Political marketing in the UK has finally found the personal touch. This general election will be the first in which the two main parties lean heavily on sophisticated databases and other direct-marketing techniques to deliver tailored messages to floating voters in marginal seats.
In past elections, political strategists have identified and targeted key voter groups such as 'Mondeo man'. Now, the use of telephone canvassing and electoral roll records, overlaid with data purchased from commercial suppliers, has enabled them to build up an exact picture of these groups by studying credit history, consumer-lifestyle surveys and purchasing habits.
In the first two months of this year, the Conservative and Labour parties have sent out more than double the volume of direct mail than in the whole of 2004. In the same period, Labour exceeded the volume of mailings it sent in 2001, when the last election was held, according to exclusive research from Thomson Intermedia commissioned by Marketing.
DDB director Chris Powell, a long-time Labour activist, points to the fact that US election strategists have been using targeting for years. He expresses surprise that the UK political parties have not taken this approach before now. 'Elections are determined by very few people. Most constituencies are a done deal before the election is announced. The key to winning are the floating voters,' says Powell.
The time and money needed to set up the requisite telephone banks and database systems seem to have been the main obstacles to earlier adoption, but now that the targeted approach is coming into its own, the traditional battleground of press and outdoor advertising is receiving a smaller share of expenditure.
In the first two months of 2005, the Conservatives spent £501,000 on sending out more than 800,000 pieces of direct mail, just £90,000 less than it spent on posters. The Labour Party, meanwhile, spent £222,000 to fund 370,000 direct mail pieces. Only the Liberal Democrats' spend remained negligible, at less than £9000.
Winston Fletcher, the former chairman of the Advertising Association and a visiting professor of marketing at the University of Westminster, says the rise of targeted campaigning is the result of improved technology and a greater understanding of how few voters it takes to swing an election result. 'There is greater awareness that a relatively small percentage of voters swing elections,' he says. 'They have always known that, but now they are more sophisticated about who the swing voters are and placing them on a computer mailing list.'
Inspired by the Republican Party's successful use of direct marketing in last November's US election, the Conservatives are relying more on direct-marketing-targeting techniques than in previous elections.
Following a visit to the US to meet Republican Party officials, Dr Liam Fox, MP and co-chairman of the Conservative Party, borrowed a copy of the Republican's Voter Vault database software package, according to a source involved in the campaign (see box below).
On the other side of the political divide, Labour began using its database, Labour.contact, in a few constituencies in 2000, although it did not achieve widespread use until 2003.
The two main parties declined to comment on their use of marketing techniques ahead of the election, but there is clear evidence that the Conservatives have been busy putting Voter Vault through its paces in terms of direct mail. Door-drops and direct mail accounted for 35% of the Tories' election expenditure in the first two months of this year, compared with 42% for the whole of 2004 and 20% in 2001.
Figures for the Labour Party's outdoor spend are not available from media-tracking sources, but based on the number of creatives used this year, Thomson Intermedia estimates that the Conservatives and Labour have spent markedly more on direct mail than press during the first two months of 2005.
Maurice Saatchi, co-chairman of the Conservatives and founder of M&C Saatchi, which owns Immediate Sales, the agency behind the Party's campaign, says its activity is making substantial use of direct marketing and is 'the most integrated campaign' he has ever seen in his time in politics.
In nearly 100 direct-mail letters, press ads and poster sites tracked by Thomson Intermedia, Marketing found the constituent parts of campaigns were given a consistency across all media, particularly in the Conservatives' advertising.
Although Fletcher is a great admirer of the effectiveness of direct marketing in a commercial setting, he says the Tories and Labour may have been slightly misled by the Republicans' success. The direct-mail industry is stronger in the US, in part because the country has no national newspapers. In a smaller country, press and outdoor ads can be more effective and, historically, UK parties have used posters to set the media agenda.
Direct marketing, Fletcher acknowledges, makes politicians less reliant on what the media reports. 'Labour distrusts the media and the Tories don't trust it much either,' he says. 'Direct mail allows them to bypass it and speak direct to swing voters.'
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats are spending less this year on direct mail, in favour of investing a record amount on press. 'Due to growing party membership and greater success in raising money, we have the resources to fund national advertising on the largest scale since the launch of the SDP in 1981,' says Sandy Walkington, the Liberal Democrats director of general election communications.
Despite the advent of sophisticated databases, email newsletters, and geo-demographic lifestyle tools to target potential voters, Walkington questions whether such activity is a worthy replacement for eager volunteers and shoe leather. 'Our strong local presence in key constituencies means we do not need to depend on commercial segmenting tools, which are often ill-suited to the sophistication of political marketing,' he says. 'We know from our supporters' feedback that Conservative and Labour messages are often wide of the intended mark when they have been delivered using this kind of commercial data.'
