Political Direct Mail Best Practices

by Elena Veatch

political direct mail practices

Political Direct Mail Is Here to Stay 

For over a decade, folks have written off political direct mail as a remnant of the past akin to the flip phone. In reality, political direct mail is still thriving in the digital age—and it’s playing far more than a supporting role. Direct mail and television ads  traditionally account for about half of all media spending (whereas digital ads account for only five percent of paid communications budgets on average). While mail won’t be a good fit for every political or advocacy campaign, there’s a reason it’s stuck around for so long: it’s an effective medium for persuading and mobilizing voters.

Do People Really Read Political Direct Mail?

Checking the mail is still a daily ritual for many Americans. Millennials tend to be more transient and attached to the digital world—they move around a lot and rely on online platforms to get things done. Older Americans are likelier to reside in a stable residence and pay attention to their mailboxes. What’s more, older Americans reliably turn out in elections. If your campaign wants to reach frequent voters, then political direct mail can be a great way to do that.

No matter the medium, there’s never a guarantee that someone will take the time to consume your campaign message. When you run a digital advertising program using a first-party data source (e.g. a voter file list), you can expect to match around 30–60 percent of that list. In other words, if you upload a list of 300,000 individuals, you’ll likely be able to serve ads to 90,000–180,000 of those people—you just won’t know which individuals from that list are seeing impressions. With traditional television, it’s even tougher to know who exactly sees your spots—have Tom and Jennifer left the couch for a snack during a commercial break? 

While not every recipient will pay attention to and retain the message of your pieces, political direct mail differs from other paid communications tactics in that it really allows you to drill down to the individual level—you’re mailing pieces to concrete individuals whose names are associated with physical addresses. Although mail isn’t the sexiest medium in the room, decades of studies have proven its efficacy in increasing turnout and bolstering persuasion efforts.

What Should I Consider in Building a Mail Program?

If you’ve decided direct mail is a good fit for your political campaign, make sure you’re planning ahead and thinking about the tactic in the context of your larger campaign strategy. 

Have a campaign plan and an overall budget. Writing an overarching plan will give you a comprehensive understanding of all the moving parts of your campaign and how they interact. Remember, direct mail is just one facet of your campaign strategy—look at the whole picture to determine how mail fits into the equation and what it can accomplish for you. Will mail serve as your primary paid communications medium, or will it supplement another tactic? How will mail complement your door knocking strategy?

Establish a clear contrast. Politics is a comparative business—make it clear that there’s a choice between you and your opponent. Establishing a strong contrast requires more than giving folks a reason to vote against your opponent—you also need to show them why they should vote for you by having a theme for your campaign. We recommend doing a Tully Message Box exercise to 1) pin down your message versus your opponent’s and 2) anticipate how your opponent will frame your campaign versus their own.

Repeat yourself. If you’re sending eight pieces of mail leading up to a state senate election, repeating your campaign theme and employing a consistent color scheme will tie your program together. Even if you’re driving yourself crazy by sticking to the same message, repetition helps voters remember you and what you stand for.

Design with voters in mind. Clean designs with minimal copy make for readable pieces of mail that voters can easily digest. Value white space—resist the urge to inundate your audience with policy ideas and statistics. Have a clear call to action (e.g. Vote on November 3) that stands out as well.

Use high-quality images. Whether you’re using custom-shot photos from your community or stock photos, make sure your images are high-resolution. Avoid utilizing blurry or dark images that make it unclear to voters what they’re looking at. 

Wrap facts in emotion. Don’t be afraid to use emotion to drive home the issues that matter in your community. Talk about problems and solutions, but don’t go too heavy on statistics. Highlight the human consequences of policy issues in your political direct mail. A number can be powerful when you frame it in terms folks understand, but a testimonial can be even more compelling. Referencing the number of people in your district with pre-existing conditions may move some to action. Harnessing a personal story from a community member who was denied coverage could make a much bigger difference in your race.

Target the right people. Calculate a vote goal and build a mail universe that helps get you to your win number. Look at past turnout in similar elections to get a sense of how many people you can expect to turn out on Election Day. Pin down the people who make up your base versus the voters you may be able to persuade. From there, be strategic—you (usually) can’t talk to every voter in person, so make the most out of your direct mail by prioritizing the issues that matter to your community in a compelling way.

How Can I Save Money on Political Direct Mail?

Economies of scale can make direct mail cost-efficient, but that doesn’t mean the tactic is cheap. Here are a few things to consider to try to keep your mail costs on the lower end.

Gang Print. Printing multiple mailers together is a great way to save money. If you want to gang print two pieces, they need to be the same format (e.g. two 8.5 x 11 postcards) and mail to similar universe sizes (you can’t gang print a 10,000-quantity piece with a 30,000-quantity piece). The cost per piece for two gang-printed pieces will be lower than the per unit cost for two single-run jobs. Building gang runs into your program can definitely save you money, but it requires planning. You’ll need to approve and pay for any gang-run pieces simultaneously.

