Political Nonprofit: Today & Tomorrow
Birth of a Uniquely American Idea
Politicians have used advertising to reach and influence constituents for centuries. Political campaign displays have been found in ancient Pompeii and Arabia. In Colonial America political pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine wielded enormous influence. In the early years of the United States we saw the emergence of modern "campaigns"—organized efforts by party loyalists to convince voters to support their party's candidates on Election Day. The two-party system, not enshrined in the Constitution, nevertheless quickly became the established political model and persists today. The mode of communications has changed with advancing technology but the essential challenge of campaigns, to identify, reach, persuade and motivate voters, has remained constant.
Eventually political operatives would harness the enormous power of a uniquely American invention of commerce, direct marketing, building on a foundation established first by the catalog industry.
It is believed that Ben Franklin, credited with inventing so many things, also circulated the first catalog in the United States. In 1744, Franklin published "A Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, Consisting of Near 600 Volumes, in most Faculties and Sciences." For the first time, customers could order items by mail rather than over a store counter.
In the 1830s smaller seed merchants began selling their products through the mail. Ready-made clothing was a popular mail order item by mid-century, and in 1872 Aaron Montgomery Ward began selling thousands of products to farm families across the country through his catalogs. Richard Sears started his own catalog business shortly thereafter. By the early 1900s there was a vibrant direct mail industry emerging across the nation.
Early political applications of direct marketing were limited. Woodrow Wilson used direct mail to garner support for the League of Nations. And President Eisenhower used some direct mail to build a donor base for the Republican Party in the 1950s.
Three Unrelated Developments Pave the Way for Today's Political Direct Marketing
The popular "Connections" television series featuring science historian James Burke originally ran in 1979 on PBS. It delighted viewers by revealing surprising connections between discoveries. These connections often, in improbable ways, built on each other to advance technological progress.
The adaptation of direct mail advertising techniques for use by American political causes and campaigns in the 1960's is itself a story of improbable connections. These were events that, by themselves, might have changed little. In combination, however, they created an industry that today raises billions of dollars and employs hundreds of thousands of people engaged in strategy, writing, design, printing, assembly, list acquisition, and analysis of direct marketing operations for political organizations.
Most political organizations are funded in large part by direct mail and other direct marketing channels. This includes of both of the major national political parties and their State committees and local committees. Additionally, there are many organizations which may or may not directly advocate the election or defeat of any candidate. Many of them focus on issues and work to educate citizens about their issue, bring it to the attention of decision makers, and drive it to the forefront of the political debate. Examples of such organizations include: the National Rifle Association; the Sierra Club; the Brady Campaign to Prevent Handgun Violence; the Right to Work Foundation, and many others.
There are also numerous "think tanks" and policy centers which provide research and analysis on public issues, providing the "intellectual ammunition" for policy advocacy. These groups generally cover a range of issues which align left or right. Many such organizations rely in part or primarily on direct mail and other direct fundraising channels. Examples include: the conservative Heritage Foundation; the libertarian Cato Institute; and the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Today, direct mail remains a vital, but not the only component of popular funding of American politics. Telemarketing and the Internet have emerged as important direct fundraising channels. Direct mail delivered to donors and prospective donors by the US Postal Service, however, remains the dominant channel for many political organizations—left and right—which rely on broad based giving.
What unique confluence of connections in the early 1960s gave rise to the behemoth political direct marketing has become?
One of them is so simple it might be easy to miss: the advent of the ZIP Code. In 1963, after nearly 20 years of development, the United States Post Office introduced the now familiar five digit ZIP Code. Robert Moon, an employee of the post office, is considered the father of the ZIP Code. Moon submitted his proposal in 1944, while working as a postal inspector. "ZIP" is actually an acronym for "Zone Improvement Plan." Some reading this article will remember a cartoon character, which the Post Office called Mr. ZIP, to promote use of the ZIP Code. He was often depicted with a legend such as "USE ZIP CODE"'.
ZIP Codes facilitated geographic targeting, making it easier to implement local fund raising campaigns. But by itself ZIP Code could not have launched the revolution that saw the explosive growth of direct marketing in the 1960s. For that another element was needed. One year after the ZIP Code was introduced, IBM announced its first commercially viable mainframe computer—the 360.
