Principle #1 Stop Fighting Fair

The Art Of War Of The Inbox

Principle #1 Stop Fighting Fair

What do Chinese general who lived 2500 years ago and modern advertising icon have in common, and what does it mean for your email marketing strategy?

It means that your email inbox has become a warzone, and it’s high time for you to stop fighting fair. But fair is a confusing word that clouds your reality, and I’ll clear that up for you.

This post is #1 of the 5-part series on Sun Tzu’s Art of War principles applied to email marketing.

If you read, ingrain and start applying these principles, you will run more effective email marketing campaigns.

These principles are not plug-n-play templates but rather tools in your arsenal that stir you away from tactics that do NOT work and into the mode of thinking that will help you generate an infinite amount of tactics that DO work.

The first principle is to

Stop playing fair

And the quote from the man himself says as follows:
“According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's plans.” - Sun Tzu
If the circumstances are not favorable, do not engage. It’s like Poker or betting; only place a bet if the odds are in your favor.

He did not mention that you can both wait for & pick the right circumstances or create an unfair advantage yourself.

Why do we play fair (and sometimes shouldn’t)

When you hear the word fair, you immediately think about fair play, hitting below the belt, or the new-age favorite - equality.

After all, you were taught to play fair since you were a little kid. And it does make sense.

Kantian Fairness tendency is one of Charlie Munger’s mental models, which refers to the pursuit of perfect fairness which leads to terrible problems.

What we don’t realize, however, is that what may be unfair to an individual could be perfectly fair to the bigger whole. (the so-called law of the higher good).

I believe fairness has a lot to do with conformity, disguised as “fighting for the higher good”. It’s far safer to follow the rules than bend or violate them. You play it safe and proclaim yourself as a do-gooder. (Virtue-signaling)

Fighting fair = best practices

“It is much easier to be fired for being illogical than it is for being unimaginative. The fatal issue is that logic always gets you to exactly the same place as your competitors. - Rory Sutherland
Conventional wisdom and what works are two different things. You're playing it safe when you rely on templates and “proven” methods and only follow best practices. You don’t want to risk it for a biscuit. You fear your idea won’t work or will get laughed out of the *(zoom)* room.

Well, that’s definitely possible. But what’s even more probable is that following usual tactics will give you the typical results. Which, in the game of email marketing, is typically a tiny number. (you wouldn't be reading it otherwise).
Over time, best practices become rules. Unless you bend or violate them from time to time,

A quick lesson  from systems theory:

*There are four types of systems (for simplicity’s sake).
  • Simple (cause and effect are clear)
  • Complicated (muddled but exist)
  • Complex (only knowable after the fact)
  • Chaotic (*well, who the hell knows)
Simple systems have best practices. (If this is the situation…always do X) Complicated systems have good practices. ( Complex systems have emergent solutions, which you can uncover through experimentation. In other words, you develop a hypothesis (your best guess), design an experiment, run the experiment, fail, and re-evaluate. Rinse & repeat—the good ol’ trial & error.

Email marketing is not a simple system. It’s likely somewhere on the border between complicated and complex. As such, there are no best practices. In the best-case scenario, there are only good ones. THe more likely scenario is that
**End of lesson**
But, where is the line that tells us when something's fair or unfair?

Playing Inside & Outside-the-box


What are the email rules?

What are the email rules*? *How do we know which ones can be bent and which broken?

And you can never bend the rules, nor can you break them, unless you understand what they are.

Playing fair means playing by the rules, by the rulebook. Miriam-Webster’s dictionary has a wonderful term for it:

Conforming with the established rules: Allowed

But ask yourself in the context of email:
  • What are those rules, really?
  • Who sets them?
  • Who guards/enforces them?
  • What are the worst possible consequences
    of either bending or breaking them?
  • Who is my competition … my opponent?

I want you to do some thinking on your own, but I shall not be so cruel and give you a hint. The two most important actors in this game are

  1. your potential client or customer
  2. email provider.

What works with them, and is allowed by them, is the only thing that should concern you. Your enemy is not your competition but a limited attention span of the people you want to reach.

Create Your Own Unfair Competetive Advantage

Creativity may be the last unfair advantage we are legally allowed to have over the competition. \- Bill Bernbach

Translated into plain speak, if you want to gain a legal competitive advantage, get your creative juices flowing - that’s your best bet.

Below you will find a dozens of ideas on what an unfair fight in the email inbox may look like.

For example:

  • Change the playing field - exit the inbox
  • Humor
  • Get close-n-personal
  • Images, graphics, GIFs, videos
  • Intentional misspelling
  • Weird greetings and sign-offs
  • Remove certain elements all-together
  • Whacky formatting

Do not get married to these ideas. They can work, but you're not being creative when you take and use them. Steal, don’t copy. Take what’s useful; discard what’s not. Flex your creative muscle and figure out a way to gain an **unfair advantage**… (oh, you may already have it.)

Finally, come back to us and report your findings to inspire each other moving forward.

- Sutherland R. Alchemy The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense
July 29, 2022
About The Author
Konrad is a proud grilled cheese enthusiast and content creator who loves to make videos on all things marketing and mindful productivity. When he’s not posting content to her youtube channel (Konrad) and an instagram account (@konrad) he’s usually finding a cool new hiking spot or trying out a new strategy.

The art of war of the inbox

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