Top ten rules of direct mail

Posted on March 23, 2022

In a political or referendum campaign, you want to dominate the dominant medium.* In large campaigns that’s often television/video. But in most state and local contests, the dominant medium is direct mail. How can you be most persuasive with mail?

Here are ten pieces of advice:

Rule #1—Maximize the quality and quantity of communication

The easiest thing in a campaign is to waste resources. Most campaigns throw away money and volunteer time on products and activities with little strategic purpose because “that’s what’s always been done.” And yet, politics is the art of persuasion. There are only two elements: create the best message and repeat that message to your target audience as many times as possible. That’s it! So, maximize the time and money going into mail and other direct means of persuasion and, to the extent practicable, minimize resources spent on everything else. Saying “no” to wasteful spending can be painful, but you gotta do it.

Rule #2—Create a campaign theme and stick to it

A campaign is fundamentally about one thing: altering the perception of which candidate voters think is “on their side.” So, a campaign theme explains why you are more “on their side” than your opponent(s). The idea is to frame the question you want voters to answer as they vote. “Which candidate will stop developers from ruining our neighborhood?” or “Which will side with the middle class against the rich?” or “Which will stop local corruption?” Generally speaking, themes fall into four categories:

I’m physically one of you: This is an appeal to a common race, religion, ethnicity, gender or geography. “Vote for the white/Baptist/Italian/local candidate…” It is not unreasonable for voters to assume that someone who shares demographic characteristics with them might understand their problems better or might be more likely to battle for their own. And no matter what candidates feel or say, some voters will support them because of their race, gender or ethnicity. But in the era of MAGA and Trump, that kind of politics can get very ugly, if not downright un-American. Yet, this type of voting won’t go away by pretending it doesn’t exist.

I am ideologically one of you: We progressives are used to this appeal. You’re the one who supports the 99 percent and your opponent favors the one percent. If you’re going to persuade on ideology, you have to both highlight your side’s good policy but also attack the other side’s bad ideas. But explain things in a way that ordinary people understand; voters are not going to get it if you say the opponent voted “to lower the top tax bracket” or some other wonky policy description. The average voter won’t remember individual policy positions anyway, just a sense of which candidate seems to be most on that voter’s side.

I will get things done for you: This is the theme that wins most city or county elections. Our candidate is “effective/experienced/gets results/is a leader.” “Our candidate gets things done for you, your family, and your community.” Anyone can vote right, both you and voters know, but not everyone has the energy and skill to work the process and get results. When this is the theme, issues are used to demonstrate skill—the candidate increased wages, cracked down on criminals, built a new park, upgraded the local school. Or competence can be demonstrated by experience outside of government—she ran a business so she can balance the town’s budget.

I am your candidate for change: Americans are hard-wired to dislike government. They are always ready to believe the worst about incumbents. So, there are many opportunities to run a campaign focused on “change.” Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and Barack Obama’s in 2008 were about change. To a large extent, so were the Trump and Biden campaigns of 2016 and 2020. If voters believe the state or local government is “on the wrong track,” then this theme might work for you.

In crafting a theme, you can combine ideas from these four categories. A candidate can be “one of us” who is an effective advocate, or represents change, or will turn the jurisdiction from bad policies to good ones. If you hire consultants, make sure everyone agrees on a theme from the beginning. There’s hardly a worse disaster than when consultants orient direct mail or TV/radio/video to a theme that’s different from the candidate’s—and it happens.

Rule #3—In delivering messages, focus on how your voters benefit

Whatever the theme, realize that all of them are about “you and “your.” Voters are focused on themselves, their families, and their own communities. Your theme must be about how you are going to help them, personally. When you highlight issues, it should show how you will directly and indirectly improve the voters’ quality of life. Parks will be cleaner; traffic problems will improve; government offices will serve citizens better; unwanted real estate development will be thwarted. We activist progressives care deeply about the “common good,” and our policies quite intentionally benefit everyone, but that is not what average Americans care about.

Rule #4—Design mail that grabs voters’ attention

Unlike political activists (that is, us), voters are normal people. They are not interested in politics, or even unsolicited mail in general. If your piece looks dull, voters will ignore it. Mail is not a passive medium like television; if voters aren’t immediately engaged in your mail, they won’t read it. So don’t let your mail look like typical political pieces. No flags, please! No red, white and blue! No standard face or head-and-shoulders pictures unless they are endorsements. And don’t fill up every white space, making the text seem crowded. To the extent possible, grab attention with sharp non-political, emotional and/or action images that represent the story you’re trying to tell.