The 360 was not the first mainframe computer developed by IBM. But it was the first that had the capacity to be upgraded rather than replaced. Previously, customers upgrading to larger computers had to have much or all of their software rewritten to function on the new hardware.
In developing the 360 IBM spent $5 billion dollars, in 1960s money. This is half as much as the government spent to develop the atomic bomb in World War II. The investment was worth it.
The 360 proved extremely successful in the market. This breakthrough paved the way for the first truly widespread adoption of computer technology by American business.
Few sectors benefitted more from computers than did direct marketers. Computers like the 360 allowed the compiling and sorting of huge mailing lists. For the first time, fund raisers could target donors based on many variables rather than just a few.
With the advent of the ZIP Code and affordable computing in the 1960s, direct mail fundraising exploded in the 1970s. It quickly became the means by which most Americans learned about various charities and many made their first contributions through the mail.
But a third factor contributed to the explosive growth of direct marketing in the political community. Politics in America were changing too, and this worked in combination with ZIP and computers to change the political marketing landscape.
Conservatism has always existed in America, and certainly was a factor in politics before the 1964 presidential campaign—but it was more an intellectual exercise than a set of activists. Yale graduate, author, commentator and columnist William F. Buckley envisioned a different kind of conservatism—a more activist and defiant conservatism. He founded National Review magazine to, as he put it, "stand athwart history, yelling Stop!" In the late 1950s and early 1960s young conservatives attracted to the cause by Buckley and National Review began to embrace the new activism. Conservatives realized they had an identity largely connected with but separate from the Republican Party. They realized they must be active not only during campaign seasons but constantly, in order to successfully build lasting institutions which would effectively advance conservative ideas over time.
Both major political parties today are subject to tensions between their "establishment wings" and a body of vocal, highly energized activists at the grassroots who are eager to advance their agendas. For example, since 2009 the Republican Party has seen the rise of the "Tea Party"—fiscal conservatives who want to limit government and are willing to challenge Republican incumbents.
Establishment and insurgent wings of the Republican Party had a major battle in 1964. In that year we find another "connection" which has provided a spark in the political direct marketing world.
The Goldwater campaign in 1964 gave impetus to the modern conservative movement so heavily influenced in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Buckley. And it was the emergence of that movement—coinciding as it did with the ZIP Code and widespread use of computers that helped launch political direct mail.
Conservatives used their new found energy in 1964 and defeated the establishment Republican choice for party nominee, Nelson Rockefeller. Their chosen nominee, Barry Goldwater, was defeated in a landslide in the general election. But from the Goldwater campaign the modern conservative movement emerged strong and determined. The Goldwater campaign brought conservatives together, they found their voice, and they came of age. One of the first tactics they used to increase their influence was direct mail.
No objective history of political direct mail is complete without recognizing the impact of pioneers such as Richard A. Viguerie. Viguerie is a founder of the modern conservative movement and is often called the "Founding Father" of conservative direct mail. Over 50 years later, in 2014, he remains active in conservative politics and the direct marketing community.
In 1961 Viguerie became the executive secretary of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group, founded by William F. Buckley and others at Buckley's home in Sharon, Connecticut. YAF was committed to an activist approach to politics and would play a key role in the Goldwater campaign. Later YAF would also help to bring Ronald Reagan to national prominence.
Viguerie, as legend holds, was a shy young man from east Texas who, though much of his duty involved asking people for money to support YAF, didn't like doing it. To avoid face to face meetings with donors, he wrote letters.
He became very good at it. Donation's magically appeared as a result of his impassioned letters. Viguerie realized he could contact 1,000 or 10,000 potential donors by mail without spending any more time, effort, or money than it would take to personally solicit a single contribution from one potential donor.
When he had exhausted the limited list of potential donors at hand, he had a brainstorm. Wouldn't, he reasoned, donors to conservative candidates be likely to give to a conservative organization?
Viguerie began building a mailing list. One important source was "Secretary of State" names. There was no federal requirement in those days for political campaigns to report the names of donors and amounts given, but many states did have that requirement. And those records were available to the public in most States. The catch was you could not simply order the names. They were non-computerized records. They had to be laboriously copied in the various state offices. Viguerie did this. Putting untold miles on his car and crisscrossing the country. In this way, Viguerie built the early foundations of his famous conservative "masterfile."
