I understand the title for this article seems a bit click-baitish, but I ask you bare with me for a bit. At Hines Digital, we’re pretty serious about crafting deep, real, and relational experiences between a candidate/campaign and their communities. This usually means an approach seemingly opposite than the one represented by a click-bait strategy.
It usually means an approach that strives to express real, authentic, and compelling narratives that last beyond mere curiosity triggers. This is not to say click-bait type appeals don’t have their place in engagement plans — there is indeed a time and a place for them. After all, humans are creatures driven in part by curiosity.
However, you need more than curiosity to build a community. It helps you get a prospect’s foot in the door, but it doesn’t mean they’re a full-blown loyalist of your message, campaign, and community.
As we are all aware, human relationships are incredibly complex.
It’s why partners court one another before getting married, and then still spend a lifetime learning about — and cultivating their relationship with — their spouse. It’s why how you talk to someone depends on whether you relate to them as a family member, as a subordinate, or as a friend. It’s why languages often have articles and the endings of words change to reflect formal or informal human relations.
When it comes to building online communities, we tend to forget that they too inherent the complexity of developing human relationships.
It’s not just enough to generate a lead. You have to develop a relationship with the person. Your message to them has to reflect where they are in their relationship with you. You have to see them flourish in your community step by step.
So what does all this have to do with the noted article’s title? Sometimes, digital consultants fail to communicate the complexity of developing online human relationships. They share the same motivations as a click-bait strategy in how they report performance: they focus on selling you on immediate metrics that grab a person’s attention.
They may focus on reporting singular metrics like website clicks. Or impressions. Or views. Or if they’re even better, they will focus on key performance indicators (KPI) that generate a positive return on investment (ROI) like generated leads and donations per new lead. They may model conversion funnels for you. They may even boil it down to things that sounds good, like cost per impression, cost per lead, cost per website click.
Now there’s nothing wrong with this. If your consultant isn’t reporting metrics to you, you probably need to look elsewhere. Clients need to see some metrics-based value of the consultants they work with. Unfortunately, success in digital is far more complex than a single or pair of metrics.
Here’s what they probably don’t want you to know: just because they’re getting you a lower cost per website click than someone else, or cost per lead, doesn’t mean they’re being more successful. The opposite could actually be happening.
A good digital consultant would be able to get lower CPMs, or CPCs, just for the sake of lowering them to please you. They can just broaden the audience, as one example. Simply put, metrics don’t tell the whole story. They may appeal to your curiosity. Your desire to keep things simple and feel like you got your money’s worth. But they only share a fragment of information. They’re “baiting” you with data.
Furthermore, metrics can actually be misleading. At Hines Digital, we’ll often begin working with a client who points to a low CPM or CPC as justification for their strategy. After a bit of data-driven digging, we often find that by focusing on conversion pixels that optimize to meet KPIs related to audience-based levels of an engagement ladder, we produce a higher real ROI by focusing on the relationship and not singular engagements/metrics.
In other words, we’ll often find that by optimizing to target the conversion of a very micro-targeted audience (exp: utilizing geographical, interest, behavioral, and demographic data to target, say, 30–60 year old conservative donors from TX who like pro-life issues, are dog owners, have not signed up on your site, and do not like liberal causes and candidates XYZ), you may get a cost per website click that is 2–3x higher than what you were originally aiming for, but actually produces a much higher ROI. Sometimes, this even takes some time to manifest over a supporter’s lifecycle.
It’s pretty common at Hines to find a client who is actually pouring money into optimizing something that is actually working against them generating positive returns on their paid investment. It’s unfortunately pretty easy for digital consultants to justify the value of their work by pointing to a single or a small number of metrics as proof that a client is getting their money’s worth.
The difficult but authentic conversation with a client is the one where you tell them metrics can be misleading, and that they really depend on a number of combined factors.
