How Political Parties used Direct Mail in the 2017 UK General Election

Candidates for constituency seats are allowed, by Law, to access a Royal Mail direct mail service called ‘Candidate Mail’.

Washington Direct Mail (WDM) recently did a huge amount of direct mail service work for various political parties during the 2017 UK General Election.

They are allowed to have one direct mail campaign delivered without charge by Royal Mail to either each household within the constituency if the mail is unaddressed, or each eligible elector if the mail is addressed.

Crucially, although there are no postal costs, the direct mail design, digital or litho printing and fulfilment for each direct mail piece still needs to be paid for by the candidate. So although the cost is reduced, it’s important to maximise the direct mail’s effect not only because it can help the candidate get elected, but also because each candidate has a finite budget to get elected with.

For a full description please see our Candidate Mail page

As a UK Mailing House and the neutral supplier of direct mail services to candidates we were in a privileged position to see how candidates and campaign managers handled having to pull all the disparate elements of a direct mail campaign piece together, many of them doing so for the first time.

The results were mixed.

What struck us most, was the shear breadth of knowledge about copywriting, design, printing knowledge, logistical planning and organisational ability.  It varied from knowing nothing and wanting someone else to do it all, through to requiring full control over every aspect of the direct mail service process.

Of course, it didn’t help that almost every political party, even the Conservatives in Government it seems, was caught ‘on the hop’ by the General Election announcement. Yet within an hour of the announcement, Washington Direct Mail was in discussion with campaign managers about direct mail services, variable digital printing and fulfilment of Candidate Mail.

But inevitably, due to the surprise, there were several key issues that candidates and campaign managers needed to surmount to take advantage of Candidate mail.

These included:


1) Lack of Data

Many candidates literally did not have the time required to request their constituency data and to segment and cleanse it enough to use Addressed Candidate Mail.


2) Lack of pre-written copy

Most candidates struggled to provide copy that was tailored to the electorate because they a) were not themselves copywriters, b) had not expected to provide copy at that point in time, and c) lacked the time to sit down and write brand new copy. This resulted in some copy being pulled together from various previous disparate places that looked and sounded different within the same leaflet.


3) Lack of pre-approved Candidate Mail templates

Some candidates were altogether new to the whole Election and Candidate Mail process. They had not been introduced to Royal Mail Candidate Mail rules and regulations, and struggled to understand the opportunities and limitations of what could and couldn’t be achieved.


4) Lack of Message Clarity

Driven, to some extent, by a lack of clarity from their central teams, some candidates were unsure about their messaging priorities. In some cases this meant that there were competing messages, and in other, that an inappropriate message was prioritised.


5) Lack of Political Party Brand Knowledge

More than a few candidates were either a) unaware of their Political Party brand guidelines, b) were not constrained by them, or c) were not bothered about them. This, coupled with a wide variation of printing press qualities across the country, ensured that on some occasions no two direct mail pieces looked or sounded the same.


Now that the dust has settled… for the next few months perhaps… we thought it might be time to provide some of our learnings in the form of the top 13 tips for future political candidates and to highlight how a good direct mail service provider can make all the difference to an election campaign.

The following advice from a politically neutral UK mailing house is genuinely meant to help future candidates and campaign managers. We hope you enjoy reading it…


Top 13 Tips for Creative Future Direct Mail Message ‘Cut Through’ using Candidate Mail


1) Be Brand Aware

Each major political party has its own set of brand guidelines that have been developed by design agencies. They’ve been developed for a reason. That reason is to present a united face and appear professional in front of the electorate. Candidates and campaign managers should ensure they have a copy of their party’s brand guidelines, understand what is required of them by their central leadership, and what leeway for individualism they have. Candidates should think very seriously before they decide to ‘go rogue’ and ignore brand guidelines because this might lead to recriminations at a later point should the election not go as planned.


2) Be Data Driven

Direct Mail, and especially Personalised or Variable Direct Mail, is much more sophisticated than it was.  These days it’s heavily dependent on audience data and knowledge of the area to personalise each piece of candidate mail with known personal details and images of local landmarks, quotes, soundbites and other relevant messaging. So the process of creating a successful direct mail candidate campaign actually begins and is driven by the data you have.

Candidates and Campaign Managers should always ensure their data is as clean as possible before use, breaking down or ‘segmenting’ their audience, and allocating the most appropriate images, quotes and messages for each segment. By taking these easily completed actions, candidates and campaign managers are vastly improving the chance that the voter will read their direct mail.


3) Use a Pre-approved Template

By using a pre-approved template candidates and campaign managers can short-cut the timescales needed to get their candidate mail out to the voter.

Mailing Houses that deal specifically in Candidate Mail will already have templates that have been approved for past elections.


4) Give it some Space

This point is incredibly important but often forgotten… Space helps readability!

Decide on the space first. It’s far easier to understand how many words are required if you know the space you need to fill rather than to have too much text and try to squeeze it into the space.


5) Use an Appropriate Text Size and Font

Direct Mail marketing tests have shown that the best readability comes from using black text on white paper at sizes of at least 11 points, and using a font with a serif.  Forget using text with tints of grey or a colour. Candidates and Campaign Managers should be trying for maximum contrast to increase the level of readability and therefore increase the chance of their message being read.