In 1965, Viguerie founded the Richard A. Viguerie Company with the mailing list of 12,500 conservative, political donors he had compiled. He and one employee set up shop in a small room above a fraternal lodge. Within one year, the list had multiplied ten times, to 125,000 names.
Viguerie quickly saw the potential of computerizing his growing masterfile. By the early 1970s the bottom floor of Viguerie's Fall Church, Virginia headquarters was filled with IBM machines, constantly spinning names of his donor masterfile for use in dozens of active appeals which his copywriters were concurrently preparing for clients of his agency.
During this same era two other early pioneers furthered the use of computers in direct marketing, not only for political fundraisers but also for publishers, catalog companies, and a wide variety of other direct marketers. Phil Wiland worked as an advance man in the 1968 senatorial campaign of Tom Curtis, then the ranking Republican member of the House Ways & Means Committee. In that campaign Curtis, from St. Louis, was running against the sitting Attorney General of Missouri, who was well known statewide. Curtis campaign polls showed the opponent favored strongly, and Curtis supported by only about 35% of voters. Phil helped coordinate a direct mail campaign. The lists came in on 3X5 cards, and letters were hand-addressed by volunteers. The resultant mailing instantly changed the voter polls to 50/50. Phil said to himself, "I know how to make this efficient."
Phil's college buddy, Jim Downs, also worked as an advance man that year. He moved to Virginia after the 1968 campaign and began working in direct mail fundraising. In 1971 Phil and Jim formed a company and began providing donor list maintenance (the forerunner of database management) and predictive analytics services to direct marketers, using an IBM 360 computer and custom created political fundraising software. This was the beginning of the Wiland companies that have served direct marketers for decades. Shortly after the founding, Mike Lawrence joined Wiland and Downs. Together, Wiland, Downs, and Lawrence made the 1971 company the leading political fundraising technology provider. That company is the forerunner of today's Wiland, Inc. Wiland today is a specialist in databases, predictive analytics, and insights—not an agency that creates messaging. But the Wiland political fundraising database today is the largest and deepest of any that exists, anywhere. Hundreds of organizations use Wiland to create fundraising audiences and provide insights that get the messages to the right people.
Go Forth and Multiply
Many other leaders of firms that served political fundraisers at one time worked for or were influence by early pioneers. Several of the larger, more successful direct marketing agencies that serve Republicans and conservatives were founded by Viguerie alumni—or by acolytes closely copying Viguerie's methods.
For example, Stephen Winchell left the Viguerie organization, founded his own agency, and quickly had substantial impact, providing highly effective direct mail appeals for the three Republican national committees and playing a major role in establishing the success of The Heritage Foundation. Winchell's influence and expertise is so pervasive that he, too, should be regarded among the pioneers.
But early success of direct mail fundraisers didn't just seed imitators on the right. Roger Craver, a liberal activist, adopted many of the techniques developed by Viguerie. He founded his direct mail fundraising firm, Craver, Mathews, Smith & Company in 1969. Many of the Left's most well-known organizations were launched and built under his guidance: the first organization, Common Cause, the National Organization for Women, Greenpeace, Amnesty, NARAL, Handgun Control, Inc. (now the Brady Campaign), the World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense and dozens of others.
Like Viguerie, over the years alumni of Craver's firm have founded their own agencies and spread the shared practices of political direct fundraising.
Today, across the nation, but heavily concentrated in the Washington, DC area, are hundreds of agencies, consulting firms, brokers, service bureaus, and database companies which are the descendants of the early days of political direct mail—all products of that improbable confluence of events in the 1960s. The culture of fundraising has so defined the employees of these firms (who may never have met and may be on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum) that they could probably finish each other's sentences in conversations about what does and does not work for political direct marketing. They are a community still relying to a large degree on techniques and practices of direct mail fundraising first discovered in the 1960s.
Almost all political direct mail copy style employed today had its origins in these early letters produced by first generation political fundraising consultants. In almost every case, political direct mail fundraising messaging begins with a carefully staged letter. Underlining, handwritten notes, and highlighting may be abundant. There are often more exclamation marks and ellipses than the average editor would tolerate. Bullets and indents and numbered lists help pull readers through the copy. A so called "bucket brigade" technique is used to get readers to turn the page. Virtually every fundraising letter has a P.S. Some have more than one. These are tried and true, tested and proven techniques.
