We got around three

In this story about Restoration Hardware's mail order extravagance, there is a little statistic:

Industry surveys from groups like the Direct Marketing Association estimate that catalogues get average response rates of four to five per cent.

That reminded me a story back from the days when Microsoft sold Fortran PowerStation, the development suite for the scientific programming language. A developer from the Windows 95 team decided to try a change of pace and switched into sales and marketing, and he wound up working on Fortran PowerStation.

One of his attempts to drum up interest was to include a reply card in a periodic mailing to subscribers of some general computer programming magazine. This was back in the days when people subscribed to computer programming magazines, like, in print. Also back in the days when the publishers would send out little playing-card-deck-sized blocks of business reply cards for various products.

As he explained it to us, "We sent out around ten thousand cards. They say that a typical response rate for a direct mailing is four to five percent. We got three."

Okay, three percent is a bit low, but given that Fortran is not exactly an up-and-coming product, it's still quite respectable.

"No, not three percent. Three responses."

Comments (20)
  1. Boris says:

    So in the epilogue, your colleague decides that he prefers the more concrete outputs of software development and returns to work on Windows 98?

  2. Ken in NH says:

    Trolling nets for mackerel and harpoons for whales. He tried to catch whales with a trolling net. That he got even one is a victory.

  3. Ian says:

    "We got around three." Don't you mean you got almost as many as four?

  4. Ancient_Hacker says:

    Reminds me of a scene from the dreadful times at NeXT, when the marketing folks say "sales were down, only $440,000".  And the CFO says "that's not too bad for last week".  And the presenter says "er, um, that was for LAST MONTH".

  5. GregM says:

    This sounded vaguely familiar when I read it.


    I guess I've been reading this blog for a while now!

  6. bzakharin says:

    Odd how the article consistently uses the British spelling "catalogue" except the image caption which uses "catalog".

  7. Ken Hagan says:

    You need to repeat the experiment a few times so that you get some measure of the variation. You'll probably find that the actual response rate is 0 plus or minus 5. Three sounds like you got lucky.

  8. stoneyowl says:

    I actually used the Fortran Powerstation for several months on a project related to alternate energy and micro-hydro power plants in Alaska.  Slow to compile, but did what it was supposed to do.

  9. Henri Hein says:

    We don't know the distribution of "some general computer programming magazine."  Maybe three responses correspond to a response rate of 5%.

  10. Gabe says:

    I must say, I wasn't prepared for the description of the Restoration Hardware catalog extravaganza. Apparently it's not just a catalog, it is a shrink-wrapped bundle of booklets that totals 3300 pages and weighs 17 pounds (nearly 8 kg)!

  11. mkl says:


    That's 50% increase in responses over the last 7 years!

  12. Muzer says:

    @Henri Hein: "We sent out around ten thousand cards."

  13. Dave says:

    @Ian: Due to commercial-sensitivity reasons I am unable to disclose how many responses we received, but I can say that it was significantly more than two, but categorically less than four.

  14. Dave says:

    @Ken Hagan: How do you get -5 responses?  Is that like the situation where three people enter a room, five come out, and then two more have to go in just to bring it back to empty?

  15. Henri Hein says:


    Ah, thanks.  Scanned a little too fast…

  16. cheong00 says:

    I think I've heard some Postcardware author also mentioned he uploaded his application to CompuServe for others to download, and in the end he also received like 3 postcards.

    Wonder what's the probability if they're the same people. :P

  17. Cube 8 says:


    "This sounded vaguely familiar when I read it.


    I guess I've been reading this blog for a while now!"

    History repeats itself

    [I have only a finite number of stories. See pigeonhole principle. -Raymond]
  18. Scarlet Manuka says:


    Thanks! I also recognised the story but wasn't successful in digging up the older article. Nice to know I'm not going crazy.

  19. EduardoS says:

    @Dave, this reminds me of my days at school, learning error propagation, I got a 3+-5 quantity without knowing how to explain that…

  20. RHR says:

    We have occasionally bought stuff from Restoration Hardware. However, my wife shakes her head and says that the marketing people have gone nuts when the massive block of catalogues appears on our porch.

    Now maybe if they included a Fortran Power Station installion disk for me…

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