As campaign communications evolve in the new media age, these consultants say direct mail is-and will continue to be-an essential tool for reaching voters.Anil Mammen is the president of the Mammen Group, a Democratic mail firm based in Washington, D.C.Dan Hazelwood is the founder of Targeted Creative Communications, a Republican direct marketing company based in Alexandria, Virginia.Bo Harmon is a partner at Response America which runs fundraising and voter contact mail for Republican candidates and right-of-center, nonprofit organizations.
Politics: In the past two election cycles, what has changed? Is how you use lists changing? Is targeting changing? Have their been developments that stand out to you?Anil Mammen: One development that hasn’t happened is a lot of people sort of assume there is less direct mail going on now than there was back in the 1990s or even six years ago. On the Democratic side at least, we don’t find that to be the case. And I don’t think it’s happening on the Republican side either. On the contrary, direct mail is actually becoming more prevalent. It’s a larger chunk of the advertising budget to a lot of these campaigns. As the television viewing audience becomes more fractured, direct mail actually does something more effectively, relative to television, than it did 10 or 15 years ago. The new media options out there are not replacing mail. They are adding to the way we communicate in campaigns.Dan Hazelwood: What’s fascinating to me is how the misconceptions of mail have remained. Both on it going away and what it is. The fact is that mail is the principle communications tool of every single race below the congressional level in America. Big city mayors—I don’t know if you did Bloomberg…Mammen: I wish I did.
Hazelwood: Even in a race like that, by all accounts from what I’ve heard from people in the business, is that was a huge direct mail campaign. But mail is the principle tool. Everyone was saying, “Mail is going to be the first tool to disappear.” What’s happened is that its competitors are weakening. Direct mail is also less sexy because it’s so common. But the misconceptions about it are quite entertaining.Politics: What is the most outlandish misconception?Hazelwood: When I started this business in the ‘80s, people said you buy TV and two weeks of TV will solve all of your problems. Then it became six weeks of TV will solve all your problems. What’s happened is that TV can’t fix all your problems. Now, the truth is no one thing can. But mail has a critically important role particularly to the 35 and older audience who own homes. It’s a critical information source for them. And that
is what people fail to see. Another—and you guys have seen this also—that people think that it’s an amateur, that it’s an industry for amateurs, when in fact good mail is produced by people who understand the science behind it as much as the art.Bo Harmon: The primary difference that I have seen, is the ability to target better and better. Certainly with microtargeting and as that continues to get more and more efficient, your mail program can go exclusively to the people it needs to go to. You can do very specific messaging to women between 35 and 55 who own their homes, who live in this zip code, who tend to focus on these three issues. And send a different piece to women 55 to 75 who live in different zipcodes who are focused on other issues. So the ability to do that more and more and more is I think what really contributes to the effectiveness of a mail program, especially as TV viewership gets more and more fractured.Politics: Is that targeting a separate specialty or do you try to do it yourselves?Harmon: Some of both. You contract out to get the data. Being able to use it and make recommendations to the client on what the best way of using that data. Some mail firms do that and some rely on the data vendor to do that. Some campaigns take it in house and make those decisions themselves.Hazelwood: I think that’s one of the interesting questions in the industry. I put the word targeted first in my company’s name, so I’m a big believer in it. I think one of the dangers of the new targeting technologies is when people divorce them from the campaign. And you can’t target without regard to what is actually happening in the campaign. I think that is one of the dangers of all the tools that are now at our disposal. So, I am a firm believer that they have to be integrated. Having the mail person be the messaging person and the targeting person and at the table, is what makes it the best.Mammen: The targeting tools on the Democratic and Republican sides are kind of separated. I think in a lot of ways we are catching up on the Democratic side to what Republicans have been doing. It’s hard to know because we never really see the tools at your disposal and how you are using them. But we have a hunch that we were probably a little bit behind in the curve. That’s a problem from a Democratic perspective, but we’ve closed that gap over the past two election cycles.Politics: Is mail a tough sell to candidates and campaigns right now because everyone is talking about social media or new media?Harmon: Not typically. A lot of times candidates recognize that mail needs to be a part of how they communicate with voters. I think that once they see the ability to target and use it efficiently and effectively, they recognize that it provides value to their campaign. Things are always a question of budget, so they say, “We’ve got X number of dollars to spend and TV is going to cost this much.” Like Dan mentioned, everyone feels like they have to be on TV so they have to fund that first. In my view that is often the wrong decision because it’s not targeted and you can’t get specific messages to specific voter pools that you need to be able to persuade or turnout or whatever.Mammen: That has always been the case. I don’t think it has gotten worse in the last few cycles. That pressure: We need to be on TV, we need to be on TV now, our opponent is on TV, therefore we must be on TV whether or not that’s the right decision. We have to make the argument for mail. We must have a rationale in our campaigns. Sometimes the TV guys and gals have less of a selling job to do in explaining why they need to do what they are doing.Hazelwood: A lot of it depends on the candidates. The irony is that the first thing that they are going to use in a campaign is going to be brochures and hand outs, which are part of what we do for direct mail. So they kind of need that, and then they need TV. The real issue is how do you deploy your resources and what’s best for the campaign. And that’s increasingly becoming a different decision around America, particularly with cable.