Or that higher ROI may occur over time (as the Trump campaign discovered when their long-term investments list-growing and targeting finally generated tremendous ROI in the final 90 days leading up to the election). Each metric is a sentence that helps articulate the broader story. They’re contextual, just like aspects of human relationships (mother, father, boyfriend, girlfriend), and language (sentence, clause, paragraph, chapter). Like any piece of data, they need to be interpreted, and this usually involves bringing it into discussion with other pieces of data.
To understand the broader picture, some metrics are surely better than others, such as clear KPI that drive a positive ROI (such as optimizing and reporting around cost per conversions [lead, donations, sales]). But just as human relationships are complex offline, so are they complex in creating real and authentic ROI-churning online communities. The right metric really depends on specific goals and scenarios. A good digital consultant will tell you they’d rather pay 3x for a cost per click to target some prime targets — such as high prospective potential voters — than get a lower cpc for the sake of getting a lower cpc and bloating their reporting. They will tell you the right metric really depends. If they’re really good, they will even tell you when something isn’t working, instead of trying to just make themselves look good.
Click-bait works because it helps get a foot in the door. As a digital strategy, it helps you get some easy metrics. But it doesn’t build a relationship and a community. The same goes for how a consultant handles reporting metrics and performance. It’s easy for them to “click-bait” you with a handful of metrics.
It’s easy to just point at impressions or clicks and say they’re better than another agency because their cost per click is lower. However, that doesn’t reflect a genuine desire to build a relationship with you. A good digital consultant knows metrics can be subjective, and will tell you as much (and trust me, this is never an easy conversation). They will work to find what set of metrics actually drive the KPI that produce real ROI, and they will do it in a way that addresses were audiences are in their relationships with you.
In short, it’s hard to say, but a digital consultant’s authenticity and their relationship with you is just as important — if not more than — as the metrics they generate. You need someone who not only understands the big and small picture of data, but who is willing to tell you what worked or didn’t work, and why.
At Hines, our approach with building digital communities focuses on producing real, authentic, ROI-producing human communities. Our approach consulting with campaigns and candidates is the same: we want to establish real authentic relationships, and we want to see them flourish. Real relationships take time. Sacrifice. Investment. Honestly. But they pay off, whether it’s in building a digital community, or a consultant’s relationship with a client.
Don’t get “click-baited” by your digital consultants. Make sure they’re willing to tell you what you don’t want to hear.
Hi. I’m Leonard O Goenaga, Director of Client Strategies at Hines Digital. We are the world’s leading digital strategy & technology provider to conservative campaigns and causes. We’ve partnered with conservative clients in Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Malta, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
We’re focused on the permanent things: great client services, measurable, meaningful results, and promises kept. To us, service is sacred. We know that great clients are hard to find, and we aim to keep them.
If you’re running a campaign or cause and want to get the most out of your digital strategy, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to chat.
At Hines Digital, we often speak out against bad email practices like renting lists or using “debt collector” style copywriting to trick people into donating. But today, I’m talking about a different, but equally cringe-worthy tactic: repurposing direct mail content in emails.
Direct mail and email are not the same. In fact, they couldn’t be more different. And sending direct mail prospecting letters to your email list will have disastrous results.
These emails will almost always fail in every measurable way: you won’t raise money, you’ll lose the interest of your supporters, your open and click rates will decline, and your deliverability will greatly suffer, meaning your email program will be a non-starter.Read more
On Saturday, The Hill reported that “groups calling for the Electoral College to reject President-elect Donald Trump are targeting electors with a $500,000 ad buy in the days leading up to the vote, according to USA Today.” Sounds like a bold, last-ditch effort. Right? Wrong.
A $500,000 ad buy can do quite a lot— especially online. But this money isn’t being spent online. It’s being spent on television. Again, from The Hill:
The ad is an abbreviated version of a video released earlier this week that features celebrities like Martin Sheen and Debra Messing. It will air Saturday and Sunday on cable and satellite television in all 50 states, USA Today reported.
(For reference, here’s that original ad.)
What’s the ad for?