Even though the structure of fundraising letters is often criticized for bad grammar, the experienced political direct mail copy writer knows that letters must be written to simulate the spoken word. The copy writer's goal is not to produce a literary work; it is to have an intimate conversation with the donor. It might drive a grammarian completely mad, but it works.
There are countless variations of direct mail fundraising appeals, but virtually all consist of a main letter, a reply form, and a return envelope, all of which are enclosed in an outside envelope which has been carefully designed to encourage people to open it. On occasion, a support piece—such as a newspaper article or the like—will be added.
Political mail pioneers recognized the importance of "involvement technique" in successful mail efforts. By this they mean a way to involve the reader with the fundraising appeal prior to writing a check for a donation. The most common example of this is the direct mail survey – still going strong as a technique in political mail after nearly five decades. A common rule taught young writers at the time was, "Never pose a question on a survey that the donor will not know how to answer." In other words, the survey is a means for the donor to stand in agreement with the central message of the appeal. Then pen already in hand, it much easier to take the final step of making out the check.
Such well tested and proven direct mail techniques, developed over time, do not translate perfectly into the new direct marketing channels. You can't write a six page letter and put it in a banner ad. You can't associate four pages of persuasive copy with a single paid search term. Etc. Yet, the fundamental objective remains, regardless of channel: the individual must be persuaded to act. Perhaps in part because other channels lack the capacity for thorough messages, direct mail continues to be the primary channel for many political organizations. As fundraising professionals learn how to involve potential donors in an appeal using new channels the new methods will likely develop their own set of tried and true methodologies, based to at least some degree in fundamentals akin to those that are successful in the direct mail channel.
The rapid increase in the affordability of computing power changed political direct mail enormously, and is changing political marketing budgets today. Direct mail remains, but paid search, email, telemarketing, display advertising, video advertising, mobile advertising, advertising in the social media, and other new channels are finding their way into political marketing budgets. Computing power, more data, and sophisticated analytics are at the forefront of driving this change.
Computers were harnessed to employ another technique, one we take for granted today: in-letter personalization. Reader's Digest lays claim to the first use of a person's name—printed by a computer—in a direct mail letter. But political mailers were not far behind. For the first time donors and potential donors were receiving letters addressed to them by name—instead of by the relatively impersonal "Dear Friend." These letters would also often contain references to a donor or prospective donor's elected representatives, and—perhaps equally, or even more importantly—to a donor's past giving history.
"Merge/purge" software, first developed by Alan Drey in the 1960s, was perfected by Wiland in the early 1970s, allowed mailers to consolidate multiple mailing lists to eliminate duplicate mailings to the same address. Data analytics technology developed by Wiland allowed political mailers to gain a deeper understanding of their donors and prospective donors. These analysis techniques facilitated donor targeting and segmentation strategies that have become standard not just for fundraising appeals, but for all direct marketing communications. Audience segmentation is one of the most powerful tools available to fundraisers and political campaigns.
In fundraising, the person most likely to give to an organization is the one who has already given. As well, someone who has given recently is much more likely to give than someone who gave at some point in the past (regardless of the dollar amount they gave). Someone who gives a certain amount is more likely to contribute that amount again rather than a smaller or greater amount. And, often, donors are "cultivated" and over time and make larger contributions to the organization. Computers made it possible to store and process the data to enable such capabilities. These simple techniques have been in use for decades. Rising costs demand more sophisticated segmentation, which is driven by more and better data.
More Data, Better Marketing
While computers and related software are the engines of direct marketing technology, strong offers, data and analytics are the fuel. No matter how good a computer is, or how good the software is, targeting magic comes from data, insight, and messaging—not from the hardware or software.
Strong appeals and excellent, comprehensive, well mapped data that drives targeting are the keys to direct fundraising success.
For decades direct marketers have employed segmentation strategies designed to target the right appeal to the right audience. Not only the right messaging strategy in the appeal, but the right level of expenditure for each audience to which the message is directed. Donors who have given larger amounts are asked for gifts consistent with those amounts. Because donors who give in higher amounts are likely to do so again, it makes sense to invest extra money in the appeal to these donors. Appeals to these donors may include increased personalization, first class postage, closed faced as opposed to window envelopes, and possibly more items or higher quality items in the mailing piece. A large donor file of diverse segments of donors may get four or five different versions of an appeal based on the giving potential of the targeted donor segment. Generally, the higher the potential giving of the donor, the greater investment in making the direct mail appeal appear more "personal." Such strategies are not new.
