Top Ten Rules of Direct Mail

This is an abbreviated version of our Progressive Majority Action workshop on direct persuasion mail. It is divided in three categories: (1) The mechanics of direct mail; (2) The theme and message you convey; and (3) The design of persuasion mail pieces.

Rule #1—Mechanics: Write down your mail plan

Matt Reese, the godfather of political consultants, used to say, “If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist.” Your written mail plan should describe every aspect of every piece, long before you create any of them. It can be as simple as this:

Piece #1

Deadline to Designer:  September 15; to Printer: September 24; to Mail:  October 3

Subject:  Biography

Size:  11x17, folded to 8½ x 11

Target: Households with at least one Democrat who voted in one of the last two general elections; plus households with at least one voter who is neither Democrat nor Republican who voted in one of the last two general elections; plus households with at least one Republican who did not vote in any of the last four primaries but did vote in one of the last two general elections; plus households with a newly registered voter.

Quantity: 22,000

Cost: $9,500

Description: The cover is a large photo of the candidate at age 18 when he was a volunteer fireman. Caption is “Always ready to serve.” Inside spread has about 10 photos with captions that illustrate his background, especially photos about his history of service, and the headline says “Councilman Bill Smith Gets Things Done for You.” Inside also has about four paragraphs of text. The back has the campaign logo, a family picture with caption, and the mailing indicia.

Describe every piece that way and it will allow you to (a) get input from your kitchen cabinet (see Rule #10) and (b) create deadlines for every aspect of the work such as the writing, the picture-taking, and the moving of the piece from vendor to vendor.

Also create a chart of direct mail prices that lists how much it will cost the campaign to produce different sizes and quantities. For example, let us say the possible quantities you might mail are 15,000, 20,000 and 25,000. You would get estimates from your printer on the cost of producing each of those quantities for each of the standard mail piece sizes, like:  8½ x 12 card; 12 x 11 folded to 6 x 11; 11 x 17 folded to 8 ½ x 11; and 11 x 17 folded in thirds. Then for each, add costs from the designer, mail house and postage. (Postage is different for different sizes and mail housing may cost more if mail has to be tabbed.) This allows you to estimate the total price of each piece and know quickly how much it might cost to change from one design to another.

Rule #2—Mechanics: Target your voters

Let us say you’re running in a district with a population of 100,000. Let’s say 70,000 are of voting age. 65,000 are citizens eligible to vote. 50,000 are registered. 35,000 actually voted in the last General and only 30,000 voted in your race. About 24,000 are pretty clearly in the Democratic or Republican base and are not persuadable. Only about 6,000 are persuadable voters.

If you buy a billboard, it will be seen by everybody—100,000 or more people. The same is true of radio, newspaper ads, etc. That’s great exposure for a national brand, but not for you.  There’s no reason to pay to reach people who cannot or will not vote for you. You have to go far more narrow. The only ways to narrow-cast your message are: (1) mail, (2) walk, (3) phone and (4) email/text.

You will target based on the circumstances of the election and what information is available on the voter file. Mostly the decision is based on party, voter history, geography and age because that’s what you’ve got. In a large campaign (statewide or congressional), mail is usually targeted to reach specific voters based on geodemographic factors—that is, messages are tailored to fit a narrow audience like senior citizens. In smaller campaign it is usually not economical to do that. Usually you have to send the same mail to all of your target households.

Rule #3—Mechanics: Time the pieces to arrive when voters are listening

Selling a candidate is not like selling a consumer product, mostly because there's no Election Day for buying toothpaste. In politics, there is a window of time when voters are receptive to messages from the candidates. Generally, voters won't pay any attention at all until about three months before an election. And even then, most voters don't pay very much attention to direct mail until the last three weeks. So you usually want to "backload" your mail into that window.

A good mail plan requires repetition. We hope you can send at least seven different pieces. If you can't raise enough to send at least three pieces, you probably shouldn’t be running. Fewer than three does not provide enough repetition to make a dent in voters’ perceptions.