DDB's Powell disagrees. Volunteers, he says, are not highly trained enough to provide usable data. But Richard Morris, DDB's business development direct and a volunteer on the Liberal Democrats' media team, counters this. He claims Labour are having to rely on high-tech solutions due to falling membership, while the Tories are suffering from an ageing group of volunteers.
Thomson Intermedia estimated the parties' direct mail and door-drop expenditure and its target demographics using a 6000-strong household panel. It found that the three main parties concentrated their January/February direct-mail blitz on C2s - the police constables, plumbers and painters who make up the skilled working class - according to head of insight Paul Ryan.
The Conservatives sent 24% of its mail to each of the C2 and C1 lower middle-class segments and mailed similar volumes to the middle class (B); those on state pensions and casual labourers (E); and working-class (D) categories.
Labour is wooing the skilled working class, while the Liberal Democrats have focused their spend on C2s. 'The C2 demographic is the most important to all three,' says Ryan. 'But only the Liberal Democrats have exclusively targeted this group.'
In practice, the targeting is much more precise than social class. Increasingly, professional telephone canvassers will ask floating voters what issues concern them. 'Then,' says Powell, 'you mail them on that issue endlessly.'
Although traditionally not regarded as targeted as fully addressed direct mail, door-drops can be effective when geo-demographic software is combined with postal codes, based on the theory that people in certain neighbourhoods share similar beliefs.
Indeed, in 2004 the Tories saw fit to invest more than £500,000 on door-drops, 17 times more than Labour's spend. This figure gains in resonance when one considers that this is only the second general election to carry strict spending limits, making it vitally important to party strategists that money is not wasted on people unlikely to vote for their party and that every penny is spent reaching swing voters.
The limit works as follows: if a party contests all 646 seats at a UK general election, there is a limit of £19.38m set on campaign expenditure for the 365 days running up to the date of the poll. This total includes the cost of party broadcasts, advertising, manifestos, market research, press conferences, transport and rallies.
With such restraints in place, the lowly telephone is emerging as an important secret weapon in this year's election.
Between them, Conservative and Labour's call centres have spent the past year making millions of canvassing calls.
In light of this, the Liberal Democrats have cried foul to regulators, alleging that rivals are promoting their party to more than 6m people who have signed up to the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), which prevents unsolicited marketing calls. The Liberal Democrats claim this is being done under the cover of conducting opinion polls, which, according to officials at the Information Commission (IC) and the Direct Marketing Association, is legal.
This pure market-research technique of asking people how they intend to vote and their views on issues, before anonymising the data, is crucial to building the statistical models that assist in the creation of sophisticated databases, such as Voter Vault, to identify where swing voters live.
The Liberal Democrats claim rivals are following up this permissible market research with suggestions that people should support a particular party. They also say the data is not being anonymised and that 'research' is being followed up with mailshots or visits to the person's home. 'We have received 30 complaints and are looking into them,' said an IC spokesman.
On the day that the election was officially announced, the IC sent an eight-page document to each of the parties outlining how the Data Protection Act affects the use of direct marketing via the telephone, post and email.
It would seem difficult, however, to prove that a canvasser's visit or a letter was linked to a research call.
The Liberal Democrats say they are the only party to have removed the numbers registered with the TPS from its telephone list.
The party does have a call centre, but Walkington claims it is 'nothing on the centralised and voter-distant scale being used by the Labour and Conservative Parties'.
The parties are, however, free to call those people not signed up to the TPS. The Conservatives are even calling through with pre-recorded messages from Michael Howard to some homes.
Yale University professor Alan Gerber, who has conducted dozens of experiments on direct marketing in the US, says that, unlike long 'conversational phone calls' from volunteers, so-called automated 'robo calls' from politicians or celebrities have no discernible impact on turnout. As a caveat, Gerber points out that there is no evidence of first-time effect as the method has not been used before in a UK election.
After precision marketing, the second major innovation to emerge during the recent US elections was the use of the resulting databases to drive personal household visits or telephone calls. 'Really effective campaigns use volunteers or heavily coached call centre staff to make unrushed calls. They are unscripted and have a more personal touch,' says Gerber.
Despite all the attention US presidential candidate Howard Dean received for his online election campaign, which attracted hordes of volunteers and raised more money than any Democratic presidential campaign in history, there are few signs so far that the UK parties are exploiting the data-gathering potential of their websites to the fullest.
Interactive Prospect Targeting (IPT) is a digital-marketing services company that collects consumer data over the internet. The company says that its EmailTracker service, which helps marketers monitor competitors' email marketing, has showed a low level of activity by the three main parties in the weeks leading up to the election.
In terms of data-collection potential, both the Conservatives and the Labour websites ask surfers wishing to receive party news to supply their email address, name and, crucially, their postcode, which enables the parties to identify where they live and flesh out a profile by using consumer lifestyle and credit data. The Liberal Democrats, however, only ask for the user's email address.
Although all three websites encourage surfers to sign up for email newsletters, in the two weeks leading up to the election announcement, only the Liberal Democrats sent out any. On the day of the announcement, however, general emails in the name of Tony Blair and Michael Howard were sent out.