NCOA Your List. Regardless of where/how you obtained your mailing list, you should run it through the national change of address (NCOA) system to remove people from your universe who have moved out of your locality (and who presumably can’t vote in your election). You should typically always ask your printer/mailhouse to NCOA your list.

De-Dupe Your List. Similarly, it’s important to ensure that there aren’t duplicate records for the same individual in your mailing list. Either sort your Excel file by name, address, or voter file ID to manually remove duplicate records or have your printer/mailhouse do it for you (depending on the list size, the latter will likely be the better route).

Household Your List. Make sure your list is organized so that each household receives one piece. There’s (usually) no sense in sending an identical piece of mail to people who cohabitate. Even if you household a list before you export it from the voter file, you should always ask your printer/mailhouse to household it as well in case anyone fell through the cracks—many printers will do this for free, though there may be a small fee associated.

Consider Format/Paper Stock. The format of your mailers can drastically impact your costs. While an 11 x 17 piece may stand out in a mailbox, it could be up to $0.10 costlier per piece than an 8.5 x 11 postcard. While a 6 x 11 may sound cheaper because it’s smaller, it can be pricier to print in small quantities. Formats aside, paper stock can also impact your pricing. You don’t want to print a bulk mailing on standard printer paper that you’d purchase from Staples for your home, but you likely don’t need the most expensive paper out there either. Don’t be afraid to ask a printer for samples and see what they recommend based on your needs.

Use a Nonprofit Permit. If you’re a union or an advocacy group running a mail program, you may be able to apply for a nonprofit postal permit to save you money on postage. This entails filling out a lot of paperwork with the U.S. Postal Service, but it’s worth it. If you’re a candidate running for office, you won’t be able to mail pieces with this kind of permit, though. 

Print Locally. Always factor in shipping costs in building a direct mail program. If you’re running for mayor in Atlanta and you see there’s a printer in California that’s cheaper on the cost per piece by a penny or so than a printer in your area, stay local. Printing your piece hundreds or thousands of miles away will elongate your timeline and lead to exorbitant shipping costs to get your pieces into mailboxes.

Carrier Route Sorting. If you’re mailing enough pieces to a dense enough area, you may be able to carrier route sort your mail to save some money. This essentially means you’re sorting your bulk mailing earlier in the mailing process so that the task doesn’t fall to local post offices—this saves you time and money.

How Can I Track My Mail?

Tracking political direct mail used to be like finding a needle in a haystack, but it’s luckily become a lot easier to do over the years. Below are a couple of systems we employ at The Campaign Workshop to do everything we can to check that pieces have printed, entered the mailstream, and delivered to mailboxes.

Look out for Proofs. A printer will always send a proof for you to approve before a piece goes to press. If you haven’t seen a proof come through, call your printer to make sure they have final art and everything else they need to get your piece printed and out the door. 

Request Samples. At The Campaign Workshop, we always ask printers to ship mailer samples to our office at least a day in advance of any drop date. This way, we can check the quality of the print job (before printing thousands more of the piece) and have reassurance that a piece is about to enter the mailstream on schedule.

Follow up Again (And Again). Follow up with your printer leading up to every drop date for your political direct mail to make sure your program is on schedule (particularly if a piece will be shipped to multiple SCFs). This is particularly important during busy election cycles when printers are strapped for time. On a piece’s actual drop date, request written confirmation from the printer that the piece has dropped as planned.

Keep an Eye on Postage. A payment receipt for postage from your account is a good indicator that your mail is on its way to voters—if you haven’t paid for postage, that’s a big red flag. One day after any piece drops, you should request a 3602 form from your printer/mailshop. This form details the drop date, job number/code, quantity, permit, and postage costs associated with the mailer.

Take Advantage of Intelligent Barcode Tracking. The USPS uses Intelligent Mail barcodes (IMb) that allow you to track the location of letters and flats. If you’ve set up IMb tracking (which you should ask your printer/mailshop to do), you can get peace of mind with the ability to pull a report that shows when your pieces have been scanned by the SCF they’re dropping at. You can typically expect a piece to show up in voters’ mailboxes 2–5 days after the scan date. It’s important to note that standard 8.5 x 11 postcards don’t always scan well—don’t be shocked if you see a scan rate of below 30 percent.

Add Seeds Into Your Universe. Finally, you can add seeds into your political direct mail universe as an extra check on your mail delivery. We utilize a third-party company that provides addresses of folks in the area we’re mailing to who have agreed to report the day that they receive specific mailings. Depending on the size/concentration of your universe, delivery dates may differ for members of your target universe. We include at least two seeds in every mailing and check a couple days after a piece drops to see if these folks have received the piece.