Rule #5—Assume the text won’t be read

Here’s a rule of thumb: One-third of the recipients of direct mail will only look at the photos, headlines and maybe the photo captions, at best. Another third will read some of the text. Only the remaining one-third will read most or all of the text. The point is, if you don’t communicate your theme with the photos and headlines, then you’ve missed a lot of voters. By far, the fastest and most effective way to communicate a message is by triggering an emotional response. Yes, you can still talk about issues. But present them with compelling photos/drawings/graphics and headlines.

Rule #6—Use the credibility of third parties

When a candidate makes a claim, especially someone who is not well-known, do the voters believe it? Sorry, probably not. That is why campaigns need third-party validation, especially when making claims about opponents. Your mail should include statements from the press, public reports, credible interest groups and/or well-known individuals to reinforce your message. And, in most state and local elections, it is endorsements that make the difference between winning and losing. So, it’s a good practice to put some kind of endorsement in every single mail piece.

Rule #7—Use comparative and sometimes negative mail

You must establish a clear contrast between your candidacy and your opponent(s). Yet, many campaigns shy away from comparisons. Understand that “comparative” mail is not the same as “negative.” A comparative piece is, or at least appears to be, a fair distinction between candidates. E.g., candidate A supports a $15/hour minimum wage while candidate B opposes it. If the piece is backed up by evidence (often citing an article with a hyperlink) and doesn’t appear meanspirited, it can be very effective. And that kind of comparison is the soul of democracy.

Neither candidates nor voters like “negative” attacks, e.g., highlighting an opponent’s conflicts of interest, but they are relevant and effective if presented well. Be aware that if there are more than two people in a race, an attack by candidate A on candidate B—even completely truthful information—can hurt both of them and benefit candidate C. That is why independent PACs often sling the dirt; hating the PAC probably won’t rebound against the PAC’s favored candidate.

Rule #8—Informally focus-group your mail

Before your designer creates a final proof and sends it to the printer, create a mockup of your mail piece and show it to your “kitchen cabinet” and, when possible, to nonpolitical friends. Sometimes it is amazing what political “experts” don’t know. Paid consultants don’t know your community. Campaign insiders don’t know how non-political voters will react. It only takes a small effort to find out.

Rule #9—Repeat your message again and again and again

Persuadable voters are not paying attention to you. When you send direct mail, they hardly even notice the first couple pieces they receive. There is an old rule-of-thumb among commercial advertisers that you need seven repetitions to break through with your message. For campaigns, that’s still a good rule.

Rule #10—Don’t just talk about your mail plan, write it down

Matt Reese, one of the original godfathers of political consulting, used to say: “if it isn’t written down, it doesn’t exist.” So, write down your mail plan from the beginning to the end. Here’s a simple example:

Piece #1: Mail drop date: 6/10. Subject: Biography. Size: 8 ½ x 11 card. Quantity = 5,400. Cost: Printing and mailhouse = $2,800; postage = $1,430. Description: Mailing label side has photo of candidate’s family in 1990 next to photo today with headline “Our longtime neighbor and friend…” Flip side has three photos above columns describing early years, accomplishments, and current goals with headline “She gets things done for us.”

Create a document describing every mail piece like that, in order by mailing dates. It isn’t so hard to do, but you’d be surprised how few campaigns do it. A written mail plan allows you to see the flow of your messages to voters, makes it easier to adjust any budget, and enables you to see how inevitable changes in mail dates or types or quantities can best be carried off.

If you are doing the mail yourself instead of using a consultant, also create a spreadsheet of costs, including: printing prices for the different sizes and types of pieces, including prices for different quantities; prices for mailhouse costs based on the quantities and types you might mail; and postage costs for different sizes of mail. You need this to create a budget, make initial decisions, and to change decisions on-the-fly when necessary.


* The old saying “dominate the dominant medium” is often credited to another godfather of modern political consulting, Joe Napolitan. He later wrote that, while he agrees with the phrase, he doesn’t remember coining it!