During Campaigns, Printers Fail to Exploit the Strengths of Direct Mail
We’re approaching the height of the election season and have already reached peak Print Is Dead Season. (That’s when pundits and marketers can’t distinguish between the demise of printed periodicals and the relevance of print media in general.) So it’s the perfect time for the true story of Mr. Flamboyant and Mr. Subdued, a tale that demonstrates how the unique strengths of direct mail can boost political campaigns — and many other types of marketing programs as well.
Once upon a time in the olden days, before Al Gore invented the internet, Mr. Flamboyant and Mr. Subdued (not their real names, but you probably figured that out already) were opposing candidates in an off-cycle election for a relatively obscure municipal office. I happened to be acquainted with both men.
Neither had run for office before. Both possessed good qualifications for the office they sought, with Mr. Flamboyant having a slight edge on paper.
Flamboyant was a lively, hob-knobbing sort of guy, with a campaign that reflected his outgoing personality. One stunt was an airplane towing a Flamboyant banner that flew over the city’s big annual festival, which just about everyone in town attended.
The campaign of Subdued, whom a newspaper reporter compared to Dudley Do-Right, was much less in the public view. Unlike Mr. Flamboyant, he hardly advertised at all in the local newspaper. (You see, kids, newspapers used to be printed on actual paper and – oh, never mind.)
Flamboyant outspent Subdued by a substantial amount. But Subdued won the election in a landslide, doubling Flamboyant’s vote count.
I ran into Subdued a couple of weeks after the election and asked him how he did it. Targeted mailings, he said.
Subdued realized that, with no other races on the ballot, turnout would be extremely low. Name recognition alone was almost meaningless; he had to get people to the polls.
His direct mail pieces went into more depth on the same issues addressed in his newspaper ad. But they also went further, highlighting his work on Democratic campaigns and his endorsements from popular Democratic politicians.
The mailings were sent only to people who had voted in recent Democratic primaries, which was a relatively small portion of the city’s total electorate.
Flamboyant’s aerial banner at the festival was the equivalent of today’s “Everyone’s on social media, so let’s promote there” approach:
- Wrong message: No ability to say why people should vote for him.
- Wrong audience: Out-of-towners, non-voters, and even supporters of Mr. Subdued.
- Wrong time: People were in a let’s-have-fun/wipe-that-sticky-cotton-candy-off-the kids’-faces mindset, not in a civic-minded mode. It was like trying to put a serious message in front of people watching cat videos on Facebook.
Avoiding the wrong audience
A strength of Subdued’s campaign is that it was largely invisible to Republicans – whom he definitely did not want thinking about the election.
That ability to prevent the “wrong” audience from seeing a promotion is still one of direct mail’s advantages. And it’s not just for political campaigns.
Real estate agents generally hate wasting time talking to people with bad credit. Gun-control organizations don’t want NRA members to see their fundraising appeals.
Email: cheap but ineffective
Email is often touted as a cheap way to reach a targeted audience. No, it’s a cheap way to reach a small portion of a targeted audience.
For direct mail, you don’t need someone’s email address. Or their opt-in. You don’t even need their name. You can literally reach every unit of an apartment complex or every purchasing manager in a particular industry.
And they’ll actually see the campaign. Marketers are ecstatic when they achieve a 20% open rate for an email campaign. Direct mail open rates dwarf that. And with a postcard or effective envelope, a mail piece can have an impact even if it’s not opened.
The problem with printers
In my experience, however, printers have a weakness when it comes to exploiting direct mail’s strength: they think other printers are the competition.
Having the lowest printing prices in town is great for those clients that have already decided on direct mail, have a mailing list, and use one of those rare-as-unicorn designers who can output a print-ready PDF that has bleed, hi-res images, properly placed crop marks, and no Pantone colors.
But when selling to everyone else, the real competition is digital advertising, paid social-media promotions, marketing consultants, and good old inertia. Those clients need to be sold on direct mail, not just on printing.
That means being able to offer turnkey solutions — whether in-house, subcontractors, or recommended vendors — that include list selection, copy writing, design, and postal issues.
Your ability to use voter-registration data, new-mover lists, Every Door Direct Mail, etc., could be real eye openers for political campaigns — and for many other clients as well. The aim is to sell solutions, not just ink on paper.