The rule of seven touches

This is something that salespeople understand well. I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors—who are notoriously stubborn—to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change. That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.

This is the last idea I wanted to pull out of Atul Gawande's essay on on spreading ideas through mentorship: “the rule of seven touches”

A quick Google search shows that this rule is popular in sales and marketing circles. It also seems to be popular among churches who are trying to attract more people to their congregation. Many of the articles I found mentioned that the rule was based on research, but I haven't been able to find a reference to any specific research papers.

I like Gawande's emphasis on establishing personal relationships. I think that this is extremely important, but I worry that the “rule of seven touches” also has a dark side. In many of the articles I read, the personal relationship aspect of the rule was entirely absent.

I worry that the rule of seven to touches without the relationship aspect could easily be used to justify interactions that actual damage a relationship, rather than strengthen it.

I remember sitting with an “email marketer” many years ago. He explained how his system worked, how he kept his numbers up. Subscribing to one list actually subscribed you to about a dozen related lists. If you unsubscribed from the first list, you were still subscribed to eleven lists. I asked him if people were upset by this. Some people were, but he dismissed them as privacy freaks. When people complained, did he unsubscribe then from all the lists? No. Too much work. If they wanted to unsubscribe, they could do it themselves. He could tell I was dubious. “Look,” he explained. “You don't get it. If we contact people enough times, eventually they'll buy something from us.”

His approach felt more like harassment than establishing a personal relationship, but he was absolutely confident that continuing to contact people who had asked not be contact would result in sales.