by Marilyn Hirsch
What makes a mail campaign “good”? At first blush, the answer seems simple: results. A “good” mail campaign achieves its goals efficiently. Because at the end of the day, aren’t we using a mailing campaign to register voters, drive more people to the polls in support of a candidate, build support for a referendum, or another specifically defined goal?
We are, but frequently that’s not all we’re after. Swing Blue Alliance also uses mail campaigns as research tools. A campaign can provide valuable data to guide and refine future actions — if we and our partners can design and execute the campaign to gather the information we need. In general, that involves isolating a certain number of names on the mailing list as a control group.
However, at times it takes some convincing and negotiation to run an experiment. In a mail campaign supporting a candidate in a very tight race, the local partner organization might think the margin of victory will come down to a few hundred votes. In that situation, the partner could feel that using any number of mailing list names as a control group — in other words, not mailing to them — is too great a risk.
This is all to say that results aren’t the only (or often, even the most important) component of a well-run and effective mail campaign! It’s important to understand the campaign’s specific structure and goals when you’re evaluating a potential campaign for your volunteers.
For Every Mailing Campaign, We AIM HI
For every mailing campaign that Swing Blue runs, the core of our strategy is a set of principles we call AIM HI. Essentially, these are the questions we ask to evaluate the proposed campaign and determine whether or not we will engage.
AIM HI stands for:
A: Additive. Are we filling a gap with this project or will our efforts be duplicative? Will this
mailing get lost in a sea of similar mail, or does it address a specific unmet need?
I: Important. Why is this mailing important? Does it align with our strategy and goals?
M: Measurable. Is the campaign structured so that we can quantify results? What specifically
will this campaign measure? What are the planned outcome metrics?
H: Helpful. What will this action do to help our local partners and further “small-d” democracy?
Will it help frontline groups or support marginalized communities? Will it help improve
grassroots organizing in swing states?
I: Impactful. Do we believe this mailing will achieve the intended outcome effectively? Is there
prior research that indicates this mailing will produce the desired outcome for the targeted
Step One: Know Your Audience — Who and Why
The first question to answer is who we are targeting with our mailing. Are they potential voters? Likely voters? First-time voters? Members of the Democratic party or independents? Decisions about language, messaging, visuals or graphics, timing, measuring metrics — virtually every aspect of the campaign flows from identifying to whom we are mailing. Also, why are we targeting them? In other words, why are these people important to us? Finally, what is important to them? Which issues or subjects can we highlight to motivate them? Are there key or “hot button” issues?
Step Two: The Measures: What Will We Learn?
Once Swing Blue has determined the who and why of the campaign audience, the next question is what the campaign seeks to know. What exactly are we measuring? How will our learnings improve future campaigns? For each campaign, we begin by applying the AIM HI criteria. To get quantifiable results, we then need to design and execute the campaign with the ends in mind.
Virtually every Swing Blue mail campaign seeks to influence voter behavior in some way. Many of our campaigns look at voter turnout: were the voters we mailed to more likely to go to the polls than those who did not receive cards or letters? If so, we count the campaign as a success.
Taking a Deeper Dive
Recently, we began working on a mail campaign in Virginia that will analyze results at the precinct level. Precinct by precinct, we’ll look at the voter turnout and percent of votes cast for the Democratic candidate from targeted individuals who received our postcards versus non-targeted individuals who did not receive our postcards.
“To our knowledge, there has never been a meaningful test to measure whether postcards help down-ballot candidates get more votes, and that’s about to change,” said Richard Segan, Swing Blue mailing team member and frequent mailing campaign host. “In our upcoming Virginia campaign, we’ll be supporting three down-ballot candidates in rural Virginia whose victories will help build the Democratic base and pipeline for future races.”
Step Three: Clarify Your Goals, Big and Small/Near and Far
As a postcard host, you often have volunteers wondering what the postcard campaign is about and what exactly it will accomplish — both immediately and long-term. It’s kind of a macro/micro situation.
On a micro level, you’ll need to make sure you understand and can clearly communicate all the granular campaign details: explicit instructions, specific messaging, who the local partner is, and the like. For the big picture, you’ll need to be able to answer two questions. First, “How will this particular campaign help local partners impact long-term Democratic goals?” Second, how will this campaign — when executed effectively — help further small-d democracy?
Why Volunteers Write Postcards
Of course, not all postcard volunteers ask questions or need explanations about the macro impact of the campaign they’ll be working on. Some are just “in it to win it” for Dems, and willing to do whatever their trusted leaders (you, Swing Blue Alliance members!) identify as worthy postcard campaigns. They like being part of the movement.
“Patty and I are vote-by-mail organizers because we are committed to seeking change in national leadership,” said Alan Brownstein, retired National Health Organization executive and Swing Blue organizer. “Swing Blue Alliance gives organizers the opportunity to mobilize the power of ‘people’ who can influence political outcomes at a critical crossroads in our nation’s history.”
Many volunteers also appreciate the seamless postcard operations Swing Blue has created. Recently, Mary Sacksteder of Indivisible Worcester said, “I love sending Swing Blue’s postcards.” “With this batch, the addresses were pre-printed on the postcards, which made the process so easy.” She continued, “And the printer took my debit card info over the phone, which was great since I don’t like to do online payments … It was a win-win-win!”
Step Four: The Message and Means — Tailor and Define
Having a list that targets the right people is, of course, critical. But you also need the right message to reach that audience. What you say and how you say it can make the difference between a tool that motivates someone to act and one that lands in the trash can with barely a glance. A good mail campaign will explain why this particular message and tone will resonate with the audience.
The campaign’s means of communication is another important factor. Letter or postcard? Current research shows that both are effective. As an organizer, you’ll want to know why one was chosen over the other, so that you can explain it to your team. If it’s a postcard campaign, the graphics or photo being used are also important. Again, it’s important for organizers to understand how the specific imaging or “creative assets” will resonate with the target audience. Sometimes this isn’t as obvious as you might think. Typically, instructions for every Swing Blue mailing campaign will have background on why a particular message and/or image was selected, usually with additional context from local partners, so you can clearly communicate these points to your volunteers.
Step Five: Understand and Explain Performance Data
Data is at the heart of our efforts. Measurable results are always important — whether the campaign you’re considering is designed to elect a candidate, register voters, or gather research for future campaigns.
Effective, well-run postcard campaigns always include clear standards for evaluating and demonstrating results, such as key performance indicators (KPIs), benchmarks, and/or ways to report and disseminate findings. A good campaign has them all. And as a postcard host, it’s your job to make sure you understand what they are. You also need a plan for communicating these quantifiers clearly to your postcard volunteers.
For a more comprehensive look at the data that drives Swing Blue, check out the recording from our 2022 Flag the Results event).
Remember: The Swing Blue Mailing Team Is Always Here to Help
You never have to undertake a mailing campaign alone. The Swing Blue mailing team is here to assist, guide, answer questions, troubleshoot, and more.
Feel free to get in touch at any time!
Read Part 1 of our Mail Organizers Education Series: Get to Know the Swing Blue Volunteers Behind Our Mailing Campaigns >
Marilyn Hirsch is a freelance copy and editorial writer based in MetroWest Boston