Political Direct Mail Glossary

by Sophie Thurber

Books standing up, pages fanned

A Political Direct Mail Cheat Sheet Of Your Very Own

The world of political direct mail involves a lot of terms you don’t hear in everyday conversation (unless you’re one of the few amazing people who love direct mail so much that USPS regulatory updates figure prominently at your weekly coffee klatch, in which case, you’re a star). This post will take you through the acronyms, strange words and technical terms that you should add to your lexicon in order to be a pro when it comes to building out a political direct mail program and kicking ass at direct mail production.

Mail Panel
The mail panel is exactly what it sounds like. It’s that (usually) white space where the return address, mailing address and postage permit can all be found. The USPS has certain specifications for the mail panel (e.g. how big or small it can be, where it can be placed on a mailer, whether there can be any color in it, etc.), and your production person or the mail house should review the panel before going to press to ensure you’re up to code.

BRM means “business reply mail,” and is a pre-printed reply card that includes pre-paid postage so that recipients can easily return the card. These devices are handy when you’re trying to get a little more information about your target universe, or asking them to sign a petition.  For political direct mail purposes, a 5% rate of return is pretty great—just be sure when you’re budgeting for a mailer that includes a BRM that you budget both for the BRM permit set-up (no fun, I know, but unavoidable unless you have a mail house that’s willing to let you use their permit) and the estimated return postage. Typically, you’d want to open up a High-Volume BRM (if you anticipate 925+ responses in a year), but there is also the option of a Basic BRM if you’re dealing with lower volumes. Check out the USPS’ handy FAQ on BRMs for more info.

Most political direct mail doesn’t come to you with a stamp on it. Instead, it uses a bulk rate or non-profit permit that’s printed right on the mail panel—that permit appears where a stamp would normally be, and it’s called the indicia. 

SCF refers to a Sectional Center Facility, which is a processing and distribution center for the USPS. SCFs are one step removed from local post offices, versus USPS Network Distribution Centers (NDC), which are two steps removed and serve a wider geographic area than SCFs. Most political direct mail is delivered to an SCF to cut down on mail delivery times and postage rates. Typically, if your political direct mail is sorted for local drops at SCF centers and red-tagged (see below), you can expect it to arrive in targeted mailboxes 2-4 days later. This is (of course) an estimate, and arrival times cannot be guaranteed through the USPS.

Red-Tag Political Mail
Mail that qualifies as political direct mail gets special, expedited service from the USPS, and is essentially treated as First-Class mail. This means that we generally estimate that red-tag political mail will be in people’s mailboxes 2-4 days after it’s dropped at the SCF. The USPS definition of political mail can be found here, and for a longer discussion of red-tag (get excited!), you can check out a more detailed article here.

The mailing universe refers to the number of people you plan to mail. When you’re cutting your list, it’s important to differentiate between the number of people and the number of mailboxes. Typically, a mail universe will be householded (meaning one piece of mail per mailing address), so the number of mailboxes will be your universe size.

As mentioned above, mailing will typically go out to a householded list. This means that you only send one piece of mail to a particular household (e.g. John Doe and Tom Doe live at the same address, so instead of sending two pieces of mail to that address, we send a single piece). There are certain cases where you may not want to household (maybe you are mailing a membership list and it’s important to you that each member gets their own mailer), but generally it’s a best practice to make sure your data is householded.

Not surprisingly, political direct mail that is smaller is generally cheaper to send. To get letter-rate postage, your mail doesn’t have to be in an envelope, it just has to meet certain size requirements. Currently, the max letter-rate size is 6-1/8 x 11-1/2 inches, which means that mail at that size or smaller will qualify for lower postage rates (letter-rate postage) than larger mail. You’ll also want to work with your production team to make sure your mail panel is in the right place to qualify for letter-rate postage.

Oversize Flat
A lot of the political direct mail that people get each election cycle comes in the form of these large flats. Basically, they pick up where the letter-size mail leaves off. These mailers run larger that 6-1/8 x 11-1/2 inches and should max out at 12 x 15 inches.