Limit the use of italics as much as possible.  Again, direct mail marketing tests have shown that italics actually reduce readability, so reserve them for quotes and short sections where something needs to be highlighted.

Equally limit the use of WORDS OR SENTENCES USING ALL CAPITALS. Firstly it looks like you’re shouting, and secondly… you guessed it, direct mail marketing tests show it reduces readability.

It should be pointed out that there are times and places for using different coloured text, italics and capitals.  We’re just saying that they should be used to increase impact. Use them too much and Candidates and Campaign Managers are simply increasing the percentage chance that the voter will stop reading.


6) Layout

Never, ever, put a headline above a photo or image, with the body of the text below the image. The human eye is designed to look at images first, then read down the page. If a headline lies above an image, then that headline is likely to be missed as the voter skim reads the direct mail campaign piece.


7) Have Something Socially Positive to Say

It should be obvious, shouldn’t it?  But it’s amazing how many Candidates focus on saying how bad things are when, in tests, a socially positive message can improve results by as much as 472%*

* Current Directions in Psychological Science 12:105-6 


8) Define your Message Priority

When Google assesses a website it recognises what’s important about that page by using ‘headers’ that mark-up priority as H1, H2, H3, body, footer, etc.  Humans can’t do this.  They rely on text size and, in the Western World, reading what’s most important from top left to bottom right on a page. Equally, when a voter is reading a multi-page direct mail item, they will often look at the front, then the reverse, and only then look inside.

Understanding how the voter will read the candidate mail piece, and what they will look at first and last, and what order they will do it in is crucial. Only by understanding what a Candidates message priorities are and where they should be placed, can a Candidate Mail marketing campaign piece be effective.


9) Make It Relevant

Try to ensure that any copy for your Candidate Mail reflects is relevant to your audience. It seems common sense, but like most things that are common sense, it’s only common sense when it’s pointed out… voters are more concerned with ‘what’s in it for me?’ And not just what’s in it for me but ‘what have you done for me?’ and ‘what will you do for me?’ Occasionally a wider issue might appear, but as the 2017 UK General Election showed, “all politics is local” and voters were still enormously concerned about tangible things like the state of the local roads, their local NHS, how new taxes would affect them and their families directly, how social care will be replaced and what it would mean for them personally, and so on.


10) Be Personal

During the recent 2017 UK General Election there was a good example of this. In one constituency where YouGov rated it a ‘Toss up’ the rival candidates had very different approaches.  One used a personal, direct, first person voice for their copy “I have, I would, I am”, and backed this up with testimonials “I have known, His experience, His values”.  The other’s text spoke in the third person “He did this, He will ensure, He secured” and backed this up with a central message that made no reference to the candidate.

Needless to say, the candidate that used a more personal tone won the seat.

Why should this happen? Well… although we can never say for certain that this was inevitable, we can suggest that being personal ‘humanised’ the winning candidate, and equally, we can say that speaking in the third-party might suggest the losing incumbent candidate was cool and remote.

This might never make the difference in a safe seat, but in the marginals… you never know.  A Candidate in a marginal seat needs to stack the deck as much as possible in his or her favour.


11) Give them Reasons to Believe You

It’s not enough to simply say ‘the candidate will do this or that’, voters need to be convinced. And the best way to convince them, is to provide proof of their honesty and previous good character through testimonials from people who look and act like the voter.

In one famous study, the likelihood of getting a person to be more environmentally friendly was 33%* higher if that person was told previous people had been environmentally friendly too.

* Journal of Consumer Research. “A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to motivate environmental conservation in Hotels”


12) Ask for Engagement

According to research if you can get someone involved, by asking for something in a small way, it almost doubles the candidates chance of getting support* (in the test case it was for a donation).  Candidates and Campaign managers might want to ask what they could ask the voter to do that is negligible, and which might improve their willingness to do more.

* Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34: 599-604


13) Ask the Electorate to Vote for You

Let’s return to the recent 2017 UK General Election and that knife-edge constituency we talked about in point ten. Not only did the losing candidate seem remote, he didn’t ask his audience to vote for him. If you don’t ask your elector to vote for you, should you really be surprised if they don’t?  Think this was an outlier? A rarity? Think again! Of the four candidates standing in that constituency, only one, the winner, specifically asked the voter to ‘Vote for [Name]’… and even here it was almost an after-thought.


If you’d like to talk about a potential direct mail or direct marketing idea you have, get in touch with us or call us on 0191 487 5148. We’d be more than happy to share our insight and help you on your way.

We’re experts in what we do

Delivering world class mail and print solutions since 1983, we know a thing or two about the industry. Read our latest news and insights to learn more about our experience and expertise.

Request a Quote today!

Complete the form and one of our mail and print experts will be in touch with your quote.

    Proud to be an ISO certified business

    • ISO27001:2013

      Data Security & Business Continuity

    • ISO9001:2015


    • ISO14001:2015


    • ISO45001:2018

      Health & Safety


    Certificate Number 10515

    Get a quote today, call 0191 487 5148 or email