Tips for Direct Mail and Campaign Literature

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Done right, direct mail is one of the most effective and efficient methods of direct voter contact with your target audience. For many smaller races, direct mail will be the only form of paid communication, since it’s a highly targeted and relatively inexpensive way to combine field strategy with your communications and paid media plan.  The tips below are designed to help you plan and execute a successful direct media plan, but can and should be used for literature drops, walk cards, and the like. The same rules apply – and they all need to work together.


  • 3-4-second (they’ll read the headlines, scan the pictures – name – slogan)
  • 10-20 second (they’ll read and absorb headlines and scan the copy)
  • The readers (want more information, will read more text)

The percentage of these audiences will vary by election. In a higher-turnout election, you’ll have a higher percentage of 3-4 second people, while an election with lower turnout tends to have more readers. But, in general, most direct mail needs to be written and produced in a way that gets its main points across as succinctly as possible.


  • Strategic universe: Make sure you define who your targeted voters are using the voter file. If you have a mail consultant, he or she can help you figure out your universe.
  • Repetition matters: Your mail plan must include multiple contacts with targeted voters over a span of time building toward Election Day.
  • Complements other media: To support the campaign message your direct mail must complement all other communications – not just paid media, but what the candidate is saying on the stump, what volunteers are saying at the doors, etc.
  • Thoughtful timelines: Your plan must balance resources with repetition and timeliness of your mail.  Most voters aren’t paying attention to a campaign until the last 90 days. The challenge in waiting until voters are tuned in is that you will be competing against the clutter of everyone else’s mail; you’ll want to make sure you have a big enough program with enough repetition and creative design to break through the clutter.  If you start too early, without a large enough program to sustain consistent contact throughout you risk being forgotten or will not have the repetition during voters’ key decision time.


  • Message reinforcement: Great way to target specific voters to reinforce the campaign message, offering more detail than face-to-face direct voter contact. In a smaller race, mail can be the dominant paid medium.
  • Niche targeting: Mail can be used to deliver specific messages (education, health care, budget—or negatives) to targeted audiences who care about those issues.
  • Voter education: Mail can effectively be used for more ‘complicated’ actions such as voter registration, early vote, vote by mail, etc.
  • Get-out-the-vote (GOTV): GOTV mail can be a key part of your field program to turn out voters.


  • Candidate introduction: Most consultants will tell a first-time candidate that a simple piece(s) introducing the candidate should precede any negative or issue-specific pieces, if possible.  Even established elected officials can sometimes re-introduce themselves to voters through mail.
  • Positive: Positive mail tells your candidate’s story, his or her record – maybe zeroing in on a particular issue – in greater detail than possible during face-to-face direct voter contact.
  • Contrast: Contrast mail can deliver hard compare-and-contrast between candidates – side-by-side comparisons are an effective way to let voters decide by providing selected but accurate information—but are by no means the only way to drive a contrast.
  • Negative: Direct mail is a great way to deliver negative messages because they go directly to the voter, not widely broadcast on TV.  This tactic should be factual, meticulously documented, and if appropriate, designed creatively and with a sense of humor.
  • Early voting: Early vote mail pieces work best if they’re official-looking rather than political (no campaign/candidate photos) and have clear instructions and information about how and where to vote early, including – if you can afford it – customized early vote locations and hours based on the voter’s precinct.
  • Vote by mail: Vote-by-mail pieces also work best if they’re official-looking rather than political (no campaign/candidate photos) and have clear instructions on how to apply to vote by mail, fill out and mail the ballot, and reminders that the process is safe and secure.
  • GOTV mail: Uses social pressure to mobilize your voters; candidate slate mail pieces, again official-looking, are often used for GOTV mail.


