For political parties, direct mail has the ‘X’ Factor

Mike Welsh, chief executive of Publicis Dialog, argues that direct mail has been a winner in this election, whatever the outcome on Thursday.

Mike Welsh
Mike Welsh

So, post-Obama, the digital election we were expecting didn’t quite materialise – the big TV debates saw to that with their bumper terrestrial audiences of around 10 million. That’s easily on a par with the mainstream soaps and reality shows, even the early rounds of The X Factor, with which the debates have at times been glibly compared to.

That said it was fascinating to watch Facebook and Twitter whilst the debates were taking place. At the peak of the last leaders’ debate last Thursday, Twitter members are said to have posted 51.7 tweets per second.

This has undoubtedly been the most closely-fought election since the seventies. Each party has identified their target constituencies, and spent lots of time and lots of money building clever profiling and classification tools to identify swing voters and the issues that will make the difference.

The truth, for the time being at least, is that the most effective media for the delivery of these messages remains the doorstep and the letterbox.

So direct marketing has had a good election in 2010.

Sometimes the medium has achieved notoriety more because of the message. When Labour targeted women who have had cancer about the impact of Tory policy on cancer treatment it was the message that caused the controversy – not the medium. Clearly, that message is going to resonate more with voters who have some degree of proximity to the condition. That’s what targeting is about.

And even our chums from The Green Party have seen the light. Their direct mail and door drop activity is not junk mail but, they state unashamedly, “an important part of the democratic process”. Blimey – that’s quite a ringing endorsement from the “tree-huggers” – turnip sarnies all round.

Yet should we be so surprised? It is, after all, evidenced in past political behaviour with the main parties devoting increasingly more cash on direct mail in recent elections. Figures from the Electoral Commission tell us that in 2005 the Tories spent £4.5m, or 25% of its campaign spending, on unsolicited materials to electors, up from £1.2m in 2001, when it accounted for 10% of the overall budget. Labour’s spend on direct mail rose from £1.5m in 2001 to £4.5m of its £18m 2005 war chest. The Lib Dems splashed out £1.2m in 2005, a whopping 29% of its overall campaign spending, up from the £54,000 it spent in 2001 when direct mail accounted for a mere 4% of its campaign budget.

Of course, it’s too early to know how much the parties have spent this time round – or the effect such mailings have had on the electorate, but it is obvious that despite the media furore around all things digital, traditional media remains the bedrock of electioneering. Take a study of constituency-level campaign techniques undertaken by Brunel University in February, even before the election was officially called, which showed that direct mail was by far the most common method of contact used by politicians to reach potential voters.

Of the 27% of the electorate contacted by one of the three main political parties in February, about 90% received some form of communication through the post via direct mail. And anecdotally we’re hearing that the letterbox is seeing more activity than ever.

But there’s more than a hint of hypocrisy here. Outside of election time, the direct marketing industry is an easy target for politicians. There’s no doubt that the industry is to blame for some of this as it struggles to accept the harsh truth that a lot of what comes through our letterboxes is crap.

The fact is that direct marketing can be very effective. And when political parties apply rigour to the targeting of their messages to the right people at the right time, their activity will be effective and less likely to attract the junk tag.

So once the election has passed they’ll think twice about kicking our industry.
Oh, who am I kidding?



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