Mack: The real telling thing to me is that I don’t know of a single campaign yet that has used online advertising as the primary way to reach voters. I can name you plenty of campaigns that used direct mail as the primary mode of outreach, though. So until someone can show me a clear example of a campaign that’s able to win by just using online outreach and communications, it’s still a niche format.
Hoppey: As far as this line about how direct mail is a dying industry—I just simply don’t believe that. And I don’t just say that just because it’s my business. I just don’t believe it is. We see this every cycle with direct mail testing—it works. Until you can replace it with something that works as well and is as efficient and as effective, I just don’t see how it goes away.
Mitchell: I think a lot of people also think about campaigns in terms of presidential campaigns or statewide campaigns. But the business of campaigns is so much larger than that. Until you come up with an alternative to communicate to Republican primary voters in the Atlanta or Chicago media markets, for instance, mail is always going to be around. You cannot move numbers in those major media markets in a state Senate or a congressional primary with online advertising. At least not yet.
Hoppey: And that’s not to say online isn’t a powerful tool. It just can’t replace mail. It’s an add-on. You wouldn’t say, “I’m going to do mail, so I’m not going to spend any money on television.” Well, you wouldn’t say, “If I do online, I’m not really going to do any mail.” It just doesn’t make any sense from a strategic perspective.
C&E: Does it make the discussion about resource allocation any more difficult?
Mack: The mantra when I came into the business was, “Pick one medium and dominate it.” I don’t think that’s the winning formula anymore. Now it’s all about who you have to persuade. If you need to persuade young people, maybe online is the way to go. If you need to persuade white women over 50 who live in the suburbs, then do that with direct mail.
Hoppey: Fundamentally, my job is to help people win. It’s not to tell them they should be doing more direct mail. If I’m at the table and there is only enough money to one or two things, I’m not going to tell a candidate to spend on direct mail just because it’s what I do. People think, “You guys are just a bunch of hired guns. You’re just in it for the money.” That’s just not true. We help people win. And if you’re doing anything else, then you’re not doing your job.
C&E: What’s so conclusive about the empirical data you have on the effectiveness of direct mail?
Mack: What it shows pretty clearly is that all things being equal, if we tailor a direct mail campaign to a specific group of people, we move numbers. So if the pollster comes back and says, “You have to move married women.” We now have the ability to identify who those people are and to craft mail that will appeal to them. Over the course of three or four weeks of a direct mail campaign, it has been shown that we can move those numbers 10 to 12 points. So everything else is equal across the board, yet we show we can move that one group. There are literally a couple hundred examples of this from the past couple of cycles.
C&E: Aside from content, are there differences between Republican and Democratic mail?
Mitchell: I think there are some differences on a purely aesthetic level, which is only a very small part of effective direct mail. Typically, the Democratic mail that I get as a voter tends to be more visually appealing on average than the Republican mail. I’m not sure exactly why that is. I have some suspicions. Personally, I think our direct mail quite obviously compares favorably with everyone across the board. But generally speaking I do think there is more of a priority on the Democratic side to putting together stuff that is visually appealing.
Mack: I can only speak for our firm, but design really matters. Given the era that we’re living in right now, it’s all about design. Why do people have more iPods and Apple products? It’s the design, right? Design sells and that’s why we invest money and resources and energy into design. I think voters are really looking for that right now. Of course, sometimes you don’t need that. And sometimes design gets in the way of your message. There are a lot of pieces out there with cool designs, but I have no idea what they’re trying to say. The key is merging message and design into one package.
Mitchell: I think it’s particularly important when you are in a position of relying on direct mail—either because of the size of your campaign or the size of the media market—to not only communicate to your target groups, but to also communicate some of the broad themes of your campaign. When your introductory mail is designed to move your numbers, it better also make you look like you’re current and have your act together. Quite frankly, if your piece looks like it was designed 10 years ago, you’re not going to make the kind of impression you want to make regardless of what the copy says.