What the Internet Teaches Us About Designing Good Direct Mail

Originally posted on CompleteCampaigns.com and written by Hal Malchow

This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

For years, my firm has been a leading direct mail company for Democratic organizations and candidates.   We have worked for the AFL-CIO, all three of the national Democratic committees and hundreds of candidates for office.   We think we know what we are doing and how to reach voters with a piece of mail.  But this past year, we learned some lessons and we learned them in a surprising place.

The Internet.

Early this year, our firm decided to open an Internet division.   There were a lot of reasons for our decision.   Research showed us that younger voters were increasingly hard to reach in the mail.   A large and growing percentage of voters were telling pollsters that they looked to the Internet as a major source of political information.  Finally, at it’s current pricing, the Internet was a good buy for our clients.  So we took the plunge. In January of 2004, we hired Michael Bassik, the Director of Political Advertising at AOL and launched our Internet services creating and buying banner ads for our clients.  The decision was a good one.   We launched the first ever banner ad fundraising program for John Kerry that attracted thousands of new donors and millions of dollars.  We helped the DNC use banner ads to shape public opinion about the outcome of the debates.  And we used  banners effectively for roughly twenty different campaigns which in the past would have relied exclusively on the mail.

But the Internet proved to be more than a good advertising medium.  It turned out to be a good teacher as well.  You see, I can never know what percentage of recipients actually open or read our mail.   But with banner ads, I can know exactly what percentage of viewers clicked on the banner ad to get more information and, sometimes, I can even know how long they viewed the information we offered.

Over the course of 2004, we designed and placed almost 1000 banner ads.  And as to each ad we were able to evaluate its success by measuring the “click through rates” it produced.   Those click through rates produced powerful lessons that are changing the way we design our mail.   Here are a few of the most important things we learned.

1. Clarity is more important than creativity.

Generally, the Internet banner ads that worked best were those that offered the voter the clearest statement of the information or opportunity we were offering.   For John Kerry fundraising ads, the ad that worked best was this simple statement:  “If you want to elect John Kerry in November, give $50 now!”   Time and again, a simple ad, picturing the candidate, with a simple statement of the issue, drew higher click through rates than more creative concepts that relied on stimulating the voter’s curiosity or starting with the issue rather than the candidate.

2. Candidate pictures work.

In the past, our firm has been concerned about making the mail “too political.”  A lot of voters have more important interests than politics.  Making the mail less political and more reader focused made good sense as a strategy.   For that reason, we sometimes avoided placing the candidate on the cover.  What banner ads told us is that the candidate’s picture can be a plus – in large part because its helps to convey to the voter what the ad is about.   It is still important to make your messages about the voter and the voter’s concerns.  But using candidate pictures on the cover of your pieces will not send them to the trash can.

3. Be careful about ridicule.

Another lesson the Internet taught us was to avoid unnecessarily ridiculing your opponent.   Sometimes, when the strategy is to deliver negative information the use of humor is the most effective strategy.  In one congressional campaign, we got outstanding click through rates with a series of humorous negative ads attacking the record of our opponent.  But when doing fundraising ads for John Kerry where we were reaching out to the most ardent and Bush hating Democrats, the use of ridicule was clearly unsuccessful.   If was asked voters to “Make Bush a One-Termer” with a simple picture of Bush, we got great response rates.  If we showed Bush in a cowboy hat or any other humorous presentation, the returns fell, often dramatically.   Given the intense anti-Bush feelings of many Democrats this result was especially surprising.

4. Truly Great Creative Always Works

While simple is usually better, there are always cases where truly great creative breaks through.   One of the most successful of all fundraising banners ads for Kerry was a humorous ad with Bush wearing a crown standing on a mountain of money looking down at Kerry below.  Then checks start appearing under Kerry creating his own mountain that lifts him up to Bush’s level where he pushes the King to the depths below.  This ad was highly successful but it was the exception.  Almost all of the other funny and creative ads fell short.  So the rule is that truly great creative can outperform the clear and simple but the standard is very high.

The lessons drawn from our Internet experience actually confirm what we know about the differences between broadcast and print advertising.   Broadcast advertising is more about image than information and the companies that advertising on television demonstrate the point.  Ads for cars, beer and other image conscious products dominate television advertising.   Print advertising, on the other hand, often caters to consumers who are looking for something.  That is why newspaper advertising is dominated by retail ads from department stores, tire stores and supermarkets who are offering pricing and product information to consumers who go to the newspaper to find it.

There are, of course, important differences between mail and banner ads.  Banner ads are easy to miss while a mail piece must be handled and the recipient must look at least closely enough to decide whether to read or toss.   But there are similarities.  In both mediums you place in front of your target a set of words and images with the goal of engaging the reader and imparting even more information.   And in both mediums the reader must look at your mail cover or your banner ad and decide whether or not the information is worth pursuing further.   Winning that decision is the key to success in both mediums.  But only in banner ads do you ultimately know whether you won or lost.

Perhaps the most important lesson that the Internet teaches us is that print advertising (the Internet is a hybrid between print and broadcast but closer to print) should do a good job of letting the voter know what she will find in the ad.   Good creative can win a voter’s attention and that is important.  But voters do search for political information.  They have decisions to make.  And helping them make their decisions with a clear and simple presentation of the information you offer is perhaps the most effective strategy of all.


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