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Obama on Personalized Direct Mail…eh?

Image of political sign & balloons on floor

October 7, 2010 | by Bruce Britt | Deliver Magazine

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama displayed such an impressive grasp of contemporary marketing techniques that pundits coined the phrase “Brand Obama” to describe the Illinois senator’s fundraising prowess.

And this year, more than a year after the election, the Obama camp again demonstrated impressive marketing skills — this time creatively tapping mail as part of an integrated push to raise cash for his campaign group, Organizing for America (OFA).

In March, OFA sent e-mails to supporters requesting that they sign a symbolic “Declaration of Support” for President Obama’s health care bill. To thank the approximately 1.1 million supporters who responded to that call to action, OFA followed up with e-mails just three days after the bill’s passage.

The e-mails offered a free, personalized thank-you certificate to supporters who submitted their names as “co-signers” of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Further, supporters who donated $50 to OFA were offered a framed certificate.

The offer promoted camaraderie, and its address request presented OFA an opportunity to gather fresh information about supporters. It also was a reminder of how valued the mail channel remains to the ever-fragmenting media mix: “Brands” that do the best job of maximizing their messages are smart enough to continue their relationship with mail, drawn by its familiarity, palpability and keepsake potential.

About 350,000 Obama supporters responded to the certificate offer, with an additional 6,000 responding to the $50 donation/framed certificate offer, says OFA national press secretary Lynda Tran.

“People like to have something tangible in their hands,” she adds. “For something as momentous and historic as health care reform, we felt that people would like to have something they could display.”

Improving the message

The certificate campaign also highlights the ever-growing role that marketing plays in the evolution of both political figures and the messages they promote.

“Generally, direct mail was used in the various states to connect people with then–Senator Obama as a candidate,” Tran says. “Direct mail plays a role in all kinds of political campaigns, and certainly played a role in the work that was done in 2008.”

Now, as demographics shift and technology continues to reshape how we absorb information, veteran marketers say their peers are going to have to respond appropriately in some key tactical areas, including design, timing and volume.

Democratic consultant Liz Chadderdon, for one, warns political mail marketers not to rely excessively on text since the words, taken alone, can be seen as clinical and dispassionate. Strong photography and illustrations give your facts impact, she maintains.

“You’re trying to creatively grab somebody’s attention about an issue in about 10 seconds, so you have to spend a lot of time being creative,” Chadderdon says. “Pictures help you emotionally connect with the audience.”

Of course, political mail is all about the messaging, so even when marketers do use text, they should be careful to keep the points simple, even when explaining complex political issues. “We’re big believers that the more words you put in a piece of mail, the less it gets read,” says conservative marketer Randy Kammerdiener.

Which isn’t to say mail doesn’t still offer plenty of room for compelling messaging, others counter. Mail recipients often read pieces at their leisure, which means mail marketers can still pass along more information than generally allowable in many quick-read digital formats. “The more complicated an issue, the more you want to have something on paper that people can read, mull over and digest,” Tran explains.

You’re driving a message, experts remind, so don’t be afraid to touch voters frequently with mail, too. New Jersey marketer Chris Russell recently dropped 10 unique mailers in five weeks. “I don’t think sending more mail will make a voter say, ‘I’m not voting for this guy,’” Russell says. “I don’t know if there’s a downside to doing more mail.”

Mail’s enduring viability

Politics and mail have long enjoyed a healthy symbiosis. Political mail messages have been around many years, of course, but the 1970s saw an explosion of mail as a tool, largely thanks to marketers who began using private databases to seek out and inundate prospective voters in primary races with fundraising appeals.

With the arrival of sophisticated data collection and analysis techniques, direct mail’s role in U.S. politics shifted into overdrive in 2004. Seeking to maximize direct mail returns, parties took a cue from corporate marketers, investing in pinpoint voter research to locate prospective supporters.

Dubbed “micro-targeting,” the process created a new interest in commercial databases. By comparing the exacting consumer info against census data and voter files, political marketing gurus began making educated hunches about voters in select districts.

“You may not know if that consumer is a Republican or Democrat, but you know that they subscribe to certain magazines, drive certain vehicle brands and make a certain amount of money a year,” Chadderdon says. “It was a brand-new ballgame.”

Now, in the digital age, the game has been advanced yet again. Mail is expanding its niche, blending with the web and other channels to help political groups engage recipients, yield better data and foster more voter appreciation and involvement. In the OFA certificate campaign, for example, personalized e‑mails featured a photo of the 11-inch by 8.5-inch certificate complemented by a note of appreciation.

Like many political direct marketers, Russell views online and social media as powerful emerging technologies that will further integrate with mail, TV, radio and outdoor. “Direct mail will have to adjust to changing times just like everything else, but I think you’re always going to see it as a major way to communicate with voters,” he adds. “There’s still a generation alive today — an entire voting bloc — that has no connection to digital in terms of Internet and social media.”

But the connection between digital and mail is strengthening. For example, Chadderdon is coordinating a strategy where canvassers use handheld computers to gather info on voters’ views, concerns and political affiliations. Software on the devices instantly syncs to a mail fulfillment center that, through the magic of variable data printing (VDP), will ship personalized postcards to households within five days of the canvasser’s visit.

Chadderdon believes that, just as the president’s personalized mailers reflect the marketing industry’s embrace of key printing technologies like VDP, other advances will inspire even more creative use of political mail.

Generating excitement

Although some may find it difficult to imagine recipients sharing such excitement about political marketing, some pieces have indeed generated thrills and engagement, including the recent presidential certificate.

Consider how, even as the notices about the certificate hit e‑mail inboxes, targets registered eagerness. On message boards, for example, users posted messages like, “I think I’ll clean a spot on the wall for it.”

Tran says excitement was such after the first e‑mail that OFA sent out a second. “It’s a very unique situation, this particular issue,” she adds. “And knowing how fervent our supporters were around health reform, I think the decision was made that it would be fine to resend something like that.”

Meanwhile, veteran political strategists and marketers on both sides of the ideological aisle agree that, in giving targets something to hold on to, political mailings like the president’s certificate can be key to engendering long-term interest and loyalty.

“People usually are motivated by thanks and praise,” Kammerdiener says. “If the certificate looks like it is officially coming from the president, people are going to be motivated by that.”

Tran agrees and says the clamor for the certificate served up a teachable moment to the White House brain trust about mail messaging and loyalty building: “What did we learn? Well, clearly, it’s something people are interested in receiving.”

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