Maren Hesla is a principal at Mission Control, a Democratic direct mail firm. Ed Peavy is the founder of Mission Control. Aaron Leibowitz is a principal at Targeted Creative Communications, a Republican direct mail firm.
For 20 years, people have been writing the obituary of political mail. But richer targeting and smarter creative, coupled with the increasing difficulty of reaching people through traditional broadcast media, have made mail more indispensable than ever when it comes to reaching voters.
In all forms of communication, the trend is toward individualization and personalization. But while we await the promise of TV ads delivered to specific cable boxes and cookie-matching that allows saturation-level online communication, mail is already reaching specific voters with targeted messages.
Think about that again—with today’s technology only one medium is delivering the right message to the voters who can be most moved by it with 100 percent penetration and a high level of confidence: direct mail. In this changing campaign landscape, that makes us in the direct mail world feel much better. What follows is why we’re convinced the state of the political mail industry remains strong.
Just 10 years ago, mail targeting was largely limited to age, gender and precinct-level geographic data. Party registration and race were available in limited states. But better voter files, bigger computers and the availability of commercial data have led to the widespread availability of modeling, which targets voters at an individual level. All contested House and Senate races offer race-specific models that allow us to target on partisanship and turnout. In highly partisan precincts we can cherry-pick those individuals who are more open to our candidates.
Additionally, we’re finding increasingly accurate issue-specific models that allow us to target voters based on their attitudes toward abortion, guns, environmental concerns and other issues. We can frequently hone in on very specific voters.
In Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign in Massachusetts, voters who supported President Obama but were not yet in support of Warren were a key target group. It wasn’t that this group was necessarily supporting Obama and Republican Scott Brown—more often than not they simply didn’t know Warren well enough to support her. And since their partisanship was weak, this group did not automatically endorse the Democratic candidate. These “Obama-not-Warren” voters were successfully modeled and they became an important mail target.
The Rodney Davis campaign in the 13th Congressional District in Illinois had a similar problem, only compounded. Due to the dynamics of Davis’ late entry into the race, Republicans weren’t rallying as quickly as the campaign needed. Many seniors in the district also liked that Davis’ opponent David Gill was a doctor. During the final month of the campaign, a model of “GOP/Romney-not-Davis” voters was created and used in the areas of the district covered by St. Louis broadcast television to supplement the relatively thin electronic message buy. A group of nonpartisan, high probability senior voters who disliked cuts to Medicare more than they liked the Affordable Care Act were also targeted uniquely through the mail.
This sort of targeting will only become richer and more precise in future election cycles. The lesson from the corporate world is that multiple iterations provide the best models, and as we become more adept at using low-cost IVR surveys, at capturing and incorporating individual-level response data from field programs, and in refining our use of commercial data, the models will become more predictive.
A less heralded benefit of the advancement of modeling is improved data quality. Mailing to old addresses, deceased voters and undeliverable addresses has wasted untold amounts of money. But improved NCOA (National Change of Address) technology from the postal service, the availability of commercial Change of Address lists and an improved ability to purge deceased voters from files has lead to a significantly higher rate of delivery. We do still suffer from the “garbage in, garbage-out” axiom in data management, but our tools to reduce the garbage have improved.
Perhaps no area of direct mail has shown as much growth as the tools we use to test and refine mail. For years, our best test of mail was in focus groups. But that unnatural setting produced flawed feedback. Sitting around a table full of strangers, people inevitably bemoaned negativity and asked for straightforward, comparative, well-sourced information. They read each piece cover-to-cover, questioned its veracity and offered suggestions on graphic design. In the real world, voters glance at a piece of mail for the amount of time it takes them to travel from the mailbox to the trash can.
Our ability to affect perception lies in our ability to create an impression in that amount of time—generally less than 10 seconds. So how best to measure that impact? Increasingly, and particularly on the Democratic side, we rely on Experiment Informed Programs (EIPs). In EIPs we mail different treatments to a smaller, randomized sample of voters, create a control group that gets no mail and then survey the mail recipients and the control group to find out where we created the most movement. This approach allows us to identify both maximally effective targets and messages—we see what treatment works best with which voters. We can model the most responsive universe, match the appropriate message to that universe and then roll out the right creative to the right targets.
Voters don’t even realize they’ve been a part of a mail experiment, and we measure the reaction we care about the most: a change in vote preference. Sharp mail shops on both sides of the aisle will be offering testing this cycle and it will make great sense for appropriately sized races.
We anticipate more growth among web-based testing in upcoming cycles. In addition to showing mail in online focus groups, and incorporating the qualitative feedback we receive in that forum, firms are testing the potential for using clickthrough rates to measure the appeal of graphics. Online testing offers the potential for faster and less expensive feedback loops, allowing us to test and respond quickly to breaking events.
Innovation in printing technology has allowed for an explosion in personalized mail. Whether it’s lasering the voter’s name on a post-it on the cover of a mail piece, or generating targeted issue-specific content in letters, mail firms are moving away from one-size-fits-all pieces.
One of the most intriguing developments is using mail to drive voters to personalized URLs (PURLs). The Voter Participation Center tested a groundbreaking program, with mail encouraging voters to visit a web address that incorporated its name For example: EdPeavy@govote.com. The site welcomed them (Hello Ed!) and then gave them information on voting, including directions from their home to their polling place, links to candidate websites, rules on voting and even Election Day weather reports. PURLS give campaigns and organizations the opportunity to build web-based communication programs that target their universe one voter at a time.
Potentially, there’s even more to come. With Near Field Communication (NFC) features increasingly available in phones (thanks mainly to those cool commercials of people sharing music just by waving their phones) it is possible now to do mail that would allow NFC-enabled phones to wave over a mail piece and be directed to a website, see a video or donate to the campaign without ever being near a TV or computer. It is still a bit costly but improvements and economies of scale will make it viable for some campaigns in the near future if NFC adoption rates continue to rise.
The potential of individual communication does not obviate the absolute necessity of message discipline. Personalization is a fine way to draw voters into a piece, but the content of the piece must continue to drive a single message. In all forms of voter communication, what we struggle with most is the exploding range of information sources. Breaking through the clutter has never been more difficult or more important. Campaigns that use personalization as a gimmick, rather than a way of reinforcing the key message for that target universe are making a mistake.
The Postal Service
The doomsday prophets predicting the end of political mail inevitably point to the financial difficulties of the postal service as the likely nail in our coffin. But the bottom line is that short of a zombie apocalypse, we will always have mail delivery service in this country. The potential loss of Saturday delivery is a negligible threat: All mail programs rely on repetition, and it’s unlikely to matter if the final piece of a 10-piece program is delivered on the Friday or the Saturday before the election.
Of greater concern is the possibility of significant consolidation of shipping centers. Closing outlying shipping centers will potentially raise shipping rates for campaigns, without necessarily achieving the cost savings the postal service is looking for. While fixes clearly need to be made, nothing suggests the postal service will make changes that would dramatically interfere with the regular delivery of mail.
In sum, the challenges in communicating a message to voters have never been steeper. Shows are filtered through Hulu, DVRs and On- Demand programming. Radio comes across SiriusXM, Pandora and an endless number of other online stations. Caller ID and cell-only usage is limiting phone access.
Still, everyone has just one mailbox. And with better targeting and eye-catching creative, we’re still reaching them there.