How a highly targeted direct mail effort moved union voters 12 points...
When it came to union members in Ohio this past year, Barack Obama started in a weakened position. Early polling from the state showed union members supporting him with just 50 percent of the vote. It wasn’t a bad start, but it was well below the number Obama needed to win the state.
By the time Election Day rolled around, polling showed a 12 point increase for Obama in the demographic. It was in large part the result of an advanced research and targeting program developed by the AFLCIO aimed at identifying persuadable members and helping Obama maximize his vote share. Weekly internal polling showed that direct contact through mail, phones and at the workplace had an enormous impact on members’ voting decisions.
Mack/Crounse Group was one of three direct mail firms and three polling firms on the AFL-CIO’s communication team in 2008. We worked closely with AFL-CIO staff and the entire team to maximize the union vote and propel Barack Obama to victory.
Every election cycle, organizations as diverse as the NRA and Planned Parenthood mail political recommendations to their members This mail has evolved from letters in envelopes and side-by-side comparisons to some of the most sophisticated and tested persuasion messaging in the industry.
The AFL-CIO has been at the forefront of the evolution. Through years of experience, they have developed a winning formula that is one part science, one part cutting- edge design, and one part relevance. And this formula was put to the test in Ohio in 2008, where Barack Obama started with the narrowest of margins among union members.
Early focus groups and polling showed that white, bluecollar union men and women were conflicted. They may have agreed with Barack Obama on major issues like the economy, but they had concerns about his experience, background and upbringing. Many of them had received the vicious viral e-mails questioning Obama’s religion, patriotism and even where he was born. The members had nagging questions, and the AFL-CIO knew they had to address them.
Of course, there are differing opinions on how to answer negative attacks. Some say “never repeat a charge,” whereas others say “never let a charge go unanswered.” The AFL-CIO used polling, focus groups and live mail tests to make a definitive decision—these charges had to be addressed to reach vote goals.
After the focus groups and polling, the AFL-CIO used sophisticated microtargeting to determine who among their millions of members were most persuadable. It’s called “data-driven politics,” and the AFL-CIO has mastered the technique. The AFL-CIO’s advanced modeling techniques identified 234,714 persuadable voters and targeted them with 17 mail pieces aimed at different subsets of the universe.
One of the first mail pieces sent to targeted households was developed as a way to confront the lies head-on. The “Rumors” piece was one of the most tested mail pieces of the 2008 cycle.
Every direct mail consultant has theories about what type of design works best. The AFL-CIO has taken the guesswork out of the design process by devoting significant resources to learning exactly what creative approach is the most effective. We used pictures, clear statements and footnotes to make our case. No games were being played. All of the information was right there for the reader to see.
And the focus group responses largely reinforced our confidence in the approach. “If the union says these things aren’t true, I believe it,” was one response. “There’s Obama with his hand on the Bible, right there. And Dick Cheney is with him. If that rumor is a lie, they probably all are,” was another.
Several focus group participants asked if they could keep the piece to show their family members or coworkers. This was the back-up they needed to “win an argument” or prove the rumors were bogus.
The design became an essential part of the communication strategy. It laid the groundwork for future mail pieces that focused on economic issues and persuaded voters who were on the fence.
Design-wise every piece had a similar look and feel. Through message repetition, they told a multi-chapter story about John McCain, George Bush and why their policies were so wrong for American workers.
The layering effect of mail, phones and workplace contact moved numbers across the board and narrowed John McCain’s pool of swing voters. McCain wanted to talk about experience, but we made it clear that his experience didn’t fit with workers’ economic interests.
The Media Strategy
The AFL-CIO made another major decision that effectively amplified the impact of their direct mail campaign. Instead of quietly mailing pieces and hoping non-targeted voters didn’t notice, they decided to release their pieces to the media.
A lot of campaigns produce TV ads and run them a few times to generate press attention. The AFL-CIO backed up what they released to the media with millions of dollars in field, polling and direct mail operations. This wasn’t just for show. To get coverage, the pieces had to be timely and relevant.
For example, when John McCain’s connection to over 8,000 DHL workers losing their jobs in Wilmington, Ohio, became news, the AFL-CIO pounced. We had designs ready to go within hours of the story breaking and got workplace flyers and mail out the door in short order. We not only delivered the message, we helped drive the media’s narrative and played referee with union workers.
It became clear that bloggers and the mainstream media were influenced by the actual mail designs. It’s one thing to send a news release attacking John McCain, but it’s another to actually show the attack with pictures, colors and graphics. The decision not only made the mailers a relevant political story—it generated media analysis of the AFL-CIO’s efforts, expanding and amplifying our message beyond just our target audience.
“Driving home Obama’s attacks on McCain’s involvement in the sale of an Ohio DHL plant,” Politico’s Ben Smith wrote, “the AFLCIO is sending the mailer to what a union official described as 100,000 ‘union swing voters’ in Ohio—that is, Reagan Democrats.”
When John McCain said the economy was “fundamentally strong,” we used it as an example of why he was so wrong for American workers. Again, mail was designed within hours, flyers were produced, and mail was dropped.
The pieces framed a lot of the issue debate on the partisan blogs too. Liberal bloggers amplified our message about corporate greed and Bush/McCain economic policies, while conservative bloggers just attacked the messenger. From my perspective, we won these cyber-debates.
The AFL-CIO used mail to drive message. The result was thousands of stories and blog postings that reinforced that message.
The AFL-CIO understood that union members were key to Barack Obama’s victory and that the economy was the most important issue in this election. No organization was more qualified to drive an economic message. They used science, design and relevance to persuade crucial swing voters in battleground states. While some people believe “print is dead,” the AFL-CIO proved that mail is not only an effective way to deliver your message, it is a way to define the contours of a debate and develop an echo chamber for your message. So when you think about member communication in the future, think about the millions of hard-working union men and women who cast aside the rumors and voted in record numbers for Barack Obama.
Kevin Mack is a Senior Partner of Mack/Crounse Group. Mack/Crounse Group is part of the AFL-CIO’s member communications team, along with MSHC Partners and Bynum Thompson Ryer.
Winning Over Labor
How a highly targeted direct mail effort moved union voters 12 points....
How a highly targeted direct mail effort moved union voters 12 points...