Winning direct mail strategies: A Q&A with political consultant Jim Spencer

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With mailboxes becoming an increasingly important battleground for the 2008 presidential election, Straight Line turned to Jim Spencer, a top Democratic strategist and president of the Campaign Network, for a behind-the-scenes view of political direct mail tactics. In the Q&A below, Spencer—whose mail pieces helped John Kerry turn New Hampshire from red to blue in 2004—discusses the process and shares some of his strategies for success.

BtoB: What role does targeting play in campaign direct mail?

Spencer: We work with voter files to pick the targets we mail to. The voter file is a list of registered voters. There’s a lot of information on the voter file—things like gender, age and ethnic heritage. But perhaps the most valuable for us—and where our real targeting comes in—is how often the voter has participated, or voter frequency. Not all registered voters actually vote in every election. So first you want to narrow your universe to ensure you are communicating with voters who are going to participate in your election.

The next step is serious polling and survey research. We’re looking for specific targets and determining specific messages that will resonate with those targets. For example, in a poll for somebody running for Congress, we might find that women between the ages of 18 and 40 of Irish heritage who live in a particular section of the district are most concerned about the Iraq War and daycare. That allows us to send them a series of mail pieces that talks just about the Iraq War and daycare, or whatever issue. You want to be engaging voters on issues they want to be engaged on.

BtoB: How do you ensure your message gets across amidst the typical mailbox clutter?

Spencer: We have this rule called the Six Second Rule. For the majority of people, when they get their mail, it’s six seconds from the mailbox into the trashcan. Our challenge is, how can we grab that person’s attention and engage them in six seconds?

Our focus is usually more oriented toward art and compelling photographs than copy. Sometimes mail pieces have a lot of copy—but the copy is not really intended to be read. A typical piece for an incumbent is what we call an “accomplishments” piece. You might have “Dan Mather: Working Hard for Boston.” You open it up and there’s a map of Boston with all of these stars on it, and the whole area is covered with text about the things this person has done.

Because of the graphics—the map, the stars, the headlines—you don’t have to read the piece to get the message that this guy’s been working hard for you. The concept communicates by just scanning the piece.

BtoB: What are you seeing in the field that’s particularly innovative?

Spencer: Mail is working more and more in concert with other media, like phone calls and the Internet. We’re doing much more interactive mail. What everybody wants out of their elected official is to be listened to. So in almost every campaign I do from City Council up to presidential, I create a first piece that’s a tear-off piece. It doesn’t say anything about the candidate, their history, why they’re qualified, where they went to school and all the rest of that. It says “Politicians talk all the time, but I really want to listen. I’m going to run for this seat. To do this, I want to hear what’s important to you. If you could take a moment to fill out this card and send it back, I’d really appreciate it.”

First, we send out that piece of mail. Then everybody who got that piece of mail gets a recorded phone call from the candidate asking for their concerns. Then these cards come back and I have the candidate call back every single one. People are mind-blown. Now you’ve had three early contacts with the voter where you have established yourself as a real, live human being who wants to hear from them.

BtoB: Negative campaigning has become such a prevalent part of the process. How do you craft an effective negative piece—without alienating voters?

Spencer: Everybody says they hate negative campaigning but every study shows that it’s most effective. That’s because negative emotions are generally stronger than positive emotions. And because of the way our political system is set up, people will come out to vote against somebody more than they will to vote for somebody.

A technique we use a lot is humor. We try to get people laughing. The best attack ads that we have put out have been humorous because it’s really hard to attack humor. If the person you’re attacking gets really angry about them, they have no ability to laugh at themselves. And if you make somebody a joke, it’s difficult for them to succeed.

One rule about negative that I always tell clients is that you can’t attack somebody until you’ve established yourself. You’ve got to establish your bona fides—who you are, what you’re about, your message—before you ever consider attacking somebody.

And I don’t let anybody go negative unless they’ve done the survey research to back it up. Negative campaigning is a surgical tool; it’s not a blunt instrument.

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