Now you’ve got network, cable, you’ve got Fios. As that becomes greater in the suburbs, I think you’ve got a lot more campaigns saying we need a mail component. What they don’t know is what that means in the context of their campaign.Politics: How do you explain it to them? Do you say that it all works together?Harmon: I think it is just being able to demonstrate the targeting that’s available. And if they need based on their political situation to get broad based messaging out, they need to convince everyone of X, Y and Z, then a TV ad is the most effective way of doing that. If they need to convince a particular demographic, a swing group, of a particular message, then mail is a more effective tool for that.Hazelwood: The big challenge in campaigns is the cost per voter. In one sense TV is a big number because it’s a lot of money, but you reach a lot of people. But are they the people who matter? And do they matter with that issue? I have found that walking people through the math helps a campaign make its strategic decisions more intelligently.
Politics: Are there technological advances on the printing side to help keep up with the targeting? How hard is it to match the physical stuff with the increase in voter data?Hazelwood: The printing industry is catching up to our targeting capability. So, one of the arguments 10 years ago against excessive targeting was you start to lose your efficiency of printing. That is equalizing to a much greater degree today.Mammen: It used to be very cost prohibitive to do an 1,800 piece mailing almost to the point that it wasn’t even worth considering. But now if you do one to target Jewish voters who might comprise eight percent of an electorate in an election with a special message about Israel, the new presses and new technologies for printing allow us do that more effectively.Harmon: In terms of the variable data, you have to address every mail piece anyway. So it gives you the ability to add something else on there. We do that with our fundraising mail all the time. If you’re last contribution was $50, it says we would like you to give us $75, and if you can’t give us $75, then we’d like you to give us $50 again. We often will put the person’s name throughout the letter in a couple of places. And you have the ability to do that with voter contact mail as well. The downside is if you are trying to personalize it than you have to be very careful, because if you say “Dear James, be sure to request your absentee ballot,” but nobody calls you James, everyone calls you Jim, then you know that isn’t a very personalized message.Politics: Let’s talk a bit about the relationship between new media voter contact and direct mail. Is that a natural extension of what direct mail does? Mammen: It is kind of a natural extension. We are targeted communications people. And with the advent of new media there are new tools to target people with the same messages that we’ve been using in direct mail. We have more tools at our disposal. It’s not a requisite that we do that. There are firms that specialize in new media and they are doing some very cutting edge work. In some cases, we partner with firms like that, in others we do it internally, that’s kind of evolving. My guess is that media firms and direct mail firms and phone firms are going to end up developing these as either loss leaders or just other integrated tools at their disposal to help their mail become more effective.Hazelwood: Also, there is still an open question of whether the new media technologies are persuasive tools, or are they relationship and motivation tools? The fundamental problem of all political campaigns is that something like 70 percent of the voters are not making learning about your candidacy for the state senate their number one priority. So how do you interrupt their daily life and say pay attention to politics? We show up in people’s mailbox six days a week—soon to be five—and the TV people get screened with the DVRS and clicking channels. For the new media people— there are spam filters. Direct mail has been surviving because it’s a very effective tool among two major demographics: female voters and older voters. So if you get a woman older than 40 or a woman older than 35 who is married, suddenly the direct mail box becomes a much more effective tool to reach them than some of these other communications tools.Mammen: That’s the really interesting point. There aren’t a lot of tools left that can force a message in front of somebody who is not looking for it. The world of new media is all about people making their own choices about the information they want to receive about products, public policy issues, whatever, and filtering out stuff that they are not interested in. Direct mail, because it is still delivered today the same way that it has been delivered for decades, it just arrives at your house whether you ask for it or not. The long-term prospects for direct mail are interesting. When the young folks of today move into that prime voter category, their habits and their relationship with the mailbox are going to be very different than the 55-year-olds of today.Hazelwood: The demographic groups should already have changed radically in people’s expectations. There is still a dynamic, and I think they are mostly personal demographic things—when you become married, when you become more stable and attached to a community—you flip a switch in your brain that starts to make you a consumer again of what shows up in your mailbox. I’ve been waiting for these demographic trends and the Internet to devastate direct mail, and the answer is that it hasn’t really. It stinks to try to communicate to a 25-year-old male through the mailbox. They are not going to read it unless it is wrapped in brown paper wrapper or it’s a court summons.Politics: TV people talk about this all the time: What you do so your ads break through. How do you get people to pay attention to your mail?Harmon: On fundraising mail, there tends to be less differentiation in terms of the presentation for the carrier—the envelope. What you are trying to accomplish with that, obviously, is to have it opened. So whatever tactics you can do to get that envelope open is what you are going to use. I have seen some cases where that is basically totally obscuring the fact that it is a fundraising solicitation, trying to make it look like an official document of some sort. It’s just screaming as loudly as you can on the envelope,
