Principle #5 - Know your enemy

The Art Of War Of The Inbox

Principle #5 - Know your enemy

The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself. - Sun Tzu
When you hear the words ‘enemy’ or ‘competitor’, your brain immediately jumps to the agency that’s outranking yours on Clutch, the store that’s outbidding yours on Facebook ads, or the person/group you hate the most.

At the first thought of them, you start yelling at the screen - *IF ONLY These Mo’fos didn’t exist.
When you plan your email campaigns, you look at their email copy, sequence, design, offer and compare it to yours.

If you are more sophisticated, you probably ‘borrow” some ideas and tactics from them.
You only think about businesses ahead of yours in the category of your choice - your direct competitors. Here’s where email marketing strays a bit from wartime strategies. In war, your enemy is clear; it’s the big evil tribe across the field.

In business, whether it's B2B or e-commerce, your competitors might not be your real competitors.
It’s fuzzy. It’s woozy; it’s whizzy. It’s fugazi. (as Matthew McConaughey would say)
You think the enemy is clear. You think you got the villain. You got the bad guy… but let’s break things down and see whether you truly Know Your Enemy - which is the 5th & last principle in our series.

The myth of competition

Corporate strategy is rooted in military strategy and thus overly focused on competing. - @category pirates


When you treat the business game as a cutthroat competition and assume that your competitor is your enemy, you’ve just fallen for a giant ideology trick pounded into your skull since kindergarten.


It’s called the myth of competition.


In his book Zero To One, Peter Thiel points out how war metaphors have invaded everyday business language. For example:


We use headhunters to build up a sales force that will enable us to take a captive market and make a killing.

And he further concludes that:
It’s competition, not business, that is like war: allegedly necessary, supposedly valiant, but ultimately destructive.

But let’s go back a step, and define the concept of competition first.
from Wikipedia: Competition is a rivalry where two or more parties strive for a common goal that cannot be shared: where one's gain is the other's loss.

In other words, competition is a Zero-Sum Game. I win. You lose. There’s no win-win scenario.
Don’t get me wrong, advertising is, most of the time, a zero-sum game.
Business, however, is much different.

We are not slicing the same pie into smaller and smaller pieces. It’s a constant process of baking and cutting. You are growing the market and your share of it in tandem.
As such, the more niche market you are in, the more likely you should look outside the box as to who your competitor truly is.

So, if your enemy is not your direct competitor, what/who is it?

The zero-sum battle for attention

You are what you pay attention to.

We are all limited by time & energy. We all have 24 hours in a day, limiting the number of things we can pay attention to - at least consciously. (Yes, Capn’ Obvious). Your goal is to get a reply, click, sales, or other reaction from your prospect/customer. Action requires attention, and attention is a limited resource.

Depending on where you get your information, it’s estimated that we are exposed to 5,000 - 10,000 advertisements per day. And we are only talking about ads here. In reality, hundreds of other thieves of attention are in your and your prospects’ lives.

Now, when you think about these facts, does that give you better ideas as to what/who might your enemy be?

The opposition unmasked

Imagine if we switch the word ‘enemy,’ which is the war-time equivalent of ‘opponent’, or ‘competitor’, for a term that better encapsulates this concept.

The opposing force.

1) Other senders

What you are competing against in the inbox is not just your competitors’ emails but… all the emails they receive daily.

Some include transactional emails, receipts, newsletters, and calendar confirmations.

Thus, rather than get bogged down by your competitors’ messaging, think of the distinct categories of emails your target customer receives on a daily/weekly basis, and see whether you can use that knowledge to your advantage.

2) Other channels

Going back to the battle for attention, think of all the other channels/mediums/places where your customers/prospects get bombarded with advertisements. For example:

LinkedIn and Facebook feed, billboards on the way home, text messages (SMS) and… you get the idea.

Think about your typical customer persona and dissect their daily routines and activities.

Ask yourself: Which mediums do they pay the most attention to? How ‘noisy’ are those mediums? Compare, evaluate & pick the most attractive.

You may find that email is not the best medium to reach that particular customer.

3) YOU

The biggest enemy of yours is actually *Drum roll**… You.

Your inertia and complacency. Your inner myopia and biases. Your emotions. Your desire for conformity and urge to follow the crowd.

And speaking of emotions, here’s a quick story from grandpa Nate:

If I look back on 20,000 campaigns and years and years of working with 1200 businesses, I have racked up a lot of failed campaigns. And when I look back at where these campaigns failed and hindsight being 20/20.

Was it deliverability? Did I send something without running it through the mail-tester first? Should I have done a litmus check on it? Should I have rotated out a different design? Was the offer wrong? Was my list hygiene off?

You think about all these different things. The vast majority of these mistakes, so the 80/20 rule here, were not driven by bad data. They weren't driven by unlucky timing. They were driven by my emotional state.

Thus, to make effective decisions, keep your emotions in check above everything else. Or at least beware of how they affect your choices.

Bonus: When picking a fight may prove to be useful

Standing against something/someone is way more powerful than standing FOR something(company values/code). Look at politics.

It’s what Democrats did with Trump. The problem is, they ONLY stand against Trump but do not stand FOR anything, which makes them a little untrustworthy. Still powerful, though.

Part of the story is the Disliking/Hating Tendency that Charlie Munger has written about.

As most apes & monkeys we are born with dislike and hate - as a result long history of man contains almost continuous war. In the present day the clever political arrangements of a man "channel" this tendency into non-lethal patterns including elections.

Nothing brings people together like having a common enemy. If you tell your people there's a threat, your people will rally behind you.

Look at evolution.

Threats helped us survive. Those who paid attention or even over-reacted survived and passed on the genes. We fear snakes, spiders & heights, however irrational it may seem in the present day.

You need a villain in your marketing, messaging, or your personal/brand's voice. Create a villain, unite people, and separate yourself from the crowd.

The villain can be an enemy/competitor/group/set of ideas.

Most people & businesses are afraid of doing that because of peer pressure - what their community of peers will think of them,  especially if they are close to them.

Be careful, though; you can act tribal all you want, as long as you define your tribe well. If you don’t feel comfortable throwing rocks at your enemies, you can at least acknowledge the universal need for revenge, then talk your group out of it.

The way out of tribalism is not non-tribalism. We, as humans, need to belong to a group. Otherwise, we stand alone, depressed, against the world.

Again, what I’m giving you is simply a tool, like a bow and arrow. You can use it for good, or you can use it for evil. That's where virtue and morality come into play. But that's an entirely (huge at that) different topic.

Take a step back

The main takeaway from this principle is - your first conclusion may not be the correct one.
You thought you had the enemy locked on your radar, but in reality, you got tricked by your mind, which likes to jump to conclusions quickly and proceeds to seek confirmatory evidence.

Now is your opportunity to sit down, think a little outside the box, and double-check that you’re barking at the right tree. (Which is something that most of your competitors won’t do)

To finish things off, I’ll leave you with a quote from another ancient Chinese figure - the creator of Daoism:
In politics choose order. In business choose efficiency. In action choose opportunity. Do not compete. If you do this you’ll be irreproachable. - Lao Tzu

The art of war of the inbox

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