Ostensibly, this ad’s purpose it to dissuade just 37 of the 538 members of the Electoral College to change their votes from Donald Trump to someone else, temporarily blocking his election as president and triggering a vote in the House of Representatives pursuant to the 12th Amendment. But if that’s actually its purpose then it’s one of the biggest wastes of money I’ve ever seen in political advertising.
Why are they wasting money?
$500,000 to run an ad on cable and satellite over two days targeted to just 538 people?! Never mind that you’re trying to reach 538 people during the weekend prior to one of the biggest days of their lives (so they’re unlikely to be hanging out just watching Christmas movies or football games), the odds of reaching just 538 people via TV ads are astronomically low. Like… MegaMillions winner low. Lower than low. Low.
Moreover, we know based no other actions that these (or affiliated groups) have taken that they have the names and email addresses of these 538 electors. They could easily have hired one of the many competent and sympathetic Democratic digital firms to create and target digital ads to just these 538 people (excluding all others). If they’d done that, their $500,000 would have likely reached something in the realm of 20+ million people and gotten 14+ million measurable views on Facebook—and been sure they reached the electors directly.
There isn’t a for-profit business in the country that’d spent $500k to advertise to the whole country when they’re only trying to persuade 538 people. It’s madness, and a total breach of these organization’s fiduciary responsibility to their donors. Unless…
What if they’re not trying to persuade the electors at all?
Overnight last night, Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner reported that the Democratic efforts to upend the expected Electoral College vote are actually just the first step in an effort to undermine Mr. Trump’s presidency before it begins.
The idea is that—in a manner similar to the birther conspiracy that surrounded President Obama—sowing seeds of doubt and suspicion around the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s presidency will erode his political capital from Day One. From Buzzfeed:
In short, Monday could be the opening salvo of a new campaign against a president’s legitimacy — a fact-based version of the racist, fact-free birther conspiracy. This time around, the questions raised appear to be legitimate — Trump’s international conflicts of interest are real and, according to the unanimous view of US intelligence agencies, Russian attempts to influence the election are likewise real. The problem this time, however, is that — for the most part — these are uncharted waters and there are no established solutions.
Like the birther conspiracy that plagued Obama (despite its falsity), the anti-Trump sentiment being stirred in the attempt to persuade electors to abandon Trump could continue to circle the political waters for years to come, playing a part in breaking down further yet another norm: the presumed legitimacy of the presidency. Trump would become the third president in a row whose legitimacy would be perpetually in question, reasonably or not, by significant numbers of opposite party.
It could continue until the issues are resolved or Trump is no longer president. What’s more, that’s likely exactly what Trump’s opponents want.
If this is true, then suddenly $500,000 in televised ads during a holiday weekend make far more sense. The ads aren’t intended to persuade 538 likely-unpersuadable electors, they’re intended to seed doubt about the legitimacy of a Trump president in the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary Americans and to generate earned media. The ads are meant to cast a shadow over his presidency before it even begins.
Bottom Line: Is this a smart ad? Will it work?
If the ads aren’t designed to persuade electors, but instead to seed doubt amongst the general population, then perhaps they’re not so wasteful at all. But that’s the problem with TV ads: it’s impossible to know for sure.
Exactly how many people did the ads reach? How many of them watched it at least 75% of the way through? What was the demographic breakdown of that audience? If they’d put that money into digital ads, they’d know. Moreover, they’d be able to re-target everyone who’d watched the video ad with future asks and messaging—continuing to drive home their message and build up their base. Now? Not so much.
Flashy TV ad buys like this always give me the sense that it’s more about looking bold than it is about being effective. They’re not an efficient deployment of limited resources designed to achieve a result, they’re a brash show of force designed to appease donors of a certain generation who want to see their money going into TV ads.
The bottom line is this: if you want to generate earned media and make donors happy, go ahead spend big money on TV ads. If you want to reach a lot of the right voters efficiently, put that money into digital video instead.
