Eight Factors That Drove This Year's Red Hot Political Direct Mail Season
During an autumn when plummeting demand for print advertising doomed several prominent magazines, at least one form of print-based marketing boomed: political direct mail. The heavy use of mail by political campaigns during the recent mid-term elections sheds light on how print media can continue to compete in a digital age.
Mailings sent by political campaigns have been growing throughout this decade, so the U.S. Postal Service geared up for heavier-than-usual volumes for this year’s mid-term elections. But it was caught by surprise:
“Political Mail Revenue this cycle is $563 million, tracking above goal by 31%,” David E. Williams, the USPS’s chief operating officer, told the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee recently. The average registered voter in the U.S. received about 24 pieces of mail from political campaigns this year, for a total of 2.7 billion pieces.
Postal officials haven’t released comparative numbers from prior years. But it looks as if October’s political mail bump was more than double that of October 2016 and significantly higher than in October 2014, during the previous mid-term campaign.
Here are eight factors that contributed to this year’s big political mail season:
Trump: It seems that The Donald is a factor in every development these days. He is such a polarizing figure that what were supposed to be hundreds of House and Senate campaigns turned into one big referendum on Trump. That inspired donors on both sides to open their wallets, giving the campaigns huge marketing budgets. Polls indicated that the vast majority of likely voters made up their minds weeks before Election Day. So the battle was not about persuading people to support a candidate but rather about persuading supporters to go to the polls - without stirring up the opponent’s supporters. To do that, candidates needed something for which direct mail is ideally suited . . .
Targeting: Nothing beats a well-managed mailing list for delivering a message to a specific list of people, and only to those people. With no ad blockers or spam filters. And no messages going astray – to someone not registered to vote, to a voter in an adjoining district, or – worst of all – to a member of the other party in your own district. With list targeting, a campaign can send a mailing about the environment to Sierra Club members and another one about abortion to 700 Club members.
Data-driven print: Targeting isn’t just about mailing lists, which campaigns have used for decades. Whether you call it programmatic print, triggered direct mail or something else, the use of digital tools to identify prospects for direct-mail campaigns has exploded the past couple of years. Databases that link devices to addresses enable campaigns to generate mailings to people based on whether they visited CNN's website, shopped for guns or searched for vegetarian recipes. I’ll bet some campaigns used geofencing to create mailings that were sent to people based on what church they attended, where they shopped or worked, or even what kind of bars they frequented.
Engagement: Plenty of digital campaigns use behavioral targeting and geofencing, but digital media have limited ability to inspire someone to vote. An online merchant may be thrilled with click-through rates of 1%, but a political campaign trying to turn out its supporters needs engagement to be way up in the double digits. A mail piece can quickly convey far more information and stir more emotions than a digital ad. And the full message is in the recipient’s hands, not on a landing page.
Newspapers: Local newspapers used to be the ideal medium for local and regional candidates, but shrinking circulations have made them less influential. Besides, a candidate’s ad is as likely to be seen by her opponent’s supporters as it is by her own supporters.
Telemarketing: Caller ID and the death of residential phone books have put the kibosh on what was once a widely used campaign tactic.
Facebook: Recent reports indicate that the social-media giant’s privacy and fake-news scandals have caused many major brands to slash their ad spending with Facebook. (Pardon my karma’s-a-bitch grin.) Given the controversies about how Facebook was used in the 2016 election, I suspect political campaigns this year were even more inclined to seek alternatives to Facebook.
Digital printing: Increased adoption and understanding of digital printing have made customized mailings possible and made small, highly targeted mailings more efficient. Digital can be more nimble than traditional offset printing, enabling campaigns to tweak their messages or to create new mailings on the fly in reaction to breaking news, poll results or last-minute donations.