These established truths remain valid, but today more data, superior data mapping, and advanced data analytics are driving even better segmentation and selection methods, enabling superior, more precise messaging. Too often, discussions of advanced segmentation focus almost exclusively on the predictive modeling element and fail to pay enough attention to the fundamental fuel: the data and the way it is mapped, or organized, to facilitate the modeling. Phil Wiland is often quoted on this topic, "It's all about the data." While this doesn't mean that statistical technique is unimportant, it does mean that having the right information to fuel good technique is essential. Wiland's stated goal, for example, is to "understand every American consumer better than they have ever been understood before." The data and the way it is mapped is the fuel to accomplish this.
Wiland pioneered the data, data mapping, and predictive modeling functions in direct fundraising. Savvy fundraisers have long been good at picking donor segments using common sense. Who has given recently? Who has given a large amount? Who has given multiple times? Who has given to other organizations most similar to mine? Data, data mapping, and predictive modeling utilize common sense too, but they go far beyond, analyzing massive amounts of data that no human could hold in their mind, and making decisions based on data interactions. Statistical techniques such as "regression analysis", "automatic interaction detection" and "machine learning" reach far beyond the ability of the human brain to calculate. The leading techniques today exist in companies such as Wiland that are top tier in each of three respects: they have massive relevant data; they map that data in ways that increase insight and differentiation; and they employ techniques that find the gold buried in the mass of data.
They find the gold with predictive models that rank every person in a defined universe. Two defined universes are most important to direct fundraisers: existing donors to the organization in question; and prospects of that organization. The two are like food and water. One isn't enough. You have to have both to flourish.
Proper use of advanced techniques such as those that are available from Wiland can decrease cost of fundraising as a percentage of total funds raised, or hold it constant on higher volume. Actually reducing fundraising cost as a percent of funds raised absolutely requires that an organization reduce wasted expenditures previously spent marketing to people who are very unlikely to give. The saved budget can either fall to the bottom line or be redeployed to other campaigns. The generic term for this is "optimization". Optimization applies to both of the critical defined universes: existing donors and prospective donors.
Wasting budget is bad, no matter where it is wasted. Some believe that optimization isn't necessary with existing donor audiences; that they can be optimized without sophistication. When an organization is young and all donors are recent this may be true. In almost all other cases it is simply wrong. Donor universes can be optimized, leading to improved ROI. Wiland's donor file modeling and Prime Target Audience™ methodology are among the best available solutions.
Three key steps are required in order to actually reduce fundraising cost as a percentage of total funds raised.
- First, an organization must firmly adopt as a key objective that it will strive to avoid spending marketing dollars on donors and prospects who are, in fact, very unlikely to ever provide net dollars to the organization. Virtually every organization is wasting money contacting donors and prospects whose giving profile is so weak that they are very unlikely to ever be valuable donors. The first step an organization must take to significantly improve its fundraising results is to acknowledge that money is being wasted and make it a key objective to stop the waste. Without this seemingly simple, fundamental goal, it is unlikely the organization can successfully implement steps 2 and 3. Most organizations may believe that they already have such an objective, and that they are pursuing it rigorously. And that may be the case. But, if their pursuit of the objective is driven by old-fashioned methods they may in fact not be pursuing the objective rigorously at all. There must be openness to new, advanced techniques, and a commitment to ongoing research and testing to identify the waste and eliminate it.
- Second, an organization must set a wise standard for minimum performance level of marketing campaigns to existing donors. Is 110% fundraising cost acceptable for the weakest segment when attempting to raise funds from existing donors? What about 100% or 95%? It is easy to find the top of a donor list…the donors who have given many times and have given recently – and that top produces great ROI, and low fundraising cost. But what about the middle of the file, or the bottom of the file? Often, the middle and bottom segments are the largest segments, and therefore require the most budget.
- Third, an organization must pursue methods of identifying the waste in their prospecting campaigns. Such waste is usually masked. It must be unmasked, and eliminated. This goes hand-in-hand with identifying strong prospect audiences that will produce ROI superior to other prospect audiences. What, exactly, does "masked" mean? It means that the bad prospects are mixed into a segment along with good prospects and the blend produces an acceptable but mediocre result. The bad prospects are masked by being blended with the good. This hurts organizations. They need to unmask the bad, and save that budget.