Theresa May is one of Britain’s most accomplished public servants and one of the Conservative Party’s most experienced leaders. She was elected to Parliament in 1997. From 2002–2003, she oversaw the Conservative Party’s HQ as Party Chairman. And since 2010, Theresa May has served as Britain’s Home Secretary — serving longer in that demanding role than anyone in the last century.
When Prime Minister David Cameron announced he was stepping down in the wake of the Brexit referendum, Theresa May announced she was stepping up.
We were approached by her emerging campaign team on a Tuesday afternoon with a crucial ask: could we develop her branding, design her website, and deploy her digital infrastructure by Thursday morning? Just 36 hours to get the job done. Well, the answer was “yes:” we could, and we did.
In August 2015, we were approached by Edmonds Elder, who ran the UK Conservatives’ groundbreaking 2015 digital campaign, about becoming part of what would eventually be known as The In Campaign Ltd. Later known as Britain Stronger In Europe, or just “the Remain campaign,” this group had a monumental task: conceive of and build out the national organizing infrastructure for the campaign to preserve Britain’s place in the European Union.
Ten months later, the people of Britain had their say. And while the vote ultimately did not go our way, the margin was close—and we left nothing on the field. Indeed, over these past months, The In Campaign built one of the most impressive digital grassroots organizing efforts in the world.
We were proud to have been a part of that effort, playing a lead role in designing & deploying the campaign’s digital organizing infrastructure, as well as an ongoing support role throughout the campaign. The case study describes what we believe are the most exceptional achievements of that collaborative effort between our agency (Hines Digital), Edmonds Elder, and the campaign’s internal team.Read more
In the weeks leading up to the 2016 Republican National Convention, a group of convention delegates banded together to block and reverse Donald Trump's political ascent.
Their goal: calling on the party’s chairman to support and reaffirm the longstanding principle that delegates to the GOP Convention can vote their conscience in the name of preserving the legacy of the party and the nation.
We partnered with Free The Delegates to lead their national digital strategy. We designed and launched a petition microsite — in just one day — using NationBuilder’s grassroots organizing platform, and leading an aggressive email and online fundraising effort.
Over approximately three weeks, Free The Delegates sent more than 60,000 individual emails to conscientious conservatives across America, earning a whopping 36% open rate and a 3.8% click rate (fantastic engagement). In the end, more than 900 grassroots donations supported the effort, with an average gift of just $35, despite spending exactly zero dollars on online advertising.
When Dr. Kelli Ward decided to take on longtime Senator John McCain in the Arizona Republican Primary, she knew that she would need an active, engaged grassroots movement to succeed.
We had the opportunity to partner with her campaign to develop and lead her digital strategy, building that grassroots supporter network across Arizona and the country.
We redesigned and relaunched her website, helped grow her campaign’s email list by a whopping 760%, and set a blistering pace of online fundraising — setting a new standard for running an efficient, effective digital organizing campaign.
Digital advertising has, and will continue to be, one of the most significant and impactful revolutions in campaign strategy since the invention of broadcast television. By giving campaigns the ability to target highly tailored messages directly and exclusively at target voters, online adverting platforms have forever changed how campaigns are (or should be) run.
But even in 2016, campaigns are still failing to execute effective digital targeting on a daily basis.
I’m not talking about understaffed, down-ballot campaigns. I’m talking about top-tier US Senate, US House, and statewide campaigns that are paying big money on digital ads as a central part of their strategy. The result is potentially millions of dollars in wasted or mis-spent ad money this cycle that could have but likely didn’t make a meaningful, measurable impact on the election.
Below are a few specific examples—just from this week—from my personal Facebook news feed.
Example 1: The general brand awareness ad
Maryland Delegate Kathy Szeliga is perhaps the strongest Republican candidate for US Senate in recent Maryland history. She’s sharp, she’s hardworking, she’s rallying the party around her campaign, and she’s running at a time of unprecedented opportunity for a Maryland Republican. I plan to vote for her in Maryland’s April 26th primary election.
Unfortunately, her digital advertising has been consistently un-targeted—causing her campaign to hemorrhage resources on inefficiency while she fights a tense primary against Chrys Kefalas.
