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Mass Mailing Turns to Micro-Targeting

By Doug Hasson


It wasn't too long ago when a discussion about targeting political direct mail went something like, “we can drop Democrats who've voted in primaries; drop Republicans because they'll never vote or us; and we'll mail to everyone else.”


Fifteen years ago, targeting mail was akin to medieval doctors using blood letting to cure the common cold.  It was crude, messy and rather unscientific.  Today, with the dramatic advances in voter files, market research, the near universal use of polling and the resulting targeting data, campaign mail is more like laser surgery.  We can now dig deep into our beloved cross-tabulations, cut out the critical subpopulations, and build persuasion direct mail that appeals to key voters instead of the masses.

In fact, the term “mass mailing” seems destined for the obscure phrase bin. Not only can we now identify the key subgroups, but also with the increased sophistication of market research and our ability to manipulate voter files, we have the confidence and ability to target mail to the critical subgroups.


Another phenomenon we've seen over the past decade is more and more campaigns, at every level, are being won and lost by increasingly smaller margins.  In modern direct mail campaigns, entire segments of mail programs are targeted and tailored to 2-3% of the overall voting population.

While our colleagues in radio and television reach out to persuade larger segments of voters, the mail consultant can focus on the “must-win” sub-populations. Today, a targeting memo might read…Target #2:  Downscale (earning between $20,000-35,000 annually) women, with at least a high school education, living in the Milwaukee media market.”  And as we'll discuss, targeting in the political arena is only getting better.

Most top political direct mail firms have at least one person on staff adept at cultivating sophisticated targeting scenarios which take into consideration all types of demographic, geographic and social parameters, then cross referencing those parameters with census tracts, voter-file data and marketing information.   In fact, it's been said that in modern campaigns the primary reason for using direct mail as a persuasion tool, as opposed to broadcast mediums, is the mail consultant's ability to target…or narrowcast the message.


Because better targeting and technology have allowed us to identify much more concise segments of voters, it is imperative that the rest of the model keep up.  We're no longer mailing to the masses so we shouldn't be talking to the masses.


We now have the luxury, and responsibility, of weaving a message and writing text specifically for a targeted group.  In just looking at a very basic example we can illustrate what we mean.


Imagine some of the differences in a piece of persuasion mail about health care targeted to men as opposed to women.  “Prostrate screening” instead of “drive-through deliveries.” “Heart disease” instead of “mammograms.”  The message must be as specifically tailored as the targeting.

A good writer also understands the subtle, and not so subtle, differences in writing language to different groups.  After a dozen years and thousands of pieces of mail, this writer hasn't figured it all out.  The nuances that need to be considered in order to write quality text are at time cultural, often driven by geography, education level and even influenced by a local industry.

The important thing is to consider the vernacular of the place, the people, the circumstance and the target population with whom you're communicating.


Consider for a minute, seniors.  Probably the last demographic that actually writes and reads letters.  Well, seniors also read campaign mail.


When we are writing a piece of persuasion mail targeted to seniors, we can use more text because seniors are more inclined to read more text.  The same is true of primary voters.  Obviously, these folks are either more interested in the political process or they have a greater sense of civic duty. Either way, when writing a piece targeted to primary voters we can explain the issues in slightly more detail because primary voters are inclined, like seniors, to read a little more.


As important as it has become to tailor language and targeting to key subgroups, greater detail and specificity must also be given to the design, visuals and creativity of a piece of mail.


Again, using rather obvious examples, if you're targeting seniors, have photography including seniors.  If we're talking to a specific ethnic group, it's a good idea to include photos of the particular group. My firm was recently hired to do work in Hawaii (not a bad gig) and it occurred to us that we needed more visuals depicting Polynesians.


Considering design and the use of color can get a little more sophisticated.  For instance, the colors for a race in the southwest might include a rusty red or orange while a forest green might be prevalent for a program in Maine.  These are smaller factors, but they need to be assessed.

One of the most exciting residuals stemming from the technological advances we've discussed is the degree to which we can now coordinate mail efforts with other direct voter contact methodologies.  Specifically, mail, phone and field efforts should be in lock step.


Let's face it.  If a sophisticated targeting profile is compiled for a campaign's mail program, many of the elements of that program should be applied to the basic field and phone programs. Will there be exceptions?  Of course.  But generally speaking, if the profile fits one direct voter method, it should be strongly considered for the others.


The persuasion possibilities are fascinating.  A piece of targeted persuasion mail shows up in a key voter's mailbox on Tuesday, a call leaving a similar message comes in on Wednesday and a field volunteer shows up on Thursday with issue specific lit and a personally delivered message concerning the issue of choice. This seemingly simple plan is a combination of fairly advanced technologies… including a favorite of ours, digital printing.

The next generation of targeting uses even more sophisticated information like that used by consumer advertisers.  In fact, these “mosaics”, which use consumer behavior models, age, income, property-tax rates and a wide range of additional data are already being employed by campaigns to create ultra-detailed profiles.


The idea is to know as much as possible about a key voter or subgroup before a piece of mail is sent, before a call is made and before a volunteer knocks on a door.

With all the exciting advances in campaign communications, some of the basics still hold true.  As much of a contradictions as this seems, we still need to “keep it simple.”  Remember, voters have busy lives and reading even the best, most targeted, piece of persuasion direct mail isn't high on most folk's list.  As I was told over a decade ago by a revered mail consultant, ‘the difference between a great piece of direct mail and garbage can be measured in seconds.” 


Doug Hasson is the President of Bridge Communications, a
political persuasion mail firm with offices in Washington DC
and Connecticut.  BCI has been designing direct mail
strategies for Democratic candidates, campaigns and
causes for over fifteen years.  Doug lives in Connecticut with
his wife Anna, daughter Madeleine and sons Oliver and Aiden.

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