Q. Are we delivering too many leaflets? A. No, and here’s why…

Waterside Focus leaflet - photo courtesy of ALDC
What’s the point of these leaflets?

With the a new general election upon us, now is a good time for an update to piece about leaflets, and why the Lib Dems deliver so many of them.

Q. Do leaflets work?

A. Yes.

Q. Really?

A. Yup. There’s plenty of evidence, both internal party evidence (e.g. tracking changes in canvass data in the aftermath of leaflets) and also from academic research. Examples of the latter are here and here, and there’s also polling evidence of voters remembering getting leaflets and being influenced by them. Plus there’s the evidence of what other parties have done when they’ve walloped us in elections.

Q. OK, one leaflet I understand. But why so many?

A. The typical leaflet gets only a few seconds consideration from a member of the public – so you need to do a lot of leaflets to get anything more than the merest sliver of information over.

Q. But what about digital campaigning?

A. No prizes for guessing that I’ll answer by saying that it is a crucial part of modern campaigning. It’s not a choice between online and offline though. It’s a bit like asking if we should put vowels or consonants in the next press release. The answer is both.

One big starting advantage that leaflets have, however, is that we can find out where pretty much every letterbox in the constituency or ward is – and we’re legally allowed to push something through it. Online campaigning has many strengths, but it doesn’t have that same immediate extensive reach.

Q. Come on, don’t you see how old fashioned leaflets are? Get with the 21st century!

A. Look at what the most digitally savvy and successful companies do, even those whose whole business is based on the internet. Both Google and Apple, for example, do extensive publicity and marketing activities offline alongside their super-smart online activities.

What’s more, here’s the data from the Electoral Commission’s research after the 2019 general election:

Over half the people who took part in our survey after the election said they saw campaign materials from parties and candidates, around a third said they got information from the televised leader debates or online sources.
  • 55% of people who took part in our research after the election said that they got information from leaflets/flyers
  • 32% from a party leader debate on television
  • 29% from newspapers or news websites
  • 24% from social media posts and adverts by campaigners

Q. Yeah, but do people actually like those leaflets?

Here’s what Professor Phil Cowley had to say about research into this:

Drawing on data from the 2016 Welsh Senedd elections, it initially asked people what they had noticed receiving from the parties – and, once again, leaflets were top, by a long way.

Then they asked what form of communication they wanted from the parties, the first time I have ever seen this question asked.

Turns out about a third said that they didn’t want to be contacted at all. Not so much ‘we never see you around here apart from at elections’, more ‘we never see you around here and that’s the way we like it’.

But of those who said they did want to hear from the parties, top came leaflets – the preferred choice of just under a third of respondents. There was then a sizeable gap before any of the other methods of contact: email and home visits (both 11%), or personal letters (9%), with e-campaigning methods coming in at 3%.

Q. That’s all very well, but what about all these complaints from people?

It’s a comment that often comes up during successful campaigns. The reason why it’ s not the problem it may first appear is that people vary greatly in their interest in leaflets and toleration of them, which means that if nobody is complaining then you are doing less than the most intolerant person likes to receive – and far less than the average person is happy to receive.

Complaints shouldn’t be ignored (and if lots of people are complaining about too many leaflets that may mean that the leaflets and the message aren’t interesting enough to them). They do though need to be judged carefully and the occasional complaint isn’t a cause for doing less – just as the occasional complaint when canvassing from someone who doesn’t like being called on doesn’t mean that we’re doing too much door knocking.

Q. But surely sometimes those complaints have a point?

Aside from politeness, another good reason not to dismiss such complaints out of hand is that ‘you’re doing too many’ often subtly means something different.

Complaints about quantity often mask problems with quality – people think there are too many leaflets because they find them boring, irrelevant or both. When people are interested in something, they are willing to read huge amounts about it. But they need to find it interesting.

Or they may reveal a bit of a mix-up with our logistical arrangements, with leaflets not being spaced out in the way we planned. That’s useful to know.