For the past several weeks, Kathy’s campaign has been running this very sharp and very engaging Facebook Canvas ad. It’s cutting edge stuff, and her team should be proud of the way it’s put together. But unfortunately, the targeting for the ad is causing it to under-perform.
Unlike some ad platforms, Facebook will tell you why you’re seeing an ad. Just tap in the down arrow in the top-right corner of a post, and then on “Why am I seeing this ad?” Facebook will give you a breakdown of the criteria the advertiser used when placing the ad, and allow you to opt out, etc.
Note: Per a Facebook rep, the “why am I seeing this ad” prompt will show what Facebook thinks is the most important reason why you saw the ad. There may be other factors involved, but what it shows is the primary one.
Kathy’s ad, as you can see in the screenshot above, is being targeted shown to me because they are targeting “people 18 years and older who live in Maryland.” That’s it. Not specific issue or interest criteria. Not because I am in a custom audience they created. Not because they’re targeting specific voters. Just all Maryland adults, everywhere.
Lets break down the numbers:
- The Census estimated that as of July 2015, there were 6,006,401 Marylanders, of which 22.6% were under 18 years old. That means there are approximately 4,648,954 Marylanders eligible to see that ad on Facebook — assuming every adult in Maryland has access to Facebook.
- By contrast, the Maryland Board of Elections says that as of 04/22/15, there were only 631,632 registered Republicans in Maryland statewide.
- If you do the math, that means that only ~10.5% of the people who could see that ad are eligible to vote in the primary. Put another way, 89.5% of the money being spent on that ad is being wasted on audiences who cannot support her in the election when it counts.
Unless her primary goal is to increase her statewide name ID across the board, rather than to win votes in the April 26th Primary Election, this is an inefficient and wasteful way to target ads.
A few alternative ad universes may have included:
- People who like popular incumbent Republican governor Larry Hogan on Facebook.
- A “lookalike audience” of Marylanders who are similar to her current supporter, donor, or volunteer lists.
- A custom audience of targeted voters based upon past primary election turnout modeled on the voter file.
Example 2: The fundraising ask
US Congressman Dr. Joe Heck is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for US Senate in Nevada. For more than 35 years he has worked as a community volunteer, physician, firefighter, search and rescue team member, ambulance attendant, SWAT physician, and member of the Army Reserve. He’s a fantastic candidate that conservatives can be proud of, and if I were in Nevada I’d be voting for him this year.
Earlier this week, one of Dr. Heck’s Facebook ads appeared in my timeline, informing me that a generous donor had agreed to match all contributions and asking me to make a donation. Again curious why I was being targeted, I checked with Facebook and saw this:
So lets break this down:
- According to the US Census Bureau, there are 244,278,303 adult persons in the United States of America.
- According to the Nevada Secretary of State there are 1,459,304 registered voters in Nevada as of last December. Of those, just 488,608 are registered Republicans.
- So assuming all adult Americans and all registered voters in Nevada are on Facebook (which is obviously not true, but work with me), just 0.200021% of this ad’s audience was comprised of Nevada Republicans.
I was certainly not in Nevada when I saw the ad. I was in California, and my Facebook profile has my address listed as living in Maryland. I’m also not an engaged Heck supporter, past donor, or otherwise someone common sense would dictate a likely donor. Why would anyone assume that I might be a good target for this ad?
Now, I’m willing to concede that in competitive statewide or federal elections donors and supporters often come from out of state, so advertising out of state can — if done smartly—make sense. But this doesn’t make sense, and for two reasons.
- For the vast majority of online donors, donating is not their first engagement with the campaign. The best practice is to move supporters up a ladder of engagement whereby you incrementally work to get them more emotionally invested in the campaign before ultimately making a donation or volunteer ask.
- To facilitate that “engagement ladder” approach, you’d want to target a donation ask at known supporters who you believe are ready and likely willing to make a donation. This ad makes no attempt at that.