When you do mail, you generally want to space out each piece so that it’s unlikely voters will receive more than one of your pieces on the same day. A rule of thumb is to space them out by three days or more. Usually the Postal Service will deliver red-tagged political mail quickly when it’s close to the election, but the further you get from Election Day, the more likely it is that mail carriers will let bags of your mail sit awhile. So you generally need more space between mailings the farther away you are from Election Day. If you use a professional mail house (and it’s so cheap you really should), they will advise you about the best timing in your jurisdiction.

Rule #4—Message: Convince voters that you are on their side

Candidates and activists tend to think of local election campaigns as if they were small versions of presidential or statewide efforts. But that’s not the case. A local campaign is fundamentally about two things: name recognition and a perception of which candidate is “on my side.”

Name recognition is a fairly strait-forward matter of campaign mechanics and hard work. Persuading voters that you are on their side is a bit trickier. First, understand that it’s not a matter of issues. Activists judge candidates by their laundry list of issues; average voters don’t. Issues are mostly useful as illustrations of a campaign theme.

So what’s a theme? It is a narrative that explains why voters should favor you over your opponent(s). The idea is to frame the question you want voters to answer as they vote. “Which candidate will protect me from crime?” or “Which will stop the developers from ruining our neighborhood?” or “Which will side with the middle class against the rich?” Generally speaking, themes fall into four categories:

(1) I’m physically one of you

This is an appeal to a common race, religion, ethnicity or geography. “Vote for the white guy/Baptist/Italian guy/guy from your local community…” It is not unreasonable for voters to assume that someone who shares demographic characteristics with them might understand their problems better or might be more likely to battle for their own. This kind of politics can get ugly, but it won’t go away by pretending it doesn’t exist.

(2) I am ideologically one of you

We are most used to this and it's most practical in general elections where our candidate supports the 99 percent and their candidate favors the one percent. If you’re going to distinguish your candidate from another based on ideology, you need to make it clear that your opponent is on the wrong side and use policy positions and votes to prove it. But be concise: voters are not going to understand if you say the opponent voted “to lower the upper tax bracket” or some complicated description of a specific policy. The average voter won’t remember specific policy positions for any of the candidates, just a sense of which candidate seems to be most on the voter’s side.

(3) I will get things done for you

This is the theme that wins most city or county elections. “Our candidate is effective/experienced/gets results/is a leader.” “Our candidate gets things done for you, your family, and your community.” Anyone can vote right, both you and voters know, but not everyone has the energy and skill to work the process and get results. When this is the theme, issues are used to demonstrate skill—the candidate increased wages, cracked down on criminals, built a new park, upgraded the local school. Or competence can be demonstrated by experience outside of government—she ran this business so she can balance the town’s budget. Endorsements from individuals and groups can be used to illustrate either a “gets things done” or an “ideologically one of you” theme.

(4) I am your candidate for change

Americans are hard-wired to dislike government. They are always ready to believe the worst about incumbents. So there are many opportunities to run a campaign that is focused on “change.” Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and Barack Obama’s in 2008 were essentially about change. If voters strongly believe the state or local government is “on the wrong track,” then this theme might work for you.

In crafting a theme, you can combine ideas from these four. A candidate can be one of us and an effective advocate, or, like Barack Obama in 2008, represents change from bad policies to good ones.

Rule #5—Message: Tell voters you will address their own problems, not the common good

Whatever the theme, make sure that yours is focused on benefiting the voters you’re talking to. Voters are focused on themselves, their families, and their own communities. Your theme has to be about how you are going to help them personally. When you highlight issues, it should be to show how you will directly and indirectly improve the voters’ quality of life. Parks will be cleaner; traffic problems will improve; government offices will serve citizens better; unwanted real estate development will be thwarted. We ardent progressives like to talk about the common good, but that is not what average voters care about.