Q. OK, but surely there must be some limit beyond which too many leaflets really is too many?

A. Yes, it is possible to do too many just as it is (in theory, so people tell me) possible to eat too much chocolate.

Looking at the evidence, though, that limit looks to be well beyond our delivery capacity in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. If we get the quality right (see above), the issue is our capacity to deliver not the limit of efficacy.

Q. Well ok… but why am I, a party member, getting so many, even letters addressed to me?

A. For unaddressed leaflets, picking out a few properties to skip can be a lot of hassle for not very much rewards, which is why unaddressed leaflets tend to go to everyone.

As for addressed mail, which is frequently carefully targeted, there are a trio of reasons for including members.

First, not all members always vote Lib Dem. A member might, for example, be unhappy with the party and thinking of leaving. Even if they are happy about voting Lib Dem, members are – like other voters – prone sometimes to forgetting to vote or getting distracted from voting.

Second, the mailshots often urge people to do things, such as put up a poster, sign up for a postal vote or make a donation, all of which apply to members too.

Third, members usually want to know what the party is up to and excluding them from lots of information about the campaign can leave them in the dark. Even hardcore activists often like receiving all this literature – because they then know what other people are talking about when they get into conversations about the campaign.

Q. Is there anything else I should know about leafleting?

A. There’s more to delivering leaflets than meets the eye, as explained in my leafleting tips video.

Or to hear about the findings from research into political leaflets, take a listen to my podcast interview with Caitlin Milazzo.

29 responses to “Q. Are we delivering too many leaflets? A. No, and here’s why…”

  1. I remember having this argument so often with fellow supporters…. ‘You’re doing too much…. people will get sick of getting stuff from us!’

    But of course, by the time we are sick of delivering the same message, the public is only just noticing that’s it’s there at all.

    As an over tired campaigner who wrote lots of leaflets, to my shame I put out a leaflet (in late April) saying ‘Vote Lib Dem on March 5th’. I was horrified by my mistake but it was too late to change, but in the event, our voters turned out on May 5th just the same and the only person who mentioned the mistake was the Tory candidate (who lost heavily).

    Never assume that voters read our leaflets as assiduously as we do, but be aware that they DO notice we care!

  2. As a former proprietor of a leaflet distribution business, I can agree that leaflets, especially in the form of newsletters, are an excellent way of engaging with the public, at a time which suits them.
    I operated for a finance company in the north of England which expected an enquiry for every 5000 flyers, and rewarded me for each. This level of take-up, 0.02%, was accepted as the industry standard.
    Since our leaflets promote something of concern to at least 20% of people, the ‘old-fashioned’ leaflet should not be neglected as a form of communication with voters.

  3. The only time I felt there might be too many leaflets was the Chesterfield by-election. I seem to remember delivering a leaflet just after someone else had delivered a different leaflet

  4. A few years ago, duri g a by-election that we didn’t win, people were almost begging me not to deliver any more leaflets. All the Parties were deluging the electorate and I think a lot of people had genuinely had enough of leaflets. At the time I thought that a decent canvass would have been a better tactic.

  5. Mike – Three months after Chesterfield we had the Portsmouth South by-election where I sat in a restaurant with our candidate Mike Hancock and Dr David Owen. The waitress had no idea who David Owen was but she pointed at Mike Hancock and said ‘I’m voting for you because your head keeps coming through my letterbox’. Clearly our leaflets (lots of them) had had an effect. In my view you can never deliver too many leaflets providing, as Mark says, they are interesting, informative and contain effective messaging. That’s the key. They’ve got to be worth reading and they’ve got to get our message over.

  6. Every leaflet that comes through my door, from any party, goes straight in the recycling bin. I don’t even look at them (except maybe to notice who they are from).

    Everyone is different but to my mind they are a complete and utter waste of time. Never have any of my friends (most of whom are a lot younger than me) said, “did you see the leaflet from……” Plenty have said, “did you get that email, read that post, see that picture on instagram, read that article on Facebook. Not one mentions leaflets.

    Actually not true, the one comment I do get about leaflets is “what a waste of paper, have they not heard of social media?”