Instead of blindly targeting all American adults, the campaign may have considered a few alternative ad universes:
- People who already like / follow Dr. Heck on Facebook.
- Known supporters on the Congressman’s email list — particularly those who’ve regularly opened email blasts.
- A remarketing audience targeted as people who’ve visited the campaign’s website—particularly those who have visited the donation page but not donated.
The first full sentence on Facebook’s own marketing page about ad targeting says: “Get specific about who you’d like to reach with your Facebook Ads.” Get specific. Hyper-target your content to audiences and communities who will be most likely to engage with it. You’ll have a greater chance of success and spend less money.
Again, this isn’t a criticism of Del. Szeliga or Rep. Heck, both of whom are running great campaigns in general and for whom I’d be proud to vote. Perhaps these ad examples were exceptions to the rule; perhaps they’re regularly doing exactly the sort of targeting I’m advocating, and this was merely a test. I hope so. I’m sharing them because I think that — tests or not—they’re Class A examples of what not to do when running digital ads.
Next week, I’ll publish a few counter-examples of great digital ad targeting (none of them from our own ads) to show the alternative perspective. Great digital ads zero in on quality audiences based upon their location, demographics, interests, behaviors, and connections. If your ad universe doesn’t factor in at least three of these angles, you’re doing it wrong.
Digital & Field is published by Hines Digital — the mission-driven digital agency committed to helping conservatives around the world organize grassroots communities, raise money online, and run smarter campaigns. Check us out at www.hines.digital.
Campaigns in the digital age are still all about grassroots organizing, driven by authentic storytelling, direct voter contact and leadership development. What’s changed is that a new generation of digital tools and tactics has allowed us to take that voter contact to scale.
So how do you shape your campaign’s strategy — and therefore its budget — to capitalize?
Prioritize the early investments in digital and field that will yield results for your campaign over the long term. After launching, your first priority — no surprise — should be hiring an experienced and proficient finance director.
Campaigns still run on money, and early checks from within your network will help pay for crucial investments in the infrastructure necessary to win. But long term, your finance director will be working hand-in-glove with your digital team, so you’ll want to find someone with a track record of excelling at both online and offline fundraising.
Once you’ve established a viable fundraising base, it’s time to build a base of actual support among voters. In the Reagan or Clinton eras, you’d have done this with direct mail and broadcast TV. Now, you’d do well to focus your attention online — where your dollars will stretch further and your message can be delivered (and tested) more precisely. How precisely?
With digital ads on Facebook, Google, and Twitter you can say with certainty that your spots are being shown in-district.
Unfortunately, that’s just not true for TV ads.
In fact, last cycle $245 million was spent on TV ads shown to viewers in the wrong districts, according to an analysis by Targeted Victory. Put another way, $0.75 of every dollar spent on broadcast TV was wasted. With digital’s ability to guarantee that ads are shown in district — and, if done properly, to specific individuals within the district — your ad budget will never be wasted online. The National Republican Senatorial Committee now recommends that campaigns plan to spend roughly 30 percent of their overall budget online ads alone — not counting their website and consultants.
Taken altogether, this means that means your next big investment is in your campaign’s digital team. This group should have an expansive role within your campaign, regularly coordinating with and helping to shape advertising, communications, data, field, fundraising and scheduling.
In these early days, their first priority will be to help deploy your campaign’s infrastructure: a website built for action, a database of supporters (and prospective supporters), online advertising and fundraising tools, social media, and an email delivery system.
Unless you’re running a billion dollar national campaign, you’ll want to hire an experienced consultant for this role, rather than try to staff it in-house. Pricing structures can vary from shop to shop, but you can reasonably expect to spend about 10 percent of your campaign’s budget on your digital team’s consulting fees.
There are no shortcuts in building a supporter base that’ll yield online fundraising revenue and carry you to victory on Election Day, and your campaign shouldn’t try to take any.
