It's the time of year when households are deluged with political mailers, many of which are immediately chucked into the recycling bin.
But what if those political mailers could speak to you? Literally.
That's the idea behind MailPOW, which uses a microchip in campaign mailers to deliver a recorded message to voters.
Crystal Martin, a Yuba City political consultant, founded MailPOW three years ago and has sold almost a half million of the cards nationwide. She offers both talking cards and self-recordable cards, which allow recipients to record their own voices.
The sound can add oomph to marketing and advertising campaigns, including those for candidates and ballot measures.
"It turns a mailer into a sound bite," Martin said.
Martin said a 2010 survey the company conducted of 200 voters who received a talking card supporting GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman found that the cards have a 98 percent "open" rate, because recipients can easily feel the chip in the card. Martin said that same survey found that 83 percent of recipients opened the card multiple times, and 95 percent showed it or talked about it to others.
That kind of sharing among voters, along with online hype about the cards, shines the media spotlight on campaigns, she said.
"With a traditional mailer, it goes into a mailbox and it dies in that mailbox or household," Martin said. "But with the talking cards, the marketing extends beyond that."
Martin dreamed up her product when she was running a doomed Northern California congressional campaign.
"We didn't have a big chance of winning," she recalled. "I was looking for some way to stand out, to draw attention to the campaign on a tight budget."
About that time, her 4-year-old daughter got a singing birthday card and was so enthralled with it, she threw all the other cards down and kept listening to the recording.
"I thought, if I could do that in the mailbox with voters, I wonder if they would have the same reaction," Martin said.
When she looked online to find a vendor to customize a pre-recorded political mail card, she found out no company in the United States made political cards with sound chips. She worked with overseas vendors, assembling and distributing 2,500 cards for the campaign.
Within 48 hours of its release, the novel twist on the singing birthday card technology got nationwide publicity. It was the talk of political blogs, and a demonstration video of the product had gone viral, Martin said.
"I've been a political campaign consultant for several years, and I had never seen that kind of reaction to a political mailer before," she said. "That's when I knew this could be a business."
While the congressional campaign still failed, MailPOW was born. Today, Martin still works with some overseas vendors, but she partners with many local printers and mail houses, and assembles the cards in a Yuba City warehouse.
Martin would not disclose her revenues but said the company achieved profitability earlier this year. MailPOW has two full-time employees, five part-timers and hires card assemblers as needed.
The talking card chip allows a recorded message of 10 to 45 seconds, but Martin said most recipients have an attention span of about 25 seconds. The self-recordable card allows for a 30-second message.
Martin's wheelhouse is the negative talking mailer, a card with a recording of an opponent making a political misstep.
For instance, one of her talking cards features the voice of Todd Akin making his now-infamous comments on the ability of women to prevent pregnancies during rape. That mailer was distributed by American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal political action committee.
During election season, MailPOW is in big demand because it can churn out talking mailers in about 72 hours, compared to some talking cards that take eight to 10 weeks.
The cost of the mailers is about $1.99 each for 5,000, compared to about 50 cents for a conventional card.
MailPOW's current clients range from candidates in smaller local races, such as one Las Vegas City Council candidate, to national marketing campaigns for AARP and the Alzheimer's Association.
Martin also created 5,000 cards for the National Guard to be sent to deployed soldiers. The troops were able to record a message on the card and send it home to a loved one.
Dean Levitan, who owns The Pivot, a Washington, D.C., political direct mail firm, used MailPOW in a recent Missouri congressional primary. His firm mailed 15,000 to 20,000 MailPOW cards during the election.
"We mailed a large card using our opponent's own words to describe where he stood on an issue vitally important to the community," Levitan said. "He just clearly wasn't on their side."
Levitan partnered the talking mailer with an online video of the opponent with more information.
"We controlled the debate with just one piece of mail," he said. "That's a win in any campaign book, and that one piece of mail made it possible."
Still, there's no guarantee that a mailer even a talking one will ensure political victory. Levitan's candidate lost.
"He was always far behind," Levitan said. "The mailer gave us a chance we didn't have prior to that piece."