  7. It is unwise to assume that just because someone doesn’t complain about something that they don’t feel aggrieved about it – sometimes people are too busy to complain, or can’t be bothered, or don’t know who to complain to or how. When I leaflet for the LD’s it’s often when people are out so there’s little opportunity to receive feedback, but I do encounter the occasional annoyed resident who refuses to have any more leaflets posted in their letterbox. Information overload is a growing problem and it’s difficult to get your message across when there are so many pieces of information competing for people’s attention.

  8. Only ever had a stop leaflets response and that was due to a lack of coordination, the candidate was doing his own leaflets without coordination with the party office so some times it was two in a day!

  9. To new members this debate might be quite daunting to get your head round. While many people in the party like Mark (and me) are strongly pro-leaflets, it certainly is true that you can find some LibDems who feel strongly that our campaigns rely too heavily on FOCUS and other leaflets. So, who is right?
    One way to think about this question is to look at some of the local parties who do have an organised, historic and regular network of leaflet deliveries. These include: Twickenham, Westmorland and Lonsdale, Kingston & Surbiton, East Dunbartonshire, Edinburgh West, North Norfolk, Eastbourne, Carshalton & Wallington, Oxford West & Abingdon, and a long list of other areas where we have lots of councillors and the MP/MSP/AM (or very nearly). I’m not being flippant here. Of course there are other factors in such areas which contribute to our success there, but it is striking how almost all of our held and target seats are places which have for years been knee-deep in LibDem literature. (Orkney & Shetland is the exception. ‘They do things differently there.’)
    Liberals/LibDems of a certain vintage revere the great Liberal MP of the 1970s and 80s, David Penhaligon. His dictum – “If you’ve got something to say, put it down on a bit of paper and stick it through someone’s letterbox,’ still inspires many of us.

  10. In my view regrettably the person who says they only engage on Social Media is one who is considerably less likely to vote in what are still analogue elections, so not producing leaflets could be pretty awkward for any political party as that is still where most actual VOTERS get their information. Leaflets will generally be read by those likely to vote or who can be persuaded to vote if they are informative and useful.,if they are not one leaflet is too many.
    Having said that Social Media is worth using, but not to the extent of relying on it
    as the only communication tool. Similarly the leaflet is not the only analogue tool. Certainly a good street letter, especially from an incumbent Councillor can be the most effective tool of all, ideally the street letter and the Focus should support each other. In my ward we usually do about 35 to 40 street letters a year , some of which are actually runs in the high hundreds or low thousands, and 4 or 5 Foci.

  11. I came across a voter who kept all the leaflets he received and on election Day counted them and gave his vote to the party which had delivered the most leaflets.

    • Interesting to note that the opposite strategy would be impossible – the anti-leaflet voter would find it hard to favour the party/ies who delivered no leaflets because he wouldn’t know who they were.

  12. You can delete, scroll down or just completely ignore something that pops up on your computer or social media. Lots of people also don’t access it daily.
    Someone in the house has to physically pick up a leaflet to put it in the recycling, there’s therefore a pretty good chance it will be seen for just a few second at least.
    If there are two voters in the house (and there generally are), there will need to be double the opportunity’s to pick the leaflet up.

  13. when you send an email just one person (might) read it, when you deliver a leaflet someone will pick it up and may leave it on a table where all those in the house will see it.
    The complainants tend to be those people who will never vote for you anyway(the same people who phone up about anything that they can think of to keep your campaign staff busy).
    The simple dictum, Mark, should be that we need to produce as much literature as the others added together, as we have to counterbalance the free support that the press and the broadcasters give to the two old parties..

  14. When experienced campaigners are reduced to sticking a third banal leaflet through a letterbox in one day, then you will get hostility. Time is limited, so canvassing may be a priority instead of incessant leafleting. I saw it in Cardiff, where one lady, a supporter, who had had 3 leaflets in 1 day, ran down the street after me to complain. There must never be more than 1 leaflet per day.

    • I agree – even on polling day. I am pro-leafleting but there is definitely an upper threshold above which it ceases to be useful, and can risk irking people (e.g. undermining green credentials, or people taking umbrage at the suggestion they may not have noticed the previous however-many leaflets). More than one per day is surely above this upper threshold.

