The most underappreciated communications tactic for the average political campaign is direct mail.

Ask your average donor or volunteer (and most candidates, for that matter) and they will tell you plainly: We have to get up on TV.  Now.  With lots of ads.  And stay up.  Forever.  That’s the only way we can win!  The average campaign spends way too much time worrying about when they will get up on TV.

Don’t get me wrong.  TV is important in many, many campaigns.  In fact, for campaigns that raise $1 million or more, TV will usually consume 50%+ of their total budget.  But these $1 million + campaigns are not “average” campaigns.

There over 500,000 elections held in the United States each year, for everything from dog catcher to election clerk right up to Senator and President.  The vast majority of these campaigns… the “average” campaign… is small, and doesn’t raise anywhere near that kind of money.  For the average campaign that raises $25,000, $200,000, or $500,000, spending lots of money on TV is often a waste of dollars that could be used elsewhere.  The less money a campaign raises, the smaller the percentage that should be spent on TV advertising, if at all.

A far better alternative, for most small and local campaigns, is political direct mail.  For larger campaigns, a mix of advertising methods, including direct mail, works best.  So, whatever size your campaign, pay attention, because political direct mail should be part of your paid media mix.

Why Direct Mail Works

Direct mail works because it is cost effective.  With direct mail, you design a piece, and set up a list of voters (lists of voters can be purchased from your local or state elections board, usually in an electronically sort-able format – you may also want to send mail to lists that are purchased from list brokers targeting people in different niches). Then, the mail piece is sent out only to the households you select.

This last part is the key to direct mail’s cost effectiveness.  With any other type of advertising, you are paying valuable money to reach people who aren’t going to vote, or who would never vote for you.  In many cases, they are not even registered to vote!  Of all political communications methods, direct mail is the one tactic that lets you most closely target your piece.  You can decide who receives your message, and who doesn’t.  You never have to pay to “shotgun” your message to everyone, including those who don’t vote.

With political direct mail, you can choose to send your mail piece only to registered voters, or to voters who voted in 3 of the past 4 elections.  You can send your piece only to Republicans, or Democrats, or Independents… you can target Republicans who voted in at least 1 of the past 4 elections in precincts 3,5,7,8 and 9, or members of Mensa who are registered to vote and live in your district.  The choice is up to you.  It is this flexibility that makes direct mail such a good choice for cash-strapped campaigns.

Larger campaigns, too, benefit from the choices direct mail offers, and should use direct mail to compliment their entire marketing mix.  Simply put, every campaign should be using direct mail.

Your Mail Through the Eyes of Joe Schmoe

“Wait a minute!” you’re saying.  “I get direct mail from companies, and candidates, all the time.  And all do is take it to the trash.  If I don’t care about direct mail, why will my voters?”

You’re absolutely right.  As far as direct mail is concerned, there are three types of voters:

The 10 Second Club – The vast majority of voters fall into this category.  These are the folks that look at your piece and walk it to the trash can – they have your piece in their hands for approximately 10 seconds.

The Skimmers – A far smaller number of voters are skimmers – people who look through your mail piece on the way to trash can, reading headlines and looking at pictures.  They will generally have your piece in their hands for 20-30 seconds.  These people are usually more interested in politics, and thus more likely to vote, or are just people who like to skim everything before they throw it out so as to not miss anything.

The Readers – Few and far between, these voters actually take the time to read your mail piece.  They generally will look through your piece for 1-2 minutes, reading the headlines and drilling down into the text.  These people are either very interested in your particular race, or tend to be older, retired folks who enjoy receiving and reading political mail.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it?  You’ve spent all that time designing your mail piece and figuring out whom to mail it to, and most of those people just throw it out!  Not to fear… direct mail still works, and is still the most cost effective media tactic for small and medium-sized campaigns.  The key is to design your direct mail with the knowledge that most people will hold it in their hands for 30 seconds or less… the key is to use tried and true methods to make your mail more successful and memorable – to design political direct mail that works.

Designing Political Direct Mail that Works

When designing political direct mail, you have two main goals.  The first is to raise your name ID, and the second is to highlight your message or raise your opponent’s negatives (depending on what type of direct mail it is).  That’s it – sure, you’ll talk about the issues and include stats and graphs when appropriate, but for the most part, you know that most people aren’t going to even read your piece.  So you have to make sure that your piece is designed for The 10 Second Club and Skimmers.

Designing for The 10 Second Club is easy, when you remember your two goals:

Goal #1: Raise Name ID

Do this by including your name, front and center, in large text, throughout the mail piece.  Make sure that when someone looks at your mail piece on the way to the trash can, they notice your name.

Goal #2: Highlight Your Message

If you’re sending out Name ID, Bio, or Positive/Issues mail, you want to make sure that if a voter takes your mail and heads straight to the trash, he or she not only sees your name, but your message.  Make sure your theme/tagline is front and center and that your message is prominently featured throughout the mail piece.


Goal #2: Raise Your Opponent’s Negatives

If you’re sending out Comparison or Negative mail, you want to make sure that if a voter takes your mail and heads straight to the trash, he or she sees what is wrong with your opponent – what issue you are hitting them on, or in a comparison piece, why they are not as qualified for the job as you are.

You also want to make sure that your pieces are designed to be appealing to skimmers and readers.  For skimmers, include lots of headlines, pictures with captions, and pull quotes.  For readers, make sure that each headline is supported with some text (but not too much).  That way, no matter what type of voter is receiving your mail piece, they are engaged and can easily pick out what is most important: your candidate’s name and message.

Types of Political Direct Mail

There are many types of political direct mail that can be used to communicate your message.  The most popular include the following:

  • Oversized postcards are economical and a great way to raise your name ID and get your message out.
  • Tri-folds and other multi-page, full color mail are more expensive and look slicker, and provide more space for photos, information, and comparisons.
  • Letters are most often used for fundraising mail (see below) but sometimes can be used to communicate your message or attack your opponent.  If you do use letters, be sure to still use smart design: lots of white space, lots of headlines, a picture or graph or two…

Repetition is Key

In order to remember your name and message, most voters will need to see / hear / say your name and message a number of times.  For this reason, most campaigns that use direct mail try to send a variety of pieces to their targeted voters over the course of the campaign.  These voters will often receive 3,4,5 or more pieces from the campaign, in order to reinforce the message and name.  Use your campaign plan and budget to figure out how many times you will be able to mail to each targeted voter.  In general, the more the better.

Lastly, a few final thoughts on your mail design:  First, stick with your overall campaign color theme – don’t have red and white signs and green and yellow mail.  Second, use a professional designer / writer, if you can afford it.  Lastly, remember, as with all things campaign-related, stay on message!

Photo Credit: DeWitt Clinton