  • Design: Should reflect your audience – and your candidate. Keep it simple. While it’s tempting to have a “teaser” front, like a funny photo or quote (but no campaign message) consider whether your 3-4 second audience will take the time to turn it over, or whether they’ll just throw it in the trash, wasting your campaign money and the opportunity to communicate with a voter.
  • Common mail piece sizes: 6.5 X 11 is the cheapest “supercard” postcard (it’s not the size of a tourist postcard!). Bigger sizes:
    8.5 X 11, 17 X 11 foldout, etc.
  • Photos/Visual: 40-60% of every piece is made up of photos or graphics. We cannot overemphasize how important good photography is. Bad photos = bad mail.  It is worth investing in professional photos if you do not have a “really good” photographer already. Avoid bland headshots – use photos of the candidate interacting with real people – and not just “grip and grin” shots with people all lined up with the candidate. The work your campaign and consultants put into this on the front end will result in better mail. Plus, you’ll have better photos for use in other mediums as well.
  • Headlines: We can’t understate the importance of headlines as effective mail doesn’t rely on the reader going to the copy to make its point.
  • In general, headlines should be short (frankly, the number of words depends on the layout) and there shouldn’t be more than 2-4 headlines/subheadlines on any one piece.
  • As with most rules, there are exceptions. For example, a multi-fold piece may have more headlines but, if produced effectively, the additional headlines and folds are compelling enough to keep the readers’ attention.
  • Font: Avoid too many font types – it gets confusing.
  • Font size: No smaller than 12pt – except for disclaimers and documentation
  • Formatting: Layout matters. Skilled designers will use white space to guide the eye to what’s important.
  • Vital info: Candidate name, office, election, “ask” (e.g. vote, contribute, register…) – make sure the voter knows who, what, and when – and your message will tell them why.
  • Disclaimer: Can be smaller font – know the rules, for example Federal Election Law mandates the font size for disclaimers.
  • Union bug: Most progressive campaigns want to use union printers and have their “bug.”
  • Recycle wheel: Likewise, most progressive campaigns will want to show their mail is printed on recycled paper. Soy ink and paper made by wind power are also increasingly popular!
  •  Contact info: Be sure to include website, phone or email, address – some way to contact the campaign to volunteer, contribute, or find out more information.

          THINGS TO AVOID:

  • Too much copy: The reader will either toss because it looks like too much to read, or your campaign message will get lost.
  • Hard to read: Seniors are the biggest direct mail readers. If you make the piece hard to read, you lose a chance to communicate with a key demographic.
  • Design too busy: Like copy overload, a busy design will bury the message.
  • Bland photos: Photos should communicate the campaign’s message and/or the candidate’s personality, or they’re better left on the cutting-room floor. Remember, bad photos = bad mail.


  • Repetition: Send 5-12 pieces to a targeted voter (1 or 2 pieces does not make a direct mail program). This may sound like a lot – and your budget will ultimately determine what’s possible – but just a couple of pieces disappear in the swamp.
  • Reinforcement: Each piece should build on a common theme and reinforce the same message – even if to different audiences.  Be creative, but repeat the message over and over. Do not assume that a voter will remember the previous piece. An effective mail plan is one in which the sum of the plan communicates the message you wish to convey. If a plan tries to do too much or communicate too many disparate points, it is less likely to be effective.


  • Documentation: Use citations or footnotes to tell voters where specific claims come from – e.g. “Haggar goes horrible” Duluth News Tribune (5-17-08); U.S. Census
  •  Outside validation: Outside sources – news media, government studies or data, non-partisan groups – all enhance a claim’s credibility. This is especially true when you are making a negative claim.
  • Hit mailboxes when voters are paying attention. As we said above, most campaigns will hold on sending mail until the last 90 days, because that’s when voters start really paying attention. Consider whether you can get an intro piece or positive out to voters just before the noise from other campaigns and issues really begins. This will really depend on your campaign’s budget.
  • Direct mail messages have a shelf life of five days. Your targeted voters are not going to remember a piece about veterans sent five months before Election Day, no matter how poignant or true to your message. Mail pieces sent too far in advance of the election are likely a waste of money.
  • A mail consultant can only guarantee when your mail drops. That is, when it’s accepted and signed for by the U.S. Postal Service. Not when it’s delivered. The days of one-day delivery times are over. The post office has laid off 40% of its staff, making it harder to determine delivery times. TIP: Pay attention to how long it takes from the drop at the USPS to delivery of your first piece – you’ll have a better idea of delivery times for the following pieces.
  • Drop all mail by the Wednesday before Election Day: That Wednesday is the last day that USPS will guarantee your mail arrives before Election Day.


  • Going on press is the most expensive part of your direct mail program. Make sure you everything is right before sending it to the printer: copy approved, fact-checked, proper disclaimer on, etc. You do NOT want to be making last-minute changes in the middle of a press run.
  • The larger the run, the lower price per piece. If you print 20,000 pieces, you’ll pay about 58¢ per piece (including consultant/mail vendor fees). If you print 100,000 that price goes down to 35¢ per piece.
  • Print overruns of your mail for campaign literature.  If you are going to print 12,255 pieces for your target universe, then go ahead and order 15,000 – it’s pennies to print extras and you can use those overruns as your newest campaign literature for door-knocking.  It helps keep your message fresh, constant and related to your field campaign over the course of the campaign.
  • Note: You do not have to purchase a bulk mail permit. Your consultant or mail house will have one.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Thanks to MissionControl, LLC, Cerillion N4, Petel and Company, Gumbinner Davies, Terris Barnes Walters, and the Pivot Group.

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