This week I have spent four hours putting political leaflets through doors. My children are appalled, for they support another political party – but then I am in turn appalled by the party that they support!
When I was pastor of a local church, I felt I could not overtly support one political party over against another – I had to be neutral. The same position has been adopted by the bishops of the Church of England in their letter this month, in which they urge people to vote on June 8th and call for a “fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be”, but refuse to endorse any particular party. Ministers are free to comment on political issues of the day, but cannot be political. But now, free of church constraints, I have signed up to a political party and become something of an activist. In so doing I am simply fulfilling Jeremiah’s injunction to the Jews in exile – “seek the welfare of the city”.
I have found it an interesting exercise this week going from house to house. I have been surprised at the number of houses which display the sign ‘no junk mail’. Although I don’t think my political leaflets fall into the ‘junk’ category, nonetheless I have refrained from posting the leaflets through such doors. I have also been surprised on by the politeness of people on those occasions when I have been able to give them personally a leaflet – without exception I have been thanked.
I have also been surprised to discover that political parties still attach great importance to putting leaflets through people’s doors. I had begun to think that the day of paper leaflets was over, and that electronic media such as web-sites, Twitter and Facebook were the way to go. Yet, although political parties are now very active in their use of social media, they have not given up on leafleting. As I reflected on this, I realised that since I had become a party member some three years ago, this is now the fourth time that I have walked the streets on their behalf.
As I walk up the path to another front-door, I often ask myself questions such as: ‘What exactly am I achieving? How many people will bother to read the leaflet? Or will the leaflet be tossed immediately into the bin? And of those people who read the leaflet, how many will be persuaded by the message? Is this really an effective use of time and paper?’
With such questions in mind I went onto the British Direct Marketing Association web-site to see what they had to say about leafleting. How effective do they think is this form of advertising? The website points out that asking such a question is like asking a gym instructor, ‘How much weight will I lose by joining the gym?’ There are many factors which determine how much weight a person may lose – and the same is true for a response rate from a door-to-door distribution. Nonetheless their research shows that “89% of consumers remember receiving a door drop mailing – more than any another marketing channel. And it has a powerful place in people’s lives, with 45% keeping leaflets on a pin-board or in the kitchen drawer”. Furthermore, they say that although the average response rate in terms of sales is often only 1%, response rates improve markedly when it is part of a long-term campaign: “Leaflet distribution is not a one hit wonder event, just as going to the gym doesn’t work if you only turn up once”. Leaflet distribution can be effective when advertisers go out to the same people over and over again.
What is true of marketing in general, is also true of political marketing. According to academics, if leafleting takes place only at the time of a general election, few people take notice. However, if leafleting takes place over a sustained period outside of election time, people’s voting intentions do significantly change. According to some recent research into the marketing strategies of the Liberal-Democratic Party, a 14% uplift can take place.
I believe there is a lesson here for churches. A one-off distribution of a church leaflet or paper is unlikely to yield significant results. However, where the distribution of a church leaflet or paper is part of an ongoing campaign, then it can be effective. Of course, other factors will also play a role. The church material, for instance, will need to be well-drafted, attractively presented, and relevant to readers. But in principle, direct marketing can work for a church.
How do we put that into practice? I am not convinced of the tradition of distributing the monthly church magazine around the parish. Most church magazines are inwardly looking and poorly presented. Distributing such magazines around the parish may arouse the interest of the elderly in a village, but in less cohesive communities I think it is a waste of time, money and effort. Church advertising needs to be well produced and ruthlessly focussed on its target audience. Distributing such material on a monthly basis is probably too much for the creative and financial resources of most churches. However, it surely is within the reach of many churches to produce a bridge-building leaflet, newsletter, or magazine once a term, linked with some special church event(s). For instance, a December issue with a focus on Christmas; a Spring edition with a focus on Easter; and a September issue focussing on the opportunities presented by the new church year (clearly this last suggestion only makes sense within the Northern hemisphere).
Leafleting does work if it is part of an ongoing and strategic campaign – and all the more so if it links in with the church’s advertising on its website and other social media platforms.