Friday, February 20, 2009

Direct Mail Not Dead Yet

By Nathan L. Gonzales

In the modern age of texts and Tweets, it’s not sexy to talk about direct mail.

The latest issue of Fast Company magazine named Barack Obama’s presidential campaign the world’s most innovative company, topping Google, Facebook, Amazon and everyone else.

“The team has become the envy of marketers both in and out of politics for proving, among other things, just how effective digital initiatives can be,” according to the article. “Barack Obama’s presidential team relied on technology ... to connect with voters better, faster, and more cheaply than ever before.”

But amid all the talk about YouTube channels, social networking sites and online fundraising, direct mail (otherwise known as snail mail) was still a key component of Obama’s campaign and continues to be a critical tool for downballot races.

In June 2007, the Obama campaign mailed out 20-page storybooks and eight-minute DVDs to hard-core Iowa caucus-goers.

“It was a tremendous foot in the door,” said Peter Giangreco, one of the Obama campaign’s direct-mail consultants. Campaign workers followed up the mailing with phone calls and added information back into the voter file.

Despite the vast amount of attention and success in organizing connected, Web-savvy voters, new media technologies are not as good at discovering the disconnected or persuading undecided voters. Beyond the presidential level, strategists are still wrestling with how to use new media effectively for persuasion.

“We found significant gains from our broadcast television when we had laid a foundation of targeted direct mail,” explained Jon Vogel, who directed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure program in the previous cycle. According to Vogel, the DCCC dramatically increased its direct-mail budget from the 2006 to 2008 cycles.

“People look at the Obama campaign, which was at a minimum a nationwide phenomenon, and think they can replicate that in West Orange, New Jersey,” joked GOP direct-mail consultant Dan Hazelwood of Targeted Creative Communications. “Most of American politics is at the Congressional level or lower.”

Without the presidential excitement, direct mail remains an effective option for nonstatewide campaigns, particularly those in expensive or inefficient media markets. It’s also difficult to target a very small and precise universe of voters online, where connection is more interest-based rather than geographic, in order to win local races.

“No one medium is a silver bullet. Too many people view new media as a short cut,” said Democratic consultant Ed Peavy of the firm Mission Control, which handles dozens of Congressional campaigns every cycle. “There are no shortcuts in American politics.”

The challenge for direct mail is not unique in the modern campaign age, with voters becoming more diverse in their information-gathering habits.

“On the whole, all advertising is less effective,” longtime Democratic mail consultant Hal Malchow said. “The future is understanding how to integrate mediums and to understand which voters are affected by each medium, based on research.”

In the future “new media technologies will be less about being their own little oasis and more about bolstering the efficiency and effectiveness of traditional campaign functions, from identification, to education, to mobilization,” founder Markos Moulitsas said.

At a minimum, any direct-mail piece worth its postage includes a URL to direct recipients to a Web site for more information. “I don’t see modern media as a panacea,” Republican Internet consultant David All said.

At a fundamental level, new media technologies are limited by the voluntary, self-selecting nature of the supporters that they attract. But with direct mail, campaign strategists can target passive or disconnected potential supporters.

“The saving grace of direct mail is the ability to be targeted,” Giangreco said about the ability to locate a universe of voters based on geography. Without a phone number or an e-mail address, it is extremely difficult to target a voter without mail.

And even though e-mail communication is cheaper than direct mail, it is not without its challenges. According to Norton, the maker of antivirus software, 72 percent of all e-mail is spam. And e-mails can be easily deleted with the slightest glance or get caught in spam filters. Recipients have to at least hold the mail piece in their hand before discarding it. And in general, there is still a level of value connected to direct mail, as evidenced by the tradition of sending out wedding invitations and birth announcements.

Direct mail is also seeing an uptick based on the dramatic increase in and emphasis on early voting and voting by mail. In many states, it is necessary for campaigns to get physical applications into the hands of voters.

As direct-mail firms become more sophisticated in fusing consumer data with political behaviors, the effectiveness of direct mail will only increase. There are still significant challenges in linking e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers to other data, according to multiple consultants, making it more difficult to target those voters without the use of mail.

Younger, more connected voters are believed to be the beginning of the end for direct mail. But when the Obama campaign realized it needed to increase the overall turnout of the Iowa caucuses in order to win, the Senator’s strategists went back to direct mail. The campaign bought a commercial list of high school students (age 18 or those who would be 18 on Election Day) used by prospective colleges.

Those students were sent a full-color, direct-mail piece with an image of Obama placed on an iPhone, which also included various ways the recipient could connect with the campaign — via phone, text or Web site. The campaign used a traditional campaign tactic to discover new supporters that didn’t appear on any voter file.

“There’s always a rush to kill off a technology,” Giangreco said. “One doesn’t replace the other, but proportions are changing.”

Overall, Obama spent about $40 million on direct mail, not including fundraising solicitations.

Fundraising is one area of direct mail that is likely to suffer as a result of the ease, comfort and security of contributing online. There is also the benefit of contributing online through a Web site, such as Act Blue, because a Democratic activist in Texas can easily contribute to a candidate in Michigan, for example. But for state and local campaigns without a national interest, fundraising direct mail is still the most likely short-term option.

“We must understand the complexity of media choices in a world where the way people get their information is changing,” Malchow said. “But just as we start to understand, it changes.”

Malchow added an Internet component to his firm, MSHC Partners, in 2003 after watching a focus group of younger voters in Milwaukee and being alarmed with their low level of interaction with traditional direct mail.

Other firms are choosing to take a different approach, and some may find the transition easier than others.

“We focus 100 percent of our energy on being the best direct-mail firm in the business,” said Jim Crounse of the Mack Crounse Group, which handled direct mail for Obama in Virginia and Florida.

“We’re experimenting like everyone else,” Hazelwood said. “This death [of direct mail] has been predicted for eons.”

This story first appeared in Roll Call on February 17, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.