Rule #6—Design: Grab voters’ attention

Unlike all of us, voters are normal people. They are not interested in unsolicited mail in general, and political advertising in particular. If your piece looks dull or boring, voters will ignore it. Mail is not a passive medium like television. If voters don't get interested and involved in your mail, they won't get your message. So grab their attention with non-political images that speak from the popular culture. Don’t make your pieces look like typical political mail.

Rule #7—Design: Assume the text won’t be read

Here's a rule of thumb:  One-third of the recipients of direct mail will look at the photos, headlines and maybe the photo captions. Another third will read some of the text. Only the remaining one-third will read most or all of the text. If you don't communicate your message with the photos and headlines, then you've missed a lot of voters.

By far, the fastest and most effective way to communicate a message is by triggering an emotional response. Yes, you can still talk about issues. But link those issues to compelling images, using strong photos and thematic colors.

Rule #8—Design: Use the credibility of third parties

When a politician makes a claim, do voters believe it?  More and more frequently, the answer is no. That is why campaigns need third-party validation, especially for negatives. Your mail should include statements from the press, public reports, credible interest groups and well-known individuals to reinforce your message. If you’re talking about the environment, back it up (if you possibly can) with an endorsement from a pro-environment group or a statement from an influential person who is known to be an environmental leader.

Rule #9—Design: Use comparative and sometimes negative mail

We all like to be positive, but an election is a choice between or among candidates. You have to not only say why your candidate is good—you have to say why s/he is the best of those running. That doesn’t mean your piece has to mention the other candidate(s). It can simply say that your candidate is “the only one who…” At some point, however, you probably need to have comparative and/or negative pieces.

Voters don’t like negative ads—in fact, they hate them. But if done right, comparative and negative ads work. On candidate-sponsored mail, don’t be mean or grim. The cover should not look like nuclear winter (as so many political TV ads do). The most effective candidate-sponsored negative mail is funny or clever. It takes the edge off and gets voters interested enough to absorb the point of the piece. Don’t ever compare your opponent to a hated figure like Hitler or bin Laden—it won’t help you. Third parties can be meaner than candidates because it doesn’t matter so much if the voters get mad at a business or labor PAC.

You should be much quicker to do comparative mail rather than negative. That’s mail where you explain your candidate’s good deed(s) or position(s) and explicitly talk about how your opponent(s) is/are on the wrong side. One design hint: It often works to put text about your own candidate in dark type on a light field and put a box about your opponent(s) in reverse type—that is, white type on a dark field. It’s a visual tip-off about which is good and which is bad.

Be careful about negative ads in a race with more than two candidates. Let’s say there are three. If Candidate A hits Candidate B, then voters feel bad about both of them and tend to feel better about Candidate C. Pure negative usually works poorly in a multi-candidate race, although it is entirely possible and desirable to send comparative mail where your Candidate A is contrasted to both Candidates B and C. You have to show that your candidate is the best, no matter how many people are running.

Rule #10—Design: Informally focus group your mail

There is no candidate, campaign manager or direct mail consultant who “knows” exactly how well each piece of mail will be received by voters. To the extent possible, you need to test each piece (as well as the overall mail plan) with an informal focus group of friends.

Find nonpolitical people who you can trust completely—like spouses and family of your campaign’s kitchen cabinet. Have your designer create early mock-ups of each piece and circulate them to both your political insiders and this nonpolitical group. You will be surprised how much you learn! Granted, nonpolitical friends will not like any negative mail, but listen closely and you will find ways to improve your positive, comparative and negative pieces.

Finally, do you need to hire direct mail professionals? For design, yes! Do not do it yourself—designers don’t cost much nowadays. Obviously your printer is professional. A mail house is usually worth paying for—sometimes they can get postal discounts that nearly offset the cost of using them. What about a political direct mail firm? If you’re spending more than $30-40,000 on mail, then you probably should. A good direct mail firm will give you a lot of advice, will provide first-class design, and will offer terrific stock photo ideas to make your message stand out—especially negative mail. There is a tendency for a lot of candidates to think they are, themselves, experts at direct mail. If they haven’t done 100 campaigns or more, they’re not.

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