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The DIY movement is hitting the direct mail industry with Democratic shops on both coasts now offering down-ballot candidates tools once reserved for better funded races.

Now, print shops have long offered candidates the ability to upload art onto a template and have mail pieces produced like wedding or baby shower invites. But sophisticated targeting or messaging has been reserved for those with a large enough budget to afford a mail consultant’s retainer. 

Karen Petel, whose D.C.-based firm Petel & Co. is one of the shops offering the DIY service through its Custom Campaign Mail shingle, said the idea sprung from watching Republicans  take control of some 900 legislative seats across the country between 2010-14. 

“Democrats at the local level need to run more aggressive, message-driven campaigns,” said Petel. “Nearly 70 percent of campaigns are on shoestring budgets. Unlike top of the ticket candidates, they don't use consultants or have anyone giving them professional advice.”

Users of Petel’s site can upload their own art and mailing lists. When there’s any confusion, a web video or chat function is available to walk the user through the steps. “Our site has templates based on popular issues and different postcard sizes — all created specifically for this site,” Petel said. “When a piece reaches a threshold of use, we take it down and rotate in new designs.”

This shift to DIY is coming as digital consultants are chipping away at mail’s share of campaign budgets. Still, one West Coast consultant said the move from retainer to flat fees isn’t about capturing a larger share of well-funded campaigns. Instead, it’s about helping the party’s farm system develop talent. 

“We’re here to help build the bench,” said Danielle Winterhalter, SpeakEasy Political's director of strategic partnerships. “The goal is really to leverage technology to even the playing field in these down-ballot races.”

The San Francisco-based firm, which is a spinoff of Storefront Political Media, recently contracted with the Oregon Democrats to produce some 133,000 pieces of franked mail as it beta tested its own do-it-yourself service. 

Bergen Kenny, who’s heading up SpeakEasy, said that state parties, issue groups and small-budget campaigns can all benefit from the service. “These down-ballot races can’t afford a consultant and frankly, it’s not profitable for consultants to take on races that can’t pay a certain level,” she said. “So we always felt that there was a market that wasn’t being served.”

Now, there are some restrictions on SpeakEasy’s service. The firm won’t work with Republicans, even in non-partisan races, and its staff decide if the pieces ordered are in good taste. “We’re not going to print naked pictures of people’s wives. We have a list of words that we will not print,” said Kenny. The minimum order is a run of 500. 

“With a normal consultant, you pay a custom art charge and it would be $700-$1,500 for the piece. All mail consultants charge an agency fee of anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000 to pick up and produce pieces. We get rid of those two things,” Kenny said. “We charge for hard costs like printing and postage so we can do it for a little over a $1 a piece. So you’re in the $1,000-$1,200 range” for one mail piece. The price per piece decreases with larger runs.

Like with Petel’s service, SpeakEasy’s clients can upload their own lists or use a data vendor. Its clients can also use Storefront’s 50 top pieces as a template. 

Currently, SpeakEasy has data for California and Oregon but is planning to expand nationally, said Kenny, who brushed aside the suggestion her firm is undercutting the competition. 

“If you’re going to spent $100,000 on a mail piece, you should hire a consultant. That makes sense,” she said. “But there’s a [section] of the market that cannot afford to pay a $7,000 markup on a piece that’s going to 2,000 homes in a sanitation district in Marin County. So this is for them. That’s really why we built it."