Don’t count out the direct political mailer; they thrive in campaigns

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Over the years, many politicos have all but written off the most-common political campaign tool: direct mail.

Nevertheless, the mail piece — a political mainstay for campaigns at every level — is not only not dead, they are thriving.

Targeted digital and TV advertising might get the glory, but political campaigns still bank on an old-fashioned, mundane practice, writes Tarini Parti of POLITICO: Voters go to the mailbox and leaf through mailers as they make their way to kitchen trashcans.

In the 2014 election cycle alone, campaigns, committees and outside groups spent a minimum of $150 million on direct mail, according to Federal Election Commission reports and data collected by CQ Moneyline.

That number is only an estimate based on expenditures categorized as variations of “direct mail” or “mailer” and possibly includes postage and printing costs.

In comparison, expenditures classified as “digital,” “online,” “web” and “email” combined total about $70 million.

TV landscapes are also becoming increasingly fractured, as voters use DVRs and internet video streams to bypass traditional advertising have resulted in higher costs of television time.

With more campaigns relying on detailed voter data, it has become easier and cheaper to reach voters through direct mail, resulting in higher spending on the medium.

In 1995, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman predicted mailers were on the way out, but by 2008, the firm reversed its forecast, after more than a decade of continued effectiveness.

Whether used for fundraising or messaging, it is clear to consultants of both parties that the direct mailer industry is evolving, not declining. It might not be growing as rapidly as digital, but mail remains the foundation of many campaigns.

“Direct mail works. I’ve been doing this for 32 years. People keep saying ‘Mail is going to die. It’s a dinosaur,’” said Lukens Co. founder Walter Lukens, who has worked with Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Mail was especially useful for Lukens in the 2014 GOP primaries, when targeting a small, typically older demographic. For the McConnell campaign, Lukens used particularly creative mail pieces to portray Matt Bevin, the senator’s primary challenger, as a fake conservative.

Bevin is depicted in the front of one of the pieces as a snake oil salesman, with the words “Genuine Bevin Brand Snake Oil: Behold the magical potion being spoon-fed to Kentucky Conservatives far and wide.” On the back was an image of a bottle, listing ingredients of “half-truths, resume inflation and delusions of grandeur.” McConnell won by a 25 point margin.

“In terms of moving the needle, it’s very effective because people still read their mail and some even keep it around,” Lukens added. “It’s got a shelf life. It’s cheaper, and you can reach a more targeted audience.”

TV advertising is not yet at that detailed level of targeting, but it is catching up, said Malorie Thompson from Something Else Strategies.

“Those days are quickly closing in on us,” she told POLITICO. “It all depends on a campaign’s budget and sophistication.”

Even with developments in targeting voters through TV ads, Thompson said the cost advantage would always go to direct mail, especially as a supplement to TV and radio.

“You want to create a campaign that chases a voter, that can engage them where they want to engage,” Thompson said. “Not all campaigns have the luxury of going on TV. That’s why direct mail is still very efficient.”

But direct mail has disadvantages compared to digital.

Andrew Bleeker, the founder of Bully Pulpit Interactive — a leading Democratic digital firm — notes the one drawback of direct mail: “When you send a mail piece, you don’t know if they are reading it. With digital, we can now know if they saw an online ad.”

Bleeker, as well as other direct mail experts, agrees well-funded “smart campaigns” use a mix – both mail and digital – to target voters, and used more efficiently than ever.

“It’s not an antiquated way to reach voters,” according to Axiom Strategies’ creative director Cameron Armour. “It’s actually highly technical. Everything we do in direct mail from the design and concept is an exercise in efficiency.”

Among the key insights is how a candidate’s face on the mail piece anchors reader perceptions. Details like disclosures identifying a sponsor are also important to readers, even if most campaigns think opponents are not as diligent.

Advanced data mining is also a significant factor, where campaigns tailor the message based on the voter’s age, probability of voting, and other information—such as magazine subscriptions and whether the family’s children go to either a private or public school. More mailers are encouraging voters to connect via social media for additional opportunities to connect, and include links to microsites with online ads and more information.

“Mail is the only communications method that can be targeted directly to the voter,” said Baughman Co. President Duane Baughman, whose clients include Democrat-leaning House Majority PAC.

“Once a target universe is identified in polling and modeling, mail can be sent to the individual who will be moved by specific messages.

“Other communications methods are advancing but still have their limitations,” Baughman said, noting the appeal of TV and digital.

Baughman’s firm developed a way to match IP and home addresses for targeted digital ads connecting directly the voters using direct mailers.

“It’s a great way to make sure that when ‘Joe Voter’ checks the mail when they get home and sees our candidate, they then see the same candidate message and imagery when they check box scores on ESPN[.com] after dinner,” Baughman added.

In fundraising, direct mail can be effective in getting donations from older donors and people hesitant to provide credit card information online, said Base-Connect President Michael Centanni, who represents conservative groups and candidates.

Direct mail fundraising pitches have one major advantage over email: Voters view them before the go into the trashcan.

“It’s so easy to delete your email without even looking at it,” Centanni said. “With direct mail, you would think it would be the same, but you at least have a few seconds.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.