Project Wonderful

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Direct Mail But Were Afraid To Ask

Ladies and Broworkers, may I present my friend and sorority sister, Bridget Cusick. Direct mail: You've got questions, she's got answers. Thank you very much, Bridget!

1) Who are you and what is your job?

Bridget Cusick, vice president in the campaign and creative services division at BerlinRosen, based in New York City. I do direct mail and other forms of paid communications for progressive campaigns and organizations.

2) How did you wind up at BR, what experience prepared you?

I came to BerlinRosen after six cycles working in field, communications and management on municipal, congressional and statewide campaigns, as well as a number of years at agencies, one focused on political direct mail and two others on corporate advertising and public relations.

3) What does a typical day look like for you?

During "campaign season" – by which I generally mean July through November – my days are dominated by the various steps in producing direct mail for campaigns: writing plans based on extensive consultation with them and their polling firms on message and targeting, working with other members of my team to develop creative ideas for bringing the plans to life, drafting copy for each piece and collaborating with a designer to get copy and photos into a layout, presenting pieces to clients, getting their input, pulling mailing lists and ultimately working with a mail house to print and mail. As part of our services, we also spend considerable time consulting on the broader aspects of our clients’ campaigns. Our mail has a lot greater chance of being successful if the campaign is running on all cylinders and so we use our collective campaign experience to help campaigns make sure they are doing everything they can on the ground and with earned media to be successful.

4) In general, how many different pieces of mail do you need for a mail program to be a effective?/How should they be spaced out?

Typically, if you make a decision to do mail, you should allocate the resources to mail the selected universe of voters at least five times, and you should schedule the pieces so that their impact will build and remain until election day – meaning they should hit recipients' homes at least once a week and should not end more than a week before election day. It's more complicated than this and depends on the overall landscape and other media that are in play (are you better- or less-known than your opponent? Are you also on TV? Are other organizations communicating on your behalf?) but those are general rules of thumb. Sadly, the impact of any medium wears off fairly quickly after communications cease – so if, say, you start mailing early and aren't able to sustain those communications until the election, the impact of your communications will have largely worn off by the time voters go to the polls. You don't want that. There is some research suggesting that mail's impact diminishes after a certain number of pieces because people get used to seeing it and start ignoring it. However, more research is needed here about how design, targeting, timing and other decisions cut against diminishing returns and enable a campaign to continue communicating effectively.

5) What goes into a "good" mail piece as opposed to a "bad" mail piece?/What are general best practices/common mistakes?

To some extent it depends on the goal of the piece, of course. For example, a lot of research has been dedicated to mail aimed at turnout, and some solid best practices have been identified – e.g., telling people that their neighbors will all be voting and other so-called "social pressure" techniques. Less solid data exists on persuasion mail at this point, but there's more research coming out all the time. In general, several things make for a good mail piece:

- Text is kept to what is essential. This is one of the biggest challenges we face and I think one of the biggest mistakes campaigns make: thinking that they need to say far more than they do. Less really is more. There are some exceptions, depending on the audience you are communicating to, but in general, you have a very limited window to say a few important things, and you want to make sure your recipients take away at least a couple of key messages.

- Good organization of text. We want the most important messages to pop out at readers. Paragraphs need to be short; bulleted or numbered points are best. The "rule of threes" applies: people remember things better in threes (and have trouble retaining more than three points). If people see a wall of text and are already only a little bit interested in what we have to say, we've just increased the chances that the piece is going straight into the garbage without imparting any information.

- Good photography – or no photography. We place a high premium on authenticity with our candidate campaigns, so we almost always take the time to conduct a photo shoot after planning to figure out what photos we need. But there are occasions on which we choose to do pieces that do not include photography or graphics at all – instead choosing, say, a letter format and making the sender a neighbor or respected community member; these types of pieces can also have a lot of impact.

6) What are the tradeoffs between mail and other types of media like radio, or TV?/When is mail more effective than TV and visa versa?

Most often it's a question of efficiency. If you have hundreds of thousands of people to reach in a single media market and you have the money to be on TV, then TV makes sense. If you are again talking to a large audience, and it includes people who spend a lot of time in their cars (e.g., suburban and exurban commuters), and you have the funds to be on radio (usually less expensive, but not as much less as you might think, than TV), then being on the radio probably makes sense. Both of these media are great for frequency (repetition of the message to drill it into people's brains), memorable creative executions and emotional impact. When you have a smaller or more niche audience to communicate with – e.g., because you are running a state house race that comprises only a fraction of a TV market or because you're trying to communicate to a subset of the electorate with a message not intended for the masses – then mail is still probably the best medium for you. You of course also might choose mail if you want to include a response component or more detail than you can effectively communicate in a :30 TV spot or even a :60 radio spot.

7) What are some tips for effectively "layering" a mail program with field or other media?

Once any kind of paid communications go live, field folks will hear a lot more recognition of their candidate – which is obviously satisfying. ("Oh - I saw his ad/got some mail from her.") Mail and lit pieces can help get people talking about issues on the phone or at doors (as can a TV or radio ad). Phones can also be used to draw attention to a piece and reinforce its message. In general you want all of your communications to create a virtuous circle that help you and your candidate connect with voters, persuade them and GOTV.

8) What should a candidate or campaign look for when hiring a mail consultant?/What questions should she ask?

Look at their portfolio, ask for case studies and get references. Do your consultants sound smart? Are these folks you could see working well with? It's a lot like hiring an individual for a job. Pricing matters but most mail firms have some sense of what others are charging, so if you see huge differences there (in either direction), you probably should be skeptical and ask the firms to check their assumptions.

9) What should one expect to pay for a mail piece and mailing? What factors impact the cost?

Costs will include postage, printing, photography and agency fees. Different agencies divide up or lump together these costs slightly differently, but those costs are always there. Postage is the most fixed – by which I mean, it doesn't matter what agency you work with – and often billed separately. It will change based on piece size (letter-size vs "flat," AKA large postcards or folded brochures), whether you send nonprofit rate (cheapest but most restricted) standard rate or first class, and the density of the universe. Most political mail goes out at standard rate and gets what we informally call a "red tag," which enables us to mail at the reduced rate but still be in mailboxes within a first-class window of 1-3 days. You also get a discount per piece based on how close together the homes are to which the mail is getting delivered and whether the mail is sorted for mail carrier routes. Your mail firm, in combination with the printer/mailhouse, should take care of these things for you to get you the best prices. Printing costs can depend on a number of factors, from where your printer is located to paper choice to the speed at which you need to print, but the biggest driver is quantity: the larger the run, the less each piece costs.

10) What do you think are common misconceptions about paid mail?

I think the biggest one may still be that mail is going away and being replaced by online communications. Online has a big role to play, but ironically perhaps, its importance increases the larger a campaign gets (think of how many more presidential or US Senate-level online communications you see as opposed to down-ballot races). Mail is still harder to ignore – and though younger voters change their addresses pretty frequently, pretty much every voter has a mailbox!

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