ECR Sorting
Enhanced Carrier Route sorting or ECR sorting refers to the way political direct mail is sorted prior to delivery at the USPS. Essentially, it means that the mailhouse sorts your mail for an individual postal worker’s route instead of leaving that the USPS to hand.  This means the USPS has to do less in order to get your mail to the right place. It’s a really great way to keep the cost of postage down. That said, for it to be truly effective, you need to have a certain level of geographic density in your data.

It used to be that when your political direct mail left the printer and mail shop, there wasn’t much you could do to find out where it was in the process beyond collecting paperwork that showed the USPS had received a delivery. These days tracking beyond that paperwork is standard, and the USPS is actually requiring it. Tracking covers both outbound mail (what you are sending to your universe) and inbound mail (if you include a reply device, the mail that your recipients are sending back to you). Tracking comes from the USPS as raw data, so generally you’ll want to work with your printer/mail shop to get set up with a system that makes that data intelligible (generally through a program like Track N Trace or Track My Mail). The other fun thing to note when you’re looking at tracking reports is that flats don’t tend to scan as well as letter size mail (this is for a variety of reasons but basically boils down to differences in equipment throughout the postal system). So if you’re not seeing a 100% scan rate on your 8.5 x 11 mailer, don’t panic! This should be one way that you gather corroborating evidence that your mail is moving through the system correctly, but make sure you have other tracking measures in place (including drop ship paperwork and seeds).

Intelligent Barcodes
Intelligent barcodes (or IMbs) are a great way to track a mailer’s progress through the system.  The mailshop includes these barcodes on the piece and the USPS scans them as they move through the SCF facility. It’s important to note, the USPS does not scan every piece of mail, so you should be looking for scans to show up, but not expecting that the USPS scan number will match your universe size (see “Tracking”).

Intelligent barcodes are great, but they don’t track the actual delivery of your mail.  That’s where seeds come in. Seeds are specific addresses that are added into your mailing list. The recipients at those additional addresses are able to log into a system and confirm that your mailer arrived in their mailbox. What’s more, if you’re using a service like U.S. Monitor (versus seeding the list with people in your campaign) they will often provide you with information about the condition of the mailer upon arrival. One important thing to note here is that you want to seed your list with addresses that are geographically similar to your mail universe. If you’re mailing in Milwaukee, but your seeds are in Denver, you’re not going to have an accurate picture of the time taken from SCF drop to mailbox. If possible (it’s not always doable), seeding your list with zip codes that are in your universe is a best practice. 

Bugs are little graphics you’ll often see on mailers. They are not related to the content of the mailer and are meant to be unobtrusive (thus their small size). Most commonly, you’ll find a union bug and a recycle bug on political direct mail. The union bug indicates that the piece was printed in a union shop, and it will tell you which shop did the work. The recycle bug is simply a recycling symbol. Other common bugs include FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council Certified) and soy ink. 

Gang Printing
Gang printing, or gang-run printing, means that you run two or more mailers on press at the same time in order to garner some economy of scale. In other words, say you have a universe of just 5,000 voters, and your mail program has a total of four different mail pieces. Printing just 5,000 pieces will be relatively expensive, but if you run all four mailers at once, you’ll be printing a total of 20,000 mailers, which will give you a bit of a break on the price. This is really relevant to offset printing. When you’re talking about very small runs, they’ll usually be printed digitally, which doesn’t yield much in the way of savings. The other thing to be aware of with gang printing is that all those pieces would have to be approved and ready to print (and paid for) at the same time. If you’re pressed for time or fundraising isn’t where you’d like it to be, it’s worth thinking about whether the savings you gain balance out against the time and money constraints you might be facing. Sometimes ganging can actually be a hinderance.

This glossary should be enough to get you started on the road to political direct mail pro though if you have questions, feel free to drop us a line! You can also check out more on best practices for political direct mail here!