Buying emails or renting lists all seem like quick, cost effective ways to grow your email list and balloon your online fundraising. But you’ll quickly find that they won’t perform for you, even if they did for their original owners. Instead, you’ll need to invest money early in targeted digital advertising and build a list of genuine supporters. You’ll get better results from a 10,000 person list of genuine supporters than a 100,000 person list you bought from a firm or borrowed from an ally.
As your fundraising ramps up, your next big investment should be in your field operation. The days of winning an election through broadcast television and direct mail are largely over. Now, elections are one by grinding it out door to door, talking to voters and building relationships. Pouring the money you raise online and on the phones back into a strong field program will be one of the smartest, and most cost-effective investments your campaign will make.
All this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t budget money for TV, radio, and direct mail — by all means do so. But your campaign’s first investments ought to be in the critical digital and field infrastructure necessary to raise money, identify supporters, and turn out the vote on Election Day.
This article originally appeared in Campaigns & Elections Magazine online.
“The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter. It’s not always clear why.”
—Mr. Ollivander, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
It’s 2015, and by now most of the western world is at least somewhat familiar with the J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” stories. One of the recurring themes of these stories is that magic wands have personalities and loyalties. “The wand chooses the wizard,” we’re told. And attempting to use a wand that has not chosen you will yield… less than perfect results.
We see this happen throughout the stories again and again. When Harry’s wand breaks, he borrows Hermione’s. When Voldemort realizes that his wand can’t defeat Harry’s, he attempt to use Lucius Malfoy’s. When Draco’s wand changes allegiance and becomes Harry’s, Draco uses his mother’s. In each case the new, borrowed wand performs in a substandard way, despite having been a perfectly good wand for its previous owner.
It’s my mother’s [wand], it’s powerful but it’s… not the same. It doesn’t quite… understand me, know what I mean?
—Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
In political campaigns, our email lists are not so different. Like Rowling’s wands, our email subscribers choose their lists. It’s not always clear why. But what is clear is that — in every case — if you try to use someone else’s email list for yourself it will perform in a substandard way, no matter how well it performed for its original owner.
Like Draco’s mother’s wand, your bought or borrowed email list may — indeed — be powerful. But its subscribers did not choose you; they don’t “understand you.” In fact, they may even resent hearing from you. You won’t get the results that the lists original owner got, and what’s worse — you may even do yourself damage by emailing it.
In “Harry Potter,” this truth about wands is known to all wizards. In fact, it was one of the very first lessons in wizardry that Mr. Potter was taught — even before he arrived at Hogwarts. In political campaigns, we too know this truth as well: any consultant who’s worked on the digital or fundraising side of campaigns has seen how poorly bought or borrowed lists perform. And yet — in both the wizarding world and the world of political campaigns — desperate individuals continue to turn to tactics that they know will betray them. Why?
For campaigns, the answer is twofold:
- There’s a broad misunderstanding about the nature of email consent, deliverability, and what makes a “quality” list.
- The immense pressure to show early fundraising momentum and relatively short timelines of campaigns tempts candidates and campaign managers to forego important investments in list building in favor of “quick fixes.”
The best email lists in politics — Bernie Sanders’ list in 2015, Barack Obama’s list in 2012, etc. — were built organically, one subscriber at a time. They perform well because each subscriber is personally invested in the outcome of the campaign, and looks forward to hearing from the candidate. They are genuine lists of supporters, not just collections of email addresses, and there’s only one way to get a list like that: investing early in grassroots list-building and doing it yourself.
There are plenty of people out there who’ll sell you an email list and promise the world. Generally, they’ll charge you for access — not for results. That tells you everything you need to know about the quality of those lists.
List rentals, email appends, and shared lists (from political allies, for example) all seem like quick, cost effective ways to grow your email list and balloon your online fundraising. But you’ll quickly find that — like a stolen or borrowed wand — they won’t perform for you, even if they did for their original owners. They’ll betray you at their first opportunity, through bad emails, spam reports, and unsubscribes that — taken together — will cause email providers to see you as a spammer. Because you have become one.