The Wand Chooses the Wizard: Lessons in Email Marketing for Political Campaigns

“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:

  1. There’s a broad misunderstanding about the nature of email consent, deliverability, and what makes a “quality” list.
  2. 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.

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