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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.