FREE reward"

The Subject Line from National Emerald Club is addressed to “Marc B.” While B is indeed my middle initial, neither I nor people I know use it when communicating with me. National knows that my first name is simply “Marc” (because the email was addressed to “Marc Davis”), so why add the middle initial? To me, it appears to be a distraction, so this would be a minor Fail for Creative.  

A second minor Fail for Creative appears in the Subject Line. The message refers to me being on my way to my “first” ONE TWO FREE Reward. This is a decent message, giving me a goal to which to aspire—namely, my first free award through this rental car promotion. However, I already have my first award. In fact, I have two awards. The body of the personalized email states that I already earned two free rental days and I am making progress toward my third free rental day.  

Rather than using a Subject Line that attempts to include my middle initial and referencing the first award, the Subject Line could have been these and have been as effective:

Marc, you're on the road to a ONE TWO FREE reward

Marc, you're on the road to your ONE TWO FREE reward

Personalizing an email Subject Line is believed to increase the likelihood of it being read.  That is a current take on what one of the great gurus of direct mail, Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame writer Joan Throckmorton, once said in a marketing seminar (I’m paraphrasing a bit): “A person’s name is the most important word in the English language.” But we can discount that premise a bit with this particular email. It is from a rental car company to customers who opted in for a specific promotion, which means it is already timely and relevant to the reader. So, if National wanted to keep things simple, they could go with this non-personalized, simple, No-Nuked Rabbits Subject Line and have about the same level of effectiveness:
Your ONE TWO FREE reward is just down the road

Or this Subject Line would fit within National’s brand identity:

Drive on! Your ONE TWO FREE reward is just down the road

  1. Be careful using a middle initial when personalizing communications.
  2. While trying to optimize personalization in your communication is worthwhile, you should also keep your execution simple.


Delta Airlines: LGA, Delays, and Holidays

This email from Delta Airlines is a minor Fail for Creative.  

The Subject Line reads “Easier Holiday Travel to LGA.” As a New York City resident, I’m already aware that, with the construction going on at LaGuardia Airport, traffic is so bad at times that people will leave their taxis and walk the last quarter-mile to their terminal. My first thought was that the email will remind me to allow extra time to get to LGA from anywhere in New York City.

But then I noticed that the Subject Line is not about traveling from LGA; it is about traveling to LGA, which implies the email is about what to do when going to LGA from out of town. That might be relevant to me if I had a reservation to fly into LGA — perhaps returning home — or recently flew into LGA on Delta. However, I have not traveled recently on Delta to or from LGA, nor do I have a future reservation that involves LGA. But I frequently fly Delta to and from JFK International Airport.

The email itself makes no mention of the specific dynamics at LGA, such as the long lines in security, crazy traffic, and leaky ceilings. (There is a reason former Vice President Joe Biden said that being in LGA is like a being in “some third-world country.”) The closest mention of local relevance would be the reminder to arrive two hours before my domestic flight.

Finally, the subsequent panel refers to JFK International, not LGA. Given this, my recent travel on Delta and future reservations on the airline — and the fact that the email refers to domestic travel when all flights out of LGA are domestic — perhaps the Subject Line was a mismatch.

When personalizing an email, be sure your personalization is relevant and appropriate, and all of your content is aligned.