Once an organization is firmly committed to these 3 steps it can actually either reduce fundraising cost as a percent of sales or hold it constant at higher volume (which to do is a strategic choice of the organization). Wiland is dedicated to these steps. Wiland seeks to deliver the future, and the future Wiland seeks to deliver involves larger donor files that are more productive and thus raise more net funds. With costs as high as they are today this is not easy. It even requires devotion to methods that some oppose. Exchange optimization is a good example. Today, many direct fundraisers exchange names with other organizations, avoiding list cost, and seemingly doing a great thing for the organization. But, inside virtually every exchanged list are really bad prospects that drive fundraising cost up.
Services such as Wiland's Exchange Optimization™, Net File Optimization™, and Prime Target Audience™ are designed to eliminate waste and establish focus on cultivating relationships with people whose points of view and giving capacity combine to create a better future for an organization. Developing, implementing, and constantly refining such capabilities is how Wiland delivers the future.
All of this list building, processing and sophisticated targeting of donors began in the 1960s through improbable connections—the serendipitous combination of ZIP Codes, computers, and the passion of a new political movement and highly motivated entrepreneurs. It is a different world today. Massive databases, sophisticated data mapping, and powerful analytics combine to deliver opportunity for an even more successful tomorrow.
In the 1960s a typical direct mail package for a political cause cost 20 cents or less. A first class stamp in 1968 was 6 cents. As of January 2014 a first class postage stamp was 49 cents. The price to rent mailing lists through list owners, list managers, and list brokers has sharply increased as well, as has that of paper. Today, mail designed for prospective donors to organizations whose mail volume is small often cost one dollar per piece of mail or more. Even large mailers who mail millions of pieces in a single campaign are facing much higher costs than in the past. Beyond the direct mail channel, cost is high in all media. Despite there being millions of online advertising opportunities per second online, there is intense completion to win the opportunity to serve such ads. This drives online marketing cost up in relation to the response it delivers. Everything is expensive.
Another notable comparison to the past is that in the 1960s the average first time donation amount was around $17-$19. Today, average initial donation amount is still under $20.00. Giving levels have simply not kept pace with rising costs. One consequence of this is an overall diminishment of the size of mailings. In the early days of the late 1960s and 1970s political mailings often numbered in the millions. Today, a mailing of that size is unusual; a large mailing for a small organization is often less than 100,000 pieces. Similarly, organizations struggle to find large audiences online, or in other channels, that are highly responsive. Finding large audiences is easy; finding productive large audiences is difficult.
Another challenge, and a direct result of higher cost, is that many vertical list universes are smaller today than in the past. This is a challenge to political direct mail fundraising because, as important as copy is, every political direct mailer will quickly remind you that sizable lists that produce good results are an absolutely crucial component of success. Then as now—the best fundraising appeal cannot succeed without good lists. Again, similarly, large audiences that are responsive, whether via direct mail or online, are hard to find—sometimes almost impossible to find.
Yet another challenge on the horizon for political fundraisers is dealing with regulation. Recent court decisions (such as the Citizens United decision) and practices of the IRS and other agencies sometimes confuse political and issue advocacy nonprofit organizations. It used to be very clear what a 501(c)(3) research organization could say in their direct mail fundraising appeals compared to what a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization could say. Today these rules seem less clear. Certainly there need to be rules, and clearly the IRS must assure that organizations that have or are seeking tax exempt status deserve to have that status. Virtually everyone agrees that the rules should apply to everyone equally, and that rules should reflect good policy, but it isn't clear to everyone exactly how to best accomplish this. Political groups are scrambling to stay abreast of the law. It is routine these days for the client's attorneys to be full partners in the copywriting process.
Meeting the Challenges of Higher Cost and Smaller List Universes from Traditional Sources
Today, as lists obtained from traditional sources are generally smaller, more expensive and less available, Wiland has addressed this challenge very directly. The Wiland donor database is not only huge; it is also highly responsive and less expensive than vertical lists. Wiland costs less and works better. Transactional data from many sources combine with sophisticated, and in some cases proprietary statistical techniques to predict response.
The opening sentence of an August 2014 article in Politico is this: "Its obituary has been written over and over, but the political direct mail industry isn't just still alive; it's thriving." This is a fact, despite movement to engage in the digital channels and and despite smaller traditional list source. The reason this is possible is, in large part, due to the existence of huge databases such as the one maintained by Wiland.
