Lists Firms: Marketers or Political Operatives

When reviewing the public television list exchange crisis, it’s evident that rules – however vague they may be regarding exchanges and rentals with political organizations – were not followed. But the list professionals need to step back and remember that they are first of all marketers, not political operatives. List professionals should be aware of the politics of their clients but remove themselves from them. This leads to a gray area in nonprofit direct mail, if not specifically political direct mail.

According to my job description, I am a list broker. The company is an independent list company with no affiliations to any political ideology. My expertise is in mailing lists, and I have a specific knowledge of the fundraising market, both charitable and political. The knowledge of what happens in our society politically is important because many of my clients are political in nature and mail on these topics. The politics of my clients and their issues are also important, but does that mean that I have to subscribe to the politics of all of my clients? That would be impossible. I do need to know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to mailing lists both political and charitable. List professionals should make sure that their personal beliefs stay out of the workplace.

Politics has always been one of those topics that you are told never to bring up in public. Half the population doesn’t seem to care, and the other half will rip off your head based on their beliefs and affiliations. Is this what the list industry has come to? Do we, as professionals, really research what the demographics of any donor list are, or do we let ourselves be swayed by the politics of the industry and the organization?

I have made list recommendations to mailers on both sides of the political spectrum and have been told that these lists would not respond to their offers. I have been told that I was off base and on the wrong side. Are these people limited by their organizations’ views or their own views?

Many donors have the same characteristics and fall into larger demographic categories than one would think. Issues of specific organizations should be examined and reviewed, but the broad focus and the demographics of organizations should definitely be addressed. The broader the focus, the larger the universe available to these organizations.

“The Heart of the Donor,” published in January 1995 by The Russ Reid Co. & Barna Research Group, looks into these concepts and comes across some revealing information and possibly more room for questions. There is a topic called “ideological schizophrenia” that examines why 17 percent of Planned Parenthood’s supporters also give to Operation Rescue while, conversely, 35 percent of Operation Rescue donors give to Planned Parenthood. The survey also states that an average of 40 percent of people who classified themselves as liberals gave to organizations that were classified as conservative. The same holds true in the other direction.

Can people easily define themselves? If I was asked, I probably could define myself with a term that would be recognizable to all and would categorize myself to them. This would be limiting to me personally as well as how others begin to view me. We need to go beyond the one-word definitions and labels given to certain causes and organizations. Maybe, the average donor does not find himself in any one camp. And we as marketers must do what we can to bring the message of our clients to the broadest possible selects. National political pollsters are telling us all the time that as a country we are moving to the political center. Liberal conservatives and conservative liberals are the same people except they are defined by one or two words that put them on a different side of the political fence.

This leaves list brokers and managers in a tight spot. We as professionals must make the best recommendations for our clients – which could include getting donors from any list that will work in their marketplace, but we must be aware and realize that some organizations are off limits. Removing personal beliefs and politics is a way that we must step back from our jobs and realize we are marketers first. In the case of most list companies, there are specific areas of expertise but marketing lists would be the first line in their business plan.

Let the public television scandal stand as a warning to the list industry so that we can all take a minute to regroup and realize what we as list professionals are here to do. We must look at the lists available and follow the mail pieces that brought donors in, the issues behind them (in a general way), the premiums used (if any) and what demographics can be matched to other organizations. We also need to make sure that anyone involved with a client, especially list management and brokerage contacts, are aware of these rules.

Thomas D. Colwell is vice president at Conrad Direct Inc., Cresskill, NJ, a list management and brokerage firm.

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