This issue's shoptalkers: Trish Hoppey, partner at the Democratic direct mail firm Pivot; Kevin Mack, partner at Mack Crounse Group; and Ben Mitchell, partner at the Republican mail firm Political Ink.

C&E: Which postal changes will have the greatest impact on your business and how are you all dealing with that? 

Kevin Mack: I think what really impacts us are the sorting facilities and the fact that the post office is cutting shifts and laying off workers in those facilities. In Ohio, for instance, there used to be three or four facilities your mail could go through. Now, there’s maybe only one covering the entire state. So once you drop the mail off at a postal sectional facility, it impacts your ability to actually get it out to households and the ability to track it. I think what it means is that we’re going to have to build in longer periods of time for dropping the mail. People who try to be really precise are going to get in trouble.

Trish Hoppey: I think there are mechanisms we can use to help us determine how long delivery of our mail is taking. That way we can adjust the schedule after a few mailings based on that. There are organizations like Track My Mail that will put a barcode on the mail so we can see how it goes through the delivery system. We also use U.S. Monitor on every single mailing that we send out. For us, it’s simply a way of knowing exactly when things are actually hitting a mailbox. As postal facilities continue to close, that’s something that will help us to determine whether or not the closings are really having an impact. Now, I do think we saw a bit of the impact of these shifts being cut just this past year in Virginia. It’s really unfortunate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that more people are out of work.

Ben Mitchell: If a campaign is well organized, well-funded and well run you aren’t going to see much difference because of this. And that’s because good campaigns plan well. They know what they want to say and when they want to say it. What’s happening with the Postal Service is going to make it more difficult for mail consultants to bail out campaigns that are poorly planned. So perhaps it’s no longer going to be possible for a campaign to get on the phone with you 10 days out and say, “I just found some more money and I want to spend it on direct mail.”

Hoppey: Right, unless we’re in front of it. And campaigns typically aren’t as willing to take a risk to get in front of it because you then have a bunch of pieces in the bank that those campaigns have to turn around and potentially pay for.

C&E: What was the most immediate impact you saw on the legislative races in Virginia this year?

Hoppey: We just saw deliverability take a lot longer than we were used to. That was particularly the case in Northern Virginia. Is this something you guys saw, as well? 

Mack: We absolutely did. It was just inconsistent. Sometimes we would drop on a Tuesday and actually be in households on Wednesday, which is what you would expect. Other times, it would take five or six days. When that would happen, we’d call the Postal Service and basically they would say, “This is the new normal.”

Hoppey: This is one of the reasons that it’s really important that people look at who they’re hiring. You want to make sure the people you hire are actually developing relationships with the sectional center facilities. They need to have relationships that allow them to call and say, “Hey, we’ve got a piece of mail that’s coming through and we want to alert you to it.” That’s something my firm does, and I know that Kevin’s firm does it too. It’s also important to have the capacity to try to figure out where the problem is if a piece of mail isn’t getting delivered as fast as you need it to. There are ways that we can at least keep our clients in the loop on this stuff. Ultimately, I just don’t think these changes are going to have as big of an impact in political communications as some people are fearing.

Mack: Every medium has challenges right now. This is just a new one for us. Television is dealing with hundreds of channels and satellites and DVRs. We’re dealing with five day delivery and slower delivery times. It’s just a new challenge that we have to deal with.

C&E: What about the possibility of three day delivery or something more drastic down the road?  Can you survive that?

Mitchell: If the Postal Service gets more efficient and better organized, which admittedly is unlikely, then three or four days a week wouldn’t really be an issue. The exception is in races where you may be looking to be in mailboxes every single day. In that case, it’s a real issue. But that’s not the expectation for most of our clients. To me, it’s less about how many days the post office delivers and more about how efficient and reliable it is.

Mack: That’s a good point. It’s really about spacing. If you’re trying to drop 10 pieces of mail, then you have to figure out at what interval you have to mail those pieces. I think that’s something we’re going to have to figure out campaign by campaign.

Hoppey: It all comes back to planning and being able to adjust. Whether it’s the campaign or the consultant, we’ll have to be more nimble.