As the election gets going, it is likely that the parties will start sending newsletters to those who have expressed interest in topics including the economy, crime, education and health. However, only the Liberal Democrats have invested in internet advertising this year, according to Thomson Intermedia.
With the election predicted to be far closer than those in 1997 and 2001, it seems the effective use of targeted marketing to win over undecided voters could be the key to victory.
CASE STUDY - Voter Vault database and the US election
Belief can be predicted by buying behaviour. This is the premise behind Voter Vault, the database that helped the Republicans win crucial swing states such as Ohio in November's US presidential election, and is now in use by the Conservatives.
Although direct techniques have featured in US campaigns for years, those employed in November were unusual in their precision. Traditionally, campaigns operated at ward level.
A Republican candidate would ignore a strongly Democratic ward and focus on a Republican or swing ward.
But in 2004 there was a shift in campaigning from ward to household level, says Alan Gerber, a professor of political science at Yale University, who has examined direct-marketing techniques during campaigns.
'Being a Republican or a Democrat is associated with a constellation of values and lifestyle choices, and this is reflected in the data held on databases,' he says. 'If you have all this consumer data, you can create a model that predicts the probability of a Republican or a Democrat living at a particular address.'
Parties can conduct a telephone survey of voters on how they intend to vote, then match their responses with information on their databases such as buying habits. They can then link attributes with behaviour, find matches in their database and contact them. For example, Republican strategists were sure that a person who drives a pick-up truck is more likely to vote Republican than a Subaru driver. 'If you can find 20% of Republicans buried in a Democratic ward and get them to vote, that's very valuable.'
Gerber found that database-directed face-to-face canvassing can increase voter turnout by 7% to 12% higher than advertising, mail or automated phone calls.
LABOUR - Agency TBWA\London
The Labour campaign, directed by Alan Milburn, with advertising created by Trevor Beattie of TBWA\London, has focused on economic stability, while reminding people of economic mishaps during the Tories' tenure. Using the tagline 'Let's take Britain forward not back', Labour's 70s retro-style outdoor sites have carried such messages as 'Lowest unemployment for 29 years. Britain is working. Don't let the Tories take us back to 3m unemployed. Don't let the Tories take us back to 15% interest rates.' Now with its Labour.contact database in place, the party is spending record sums on direct mail. For instance, a letter to a voter in Scarborough says that under Labour 5560 pensioners in the area are getting a new pension credit, while there are 440 more teachers in North Yorkshire, along with 1043 nurses, 535 doctors and 191 police officers.
CONSERVATIVE - Agency Immediate Sales
Dr Liam Fox MP and Lord (Maurice) Saatchi, co-chairmen of the Conservative Party, party operations director Gavin Barwell and, tellingly, Australian political consultant Lynton Crosby (who has overseen four bruising and successful campaigns for John Howard and the Australian Liberals), are behind a targeted, highly integrated campaign that drums in simple messages on crime, taxes, poor public services and asylum and immigration issues.
The ads, with the tagline 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?', use themes that tend to play on voter fears and issues that would speak to C2s and the elderly. Press ads echo this, with headlines such as 'I believe we must limit immigration' and 'I believe that Britain's pensioners deserve better'. The party's direct mail weaves in local crime figures, local tax rates and other issues.
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS - Agency Banc
Having spent almost nothing on press ads over the past five years, in the first three months of this year the Liberal Democrats spent nearly £100,000 on press, followed by about £100,000 for full-page ads in three national newspapers with the theme '10 good reasons to vote Liberal Democrat'.
The party is taking a positive tack and setting out policies proposing the scrapping of student fees, free personal care for the elderly and a local income tax. Robert Bean, chairman of its ad agency, Banc, says its ads will follow a basic structure stating what Labour policies it opposes, then set out its proposal. The Lib Dems plan to reach all segments of the voting population in all regions (the Labour and Conservative strategies are more regional), with a focus on key battleground constituencies. Specific mini-manifestos have been published and promoted on key policy areas of interest to particular sections of the population.
DATA FILE - Direct marketing spend (pounds)
2005 2004 2003 2002 2001 2000
DIRECT MAIL (Jan-Feb only)
Conservative Party 501,521 270,988 231,188 69,345 1,088,741 613,016
Labour Party 222,077 72,551 111,617 58,500 170,900 68,303
Liberal Democrats 8911 5667 73,380 40,730 84,213 116,566
Conservative Party 388,323 971,353 96,089 0 279,611 28,500
Labour Party 17,000 198,700 0 0 212,073 27,135
Liberal Democrats 98,918 8000 0 0 0 0
Conservative Party 15,833 512,059 18,347 n/a n/a n/a
Labour Party 0 0 52,750 n/a n/a n/a
Liberal Democrats 0 30,042 47,214 n/a n/a n/a
Source: Thomson Intermedia.