Mail Still King But New Channels Change the Equation
Direct mail remains extremely effective, despite increased costs, as a way of raising funds from established donors and obtaining new donors. There is no doubt that times are changing (they always have) but direct mail, for now, is still king. No fundraising method is superior. But increased availability of alternative channels has led many political organizations to explore alternative or supplemental marketing channels.
Some, of course, are saying that new technologies will replace direct mail—make it obsolete. They could be right. Eventually. But today, direct mail is still the driver for most organizations. Even so, numerous supplemental marketing channels are very much a part of today's fundraising equation.
Telemarketing: Telephone selling has been around for many years, but the computer revolution that so impacted direct mail fundraising was also to give birth to modern telemarketing. Careful targeting and "predictive dialing" technology minimizes the time callers spend placing a call and waiting for a prospect to answer the phone. These and other advances have made telemarketing cost effective for numerous fundraisers.
In 2004 the Federal Trade Commission, responding to growing consumer complains about telemarketing, instituted the "Do Not Call Registry"—giving US consumers the ability to block unsolicited calls from companies to which they had no prior connection. The FTC made an exception to this rule for non-profit organizations, which included most political organizations, charities, and political campaigns. Yet, this detail of the law was not well known to most Americans, who became progressively less responsive to telemarketing appeals. Today, as more and more Americans choose mobile phones over so-called land lines, access to phone numbers is difficult. Americans are simply much harder for fundraisers to reach by telephone phone today than they were a decade ago. Nevertheless, telemarketing remains a viable channel for many organizations.
Digital Channels: Some believe that email, online display advertising, online video, social media, and/or mobile marketing will surely kill off political direct mail. But astute observers believe that, for a host of reasons, it is very likely that digital marketing and direct mail will evolve to live in symbiotic harmony. Digital media are powerful communication channels, and they are incredibly more immediate than direct mail, but direct mail continues to demonstrate superior ability to raise funds. Direct fundraisers need to become expert in all of the relevant marketing channels. Symbiotic harmony.
One advantage of the Internet is that a good web site provides an easy way for donors and potential donors to find out more about an organization and its cause before making a decision about whether to donate. Photographs, testimonials, and other supporting information that a copywriter would like to include in the mailing package—but can't—can be put on the web site with a donation link prominently displayed. Increasingly, donors who are motivated to give by a printed letter are going to the Internet to research the organization further and then make the gift online. In merchandising, offline marketing programs that produce online orders are referred to as "channel shift", because the same channel that always produced the order is producing it now, but it appears differently because the transaction occurred online. Similarly, direct mail may continue to drive fundraising even as it appears to be shifting to digital because more and more people, motivated by direct mail, go to the web to actually make a gift. Symbiotic harmony.
Email is an especially attractive option in some respects. Its cost is minimal. It can be created by an organization and received by donors in the same day. It can be an effective fundraising tool and is used by many political groups today. But generally speaking—so far at least—even the most successful email campaigns do not produce anything near as many donations as traditional mail. Some marketers theorize that despite its advantages email lacks the punch of paper mail because copy slides off the top of the page as the donor scrolls through the message. It can't match the power of printed advertising that can be spread in front of the donor and studied at length. Furthermore, the low cost is itself an enemy of response: people get so much email that they delete much of it without even opening it to see what it is. And on top of that, much email is never delivered to the addressee because of spam filters, ISP policy, and other factors. Nevertheless, email is highly effective in some circumstances, particularly for contacting known supporters at crucial times, so email likely will continue to play a role.
Imbed Radio: Several political mailers on the conservative side—including the Heritage Foundation, FreedomWorks, the Media Research Center and others—have turned to "imbed radio" as a donor acquisition method. This method of donor acquisition leverages the large role conservative talk radio plays in the conservative movement today. Organizations buy time on popular talk radio programs. The talk radio hosts deliver the ads in such a way as these paid messages seem to be part of the host's daily commentary. Listeners are encouraged to join the group via the Internet. Imbed radio has proved itself as a cost-effective donor acquisition method and is likely to even more widely used in the future. Imbed radio has a role, but it can't reach specific people in a target audience. It may reach them, and others, but isn't precise. Symbiotic harmony.