“Open me, open me.” You see all three with some regularity. On voter contact your goal is slightly different. Your goal is to push a message. Hazelwood: Fundamentally what happens with the persuasion mail is—and every household does this every day—they get their mail and they perform a sort test. We actually know a huge amount of information about people making that sort test. And that is the moment—that is what separates good firms, like ours that punch through. The sort test criteria are a couple different things. It is who are you talking to—so you are going back to the targeting discussion. How are you getting their attention—which is the creative, which is part art and part science. The third is what is the message you are delivering and is it relevant to the recipient.Politics: Is the current environment inviting torrents of mail pieces screaming about whatever side of the issue you’re on?Hazelwood: In ‘06 and ‘07 we were increasingly seeing on the Republican side—I don’t think the Democrats saw this then, they get to deal with it this year—voters were so angry at the party that they were beginning to start to resist receiving information. So you had to come up with new ways: How do you get the voter to absorb another negative message? They were rejecting all messages.Mammen: The environment this year is, obviously, a lot tougher for Democrats than it was in 2006 or 2008. There is a coarsening of the political debate that has occurred probably since the tail end of the Bush years. It is going to be interesting to see whether this year, independent voters, which is really who we are all going after at the end of the day, if they are going to respond to communications that are as negative as the environment currently is. So is our advertising going to actually get as mad and negative as the voters are? I don’t have the answer to that question.Hazelwood: And this goes back to the targeting question, because the message that you can get away with to the base of your party is absolutely different than the message you can get away with to the independent voters. I pity the campaign that sends the same piece to the opponent’s base because you shouldn’t even be talking to them. (laughter) But you’re going to get a huge negative reaction because the messages that are motivating the bases of both parties are different than what’s motivating the center of the electorate.Harmon: Your job is to be persuasive and it can be persuasive in terms of finding an independent swing voter and getting them to choose your candidate. Or it could be persuasive in finding a conservative voter who doesn’t vote with regularity and making sure he goes to the polls this time. What you need to say to each of those individuals to generate each of the actions you want generated is going to be much different. And so, the amount of negativity in the mail or on TV or in a candidate’s speeches or whatever, is highly dependent on who you are talking to and what you are trying to achieve.Politics: Is it fun, sometimes, to come up with the most creative negative piece you can think of?Mammen: Yeah it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes it can be a little too much fun. What I mean by that is sometimes you can overstep in your excitement and your creativity you can lose sight of the fact that this isn’t a game of who can be the cutest, the most clever, the meanest or the nastiest. So I would add something to Dan’s list, and that’s credibility. It has to be relevant to the voter and it also has to be credible to the voter. On the Democratic side you can say a lot of things that are pretty outlandish about Republicans, because they are predisposed to believe the worst about Republicans. That is very different from the message that we’d deliver to independent voters. It’s tough to get them to believe negative information.Politics: Would a change to five-day-a-week mail service from the U.S. Postal Service—which has been discussed as a cost saving option—drastically change your business?Hazelwood: Yes, with a couple exclamation points.Harmon: Certainly it affects your time horizon, when you need go get something dropped at the post office versus when it will be delivered into a voter’s mailbox. So you just have to readjust your calculus a little bit. But it’s going to be the same for both sides. So I don’t know if it gives anyone an advantage or a disadvantage necessarily, just means you shift you calculus a little.Mammen: I’m not so much worried about five- day-a-week mail, I’m worried by the slippery slope here. Once we switch to five-day-a-week mail and there aren’t 50 calls coming into every member of Congress’s office complaining about it, they are going to realize that two years from now, for budget reasons, we should go down to four days a week. And the 25-year-old that we were talking about earlier is now becoming older and more important to us in campaigns. And he doesn’t have much of a relationship with his mailbox.Hazelwood: The post office can’t fundamentally solve its problems just by cutting. All of our businesses know the same thing. If you have a problem with your balance sheet, you have to sell your way out of it, you have to find a way to grow. And the post office needs to change and adapt. I don’t think it will necessarily affect fundraising mail for a long time. But there are a lot of local candidates who are going to trying to come to grips with what that might mean. The problem is that a lot of campaigns have no choice. If you are a state rep, or a city council or a school board candidate, you can’t communicate to voters by any other means.