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In the YouTube era, campaigns still rely on old-school direct mail


Adrian G. Uribarri

December 14, 2009 @ 5:00 AM


Production worker Gilbert Minguela refills the ink on a press at The Ink Well, a River North printer that handles direct-mail orders. Credit: Geoff Dougherty
It has threatened to bring down newspaper empires and make books obsolete. And it has changed politics forever, with e-mail, blogs and viral video.

Yet there’s one thing the Internet hasn’t quite changed: direct mail.

In Illinois politics, it seems, dead trees still bring life to campaigns.

“Although we utilize the technology of the 21st century, people still receive mail at their house every day,” says Patrick Hughes, a Republican candidate for Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat. “People go to their mailbox and pick up their mail.”

Earlier this month, Hughes sent out 175,000 mailers to Republican households in Illinois, drawing contrasts between himself and GOP front runner Mark Kirk.

Hughes had already been making his case online, with e-mails, videos and a Web site.

But campaign experts say while virtual media offer new ways to communicate with voters, other factors have helped direct mail maintain its primacy. In Chicago, consultants and printers who deal in ZIP codes say business is just fine, thank you.

“There are certain things that you can do with direct mail that you just can’t with digital,” says Terry Walsh, partner at Chicago’s Strategy Group. “Digital will probably eat into what campaigns have historically done with direct mail, but I suspect it’s not going to be as much as you think.”

Walsh’s firm handled direct mail for Obama’s presidential primary campaign and later mapped out the mail strategy for nine states in the general election.

He describes the firm’s role as a consultant rather than a printer, a key distinction now that desktop-publishing and design tools are available at the click of a button.

“The bar to entry to actually produce political direct mail is very, very low,” Walsh says. “What we get paid to do is to think about message development and delivery.”

He explains that new media have given campaigns alternative, often more efficient methods to convey their messages, but that there is still no better way than mail to reach certain audiences.

“One of the big things going on right now in electoral politics is the degree to which people vote by absentee ballot,” Walsh says. “Those are classic mail targets.”

As another example, he pointed to a time-honored campaign tactic: sending voters a reminder of where, when and how to vote, shortly before an election day. Typically, such mailers include a last pitch for a candidate, as well as details of what to bring to the polling place and information on how to get a ride for voters who can’t arrive alone.

Even in a campaign such as Obama’s, widely considered on the cutting edge in its use of digital communications and fund raising, direct mail had a place, Walsh says.

That’s a relief for Stanley Jasiuwienas, who runs Mid-City Printing Services on the Northwest side. Jasiuwienas says an explosion in television campaigning hurt the 31-year-old print shop about a decade ago.

It used to be that only presidential candidates, and perhaps the wealthier candidates in U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races, ran advertisements on the airwaves.

“Now, even some inane campaigns, like those for a judgeship, present TV commercials,” Jasiuwienas says. “Naturally, there is less money that can be invested in print media.”

Jasiuwienas estimates that Mid-City prints about a third of the political mail that it did in the 1990s. During election years, he says, the campaign mailers that used to be about half of his business have dropped to about a quarter of total output.

“It was a nice piece of gravy,” he says.

Yet Jasiuwienas, like Walsh, is not as concerned with competition from online campaigning. He estimated that over the past five years, starting around the time Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean’s campaign marked a new high in digital politics, direct-mail printing has held steady.

Some candidates used to print appeal letters that are now more likely to land in e-mail inboxes, he says, but is online campaigning eating his direct-mail lunch the way TV did?

“Quite frankly,” he says, “no.”

One reason for that is the cost of broadcast versus online campaigning, says Bill O’Reilly, a direct-mail political strategist in New York City.

“Broadcast is gonna kill you in a state like New York or Illinois,” O’Reilly says. “Digital media’s not that expensive.”

While many campaigns make huge sacrifices to go on the air, including cutting direct mail, going online usually does not rule out such expenses.

In campaigns with seemingly unlimited resources for broadcast and online campaigning, the old mailer holds its own.

O’Reilly used the example of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the multibillionaire who had financial access to every bit of the campaigning toolbox.

Adding to a flood of TV ads and online messages, Bloomberg’s campaign also stuffed voters’ mailboxes with direct mail.

“There’s a campaign that could do every new trick in the book, but still chose to do mail,” O’Reilly says.

He credits the persistence of direct mail with its predictability.

While useful, he says, e-mail is less reliable because so many people quickly delete messages after reading no further than the subject line. Someone can throw out a piece of mail, he says, but only after holding it and analyzing it at least briefly.

“It’s been measured over the decades. It’s reliable, almost formulaic,” O’Reilly says. “You know you can drive turnout with mail.”

O’Reilly says digital campaigning will continue to grow, and to the benefit of candidates, but that its rise will not necessarily accompany the decline of direct mail.

“Maybe in a couple of generations it will go away, but not now,” he says.

“What you’re seeing is that more tools are being added to the arsenal, more arrows in the quiver. But the standbys are still there.”

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