Most fundraising professionals believe a physical piece of mail, artfully written and designed, will be an integral component of political fundraising for a long time to come. But modern practitioners will have to adapt to the realities of the Digital Age and learn to benefit from—not compete with—the many advantages it can offer. Call it what you will: multi-channel; media mix; or symbiotic harmony, the marketing world and channels available are more complex and diverse than ever before. Top professionals will learn, test, and optimize across numerous channels.
We've talked extensively about political fundraising but there is another important application of political marketing. And that is the use of mail and other media to identify, reach, persuade, and motivate voters and potential voters. Political advertising related to elections has been part of our culture from the beginning. In recent years the marketing channels utilized have included television, radio, direct mail, ads in periodicals, billboards, yard signs, bumper stickers, and just about every form one can imagine.
Much of the total of political marketing is concentrated in the days and weeks immediately prior to an election. Citizens have come to expect a huge increase in political activity at such times, and some feel like they are bombarded with political messages, many of them negative in tone. Mass media advertising remains a very large part of what is done in most political campaigns. But, the "send everyone within earshot the same message over and over" approach that is utilized on television, radio, and elsewhere in many campaigns is not direct marketing, and therefore it really isn't part of the history and marketplace we are discussing.
Political ads that are designed to deliver messages to a clearly defined segment of the voting age population are what we are discussing. One example is direct mail, which remains one of the most powerful weapons in the campaigners' arsenal. For example, in 2012 both the Obama and Romney campaigns spent more on direct mail than they did on Internet advertising. Other media that can be used to deliver ads to defined segments include Internet display, video, and mobile advertising, and some niche radio and television.
Interestingly, the differences in strategy and technique between fundraising and voter communication are so pronounced that very few agencies or consultants dabble in both areas.
A cadre of voter communication consultancies and agencies work with candidate committees, issue organizations, ballot initiatives and other entities that communicate with voters and potential voters. These specialists utilize multiple marketing channels to reach voters with messaging that is specific to interests of the voter or a community or district in which they live. Today the buzz word for effective voter mail campaigns is "micro-targeting." You've heard this phrase used extensively to describe the "secret weapon" the Obama campaign deployed against Romney in 2012. There are various methodologies that are generally referred to as micro-targeting.
Micro-targeting is a process that classifies voters in segments—as opposed to treating them as a single population as television and other mass advertising must do. If political strategists can define discrete groups of voters, they can—and do—create individual, compelling messages to them. These individualized message are often much more persuasive than the general campaign messages delivered by mass advertising.
A local community that has been subject of a high crime rate for example can be targeted with a law and order message—in a case where that message may be less effective or even counter-productive as a general campaign theme. Micro-targeted voter mail can be conducted as a "stealth campaign." Whereas an opponent can plainly see—and quickly respond to—attacks launched on television, micro-targeted messages are more personal, less intrusive, and more relevant to the individual. The campaign benefits because it is able to truthfully and thoroughly explain a candidate's position to people who really care about a subject without bothering people to whom the subject is uninteresting; voters benefit because they learn a candidate's position in-depth on issues that matter most to them.
The importance of micro-targeting in future campaigns is almost beyond dispute. Groups and service firms continue to invest to develop micro-targeting technology. Wiland expects to announce significant new capabilities in 2015.
Today's Essentials for Political Mail Success
With increased costs and rapidly changing communications technology, this is indeed a challenging time for political fundraisers. Successful groups in today's challenging political fundraising environment generally share the following characteristics.
- The organization has a clear and definable purpose. They have a reputation for integrity in their operations and in their relationships with donors
- There is a compelling reason for donors to give. A large problem will be effectively addressed with the aid of the gift. A donor can easily prioritize gifts to this group over other giving.
- The organization has a clear sense of its audience. It understands those who are already donors and those most likely to become donors.
- The organization is able to clearly, honestly, and convincingly make its case to its donors through carefully targeted fundraising appeals.
Technologies and methods are changing the industry rapidly—especially in the vital audience component. Increasingly, the use of collaborative databases, data overlays, predictive models, and micro-targeting are replacing the old volume-based, "mail the phone book" methods of the early days of political mail. Thanks to companies like Wiland, audience strategies today are smarter, more efficient and less expensive than list strategies of the past. Professionals will harness the power of techniques such as those available from Wiland and, working with Wiland, they will deliver a better future.