Mitchell: The one thing I would add is that this also reduces the margin of error. We have production schedules, as I’m sure you guys do. You will now have to hit your production deadlines every single time. If you’re dropping two mail pieces a week and you miss a day for some reason, that’s not the biggest deal if you still have six day delivery. But when the delivery days are reduced at all, it’s critical that we mitigate any sort of delay.

C&E: So is this just a matter of pushing campaigns to plan more comprehensively?

Hoppey: Well, I think campaigns do that. My experience with good campaigns is that you start out with a communications plan that’s integrated with everything else— he field plan, the paid media, the direct voter contact. What it really means is that we have to just be a little more vigilent when it comes to those plans. We need to either stick to them better or be more agile in moving around them. But smart campaigns do plan. And the better the plan, the more likely the campaign is to win.

Mack: I think the biggest part of this equation going forward is capacity. You need design capacity, you need production capacity and now you need the capacity to ensure the mail gets in on time. There is something alluring about hiring a really small firm, or a one- or two-person firm. I understand that. On the other hand, you have to make sure the firm you hire has the capacity to deal with all of these different issues. It’s just a little bit of an interesting world right now and I think it will be very interesting to see how that plays out over this cycle.

C&E: There are so many new firms starting across the industry—direct mail and otherwise. What do you make of that landscape? 

Mitchell: I’m not sure if this is true on the Democratic side of things, but on the Republican side it seems as though the operatives coming up through the ranks are focused on online media. There’s this narrative out there—that’s not entirely true— that says two or three or four cycles from now direct mail is going to be dead. I think because of that a lot of young people are focused on building online firms. As a result, there’s intense competition and intense pressure on margins. Quite frankly, that’s accruing to our benefit.

Hoppey: More power to ‘em from my perspective. I think we see a shift every cycle. There are people who leave the committees or people who leave other firms to start their own. What happens over the course of time is just a natural selection. Firms either merge, or people decide to leave to join more established firms. It’s always interesting to see the sort of new firms that crop up each and every year. 

Mitchell: But is it similar on the Democratic side? Are people starting new mail companies on your side of the aisle?

Hoppey: Yes. A lot of folks are.

Mack: I think it’s highly competitive out there on the direct mail side. And because of that you have to stay hungry and you have to fight for every piece of business. That goes for business that you’ve had for years, too. You just have to accept that and take it on. If you get lazy—at least on the Democratic side—with your marketing right now you will get eaten alive by the smaller, up-and-coming firms.

Hoppey: I completely agree and I think it makes us better at our jobs. We have to stay on the edge and be constantly thinking about how to help our existing and recurring clients, because those are the marquee clients that every firm wants. It’s our responsiblitlity to be in front of them. What I find is that the more direct mail firms out there, the more our clients are expecting from us. They really expect us to be a much more involved member of the team in certain cases.

Mack: After the Obama campaign, there were 15 or 20 people who were trying to just do online on the Democratic side. Some of them are still doing it, some of them are doing other things and some of them have actually been rehired by the Obama campaign. So I do think there was a big influx of online consultants in 2008, but it has tapered off a bit for us.

C&E: How about the folks who do say, “Direct mail is dead.” Why are they wrong?

Mack: For the last six or seven years, at least on the Democratic side, there has been a tremendous amount of testing done on direct mail. I believe that when it started, the intent was to prove that direct mail didn’t work any longer. What ended up happening was that mail worked in every single one of these tests. It actually worked as well or better than every other medium. So on the Democratic side, all of these modelers and testers have now come to the conclusion that mail does work. In part, that’s because we have less competition rather than more. You still only have one mailbox as opposed to two TVs and 500 channels. Voters may spend less time with direct mail at the end of the day, but the time they do spend with it has more of an impact.

Mitchell: A few months ago our business received a direct mail solicitation from Google. They were trying to get us to advertise using adwords. Personally, I think that pretty much sums it up. If Google thinks a good way to attract customers and get people’s attention is through direct mail, then surely it’s still the case for political campaigns.

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.