      • On polling day itself, there’s good evidence that multiple leaflets have an impact. (This can be tracked via variations in turnout levels, seeing how there’s an extra rise in turnout from supporters after an extra round of campaigning.)

  15. The reason I think our leaflets work, is that people get them all year round, every year, and not just at election time. I live in an area with a Liberal Democrat council, and a Liberal Democrat MP, and our leaflets are regular, along with our own Liberal Democrat newspaper. Our MP and our councillors are always doing things for our area, so there’s always something to say, and I think a lot of people do read them, even if it’s just a quick scan. Before I moved here 9 years ago, I lived in a Labour area, where I grew up, that more recently turned into a Conservative area, in a by-election, for the first time since before I was born. In that area, nothing comes through the door from Labour or Conservative, except at election times. That, I think, is the difference.

  16. There are still voters who do not use the internet. I realised that we we were getting our message across properly, when the stop notice on one door which has been in red and blue was changed to include “Lib Dem leaflets ” specifically in yellow. We won the seat – our only Borough Councillor that year and the next year we have two Cllrs. (same Ward). Three next year , (held by their favourite Conservative Councillor with there largest majority in the past). The sweets offered to the electorate each year, will not work in May 2020.

  17. As the Leader of a Lib Dem led council ,I am being hammered regarding the number of leaflets we are delivering . My council declared a climate emergency and have a draft strategy in place . Please can we stop ,it is not doing us any favours .

    • Val – it may help to point out how added up all our leaflets in a campaign comprise less paper than, say, a small book or even one daily newspaper. I find people who at first think ‘that volume of paper is awful!’ do on reflection take a different view when it’s put into context.

  18. This is nonsense, I’m afraid Mark (and normally I’m a big fan/supporter of yours).
    It ignores both the law of diminishing returns and that there clearly is a saturation point.
    My own household had 9 individual pieces of LibDem material through the post last week alone. And that doesn’t count the 4 pieces of local literature that I would have notionally delivered to my own household.
    How can you say that level of leafleting is a) worthwhile or b) increasing our chances of being elected.
    There is a false presumption that the 15th leaflet will the one that persuades the floating voter, but the evidence that you cite (internal data after changes in activity) and academic articles (at least one of which I have actually read) is nowhere near as robust as you suggest.
    To say we are utterly obsessed with leafleting is a mild understatement.
    The whole policy has to be reviewed. We are pretty pathetic at digital marketing, and should be giving our email and social media strategy an overhaul which would vastly reduce our dependency on paper deliveries.
    And that would leave volunteers much more time to do the canvassing (and data collection) that really does influence the voters…

  19. It is for sure much more cost efficient than newspaper leaflets and also readers do not have the option to click away. It is also very efficient on a local scale I believe so I will have to agree with you that that leaflet distribution is still very efficient and it is here to stays despite all the digital marketing solutions that are out there.

  20. I have been told it is better to deliver multiple leaflets to the same households rather than to try and get at least one leaflet to every household. I find this hard to believe as I know when I have received no literature from a candidate then I am less likely to vote for them. I want to know who they are and what they stand for before I vote.

  21. Tony Greaves explained to his trainees why there had to be more than one leaflet thus:
    “What happens when a leaflet goes through a letterbox?
    The first leaflet gets put behind the clock on the mantelpiece and nobody saw it.
    The second leaflet somehow gets underneath the ‘welcome’ mat
    The third leaflet is the one the dog ate.
    The fourth leaflet Grandma put on her chair and sat on it.
    The fifth leaflet the kids made a paper aeroplane and it landed in a tree.
    The sixth leaflet went up in smoke as a firelighter.”
    The seventh leaflet was read!

  22. If people comment, they’ve been noticed, and one layer is the dry observation that friends make.

    Most people don’t say anything, because politics is something that passes through their lives, and its largely ignored. They notice the flow, not the individual leaflet, and candidates are assessed on that presence.

    The ones who really object were never going to vote our way, and are wanting to shake you up so you stop delivering leaflets – because they want us to lose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All comments and data you submit with them will be handled in line with the privacy and moderation policies.