The Art Of War Of The Inbox

Principle #4 Check Your Biases

Publishing Date: August 1, 2022
I read books, study human biases, and even have a copy of “Psychology of Human Misjudgement” by Charlie Munger propping up my monitor. Yet still, I continue to make wildly irrational decisions, including accidentally sabotaging some of my clients’ email campaigns.
I’m a biased and ignorant bandit.
These rationality-killing urges are evolutionary and can be traced back to before written history. A few thousand years ago, a warrior-philosopher in China was one of the first humans to document the inherent dangers of allowing biases to infect our decisions.
“He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.“ 
-Sun Tzu-

A modern marketing translation would go like this: Check yourself before you wreck your … campaign. Let’s unpack how you can adapt Sun Tzu’s advice in the Art of War to modern email marketing.

A quick lesson on Human Nature

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
– Richard Feynman-

Why are we biased, and what are cognitive biases?
Cognitive biases, by definition, are:
Tendencies to think in specific ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgments.
All humans believe they trend toward the rational. But our brain and body chemistry’s evolutionary speed has not kept up with the ‘dangers’ of modernity. Originally wired to save your life or help you procreate, cognitive biases can quietly drown your campaigns – and business – if left unchecked.
Awareness is curative.
We cannot rewire our brains to quiet the inner caveman.
However, we can install a security system for spotting bias-driven decisions.

Quick Tour of the Most “Lethal” Biases

If I were to run you through all the different biases that may be ruining your email campaigns, profits, or even life, we’d need a book, not a blog post. Rolf Dobelli, who wrote the Art of Thinking Clearly, has cataloged over 120 of them!  

In wartime, the most common biases would fall under the broad “overconfidence” umbrella. Take Napoleon as an example, who, on the morning of the Battle of Waterloo, smugly assured his generals:
“I tell you, Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad soldiers, and we will settle this matter by lunchtime.”
That arrogance resulted in one of recorded history’s most publicly embarrassing and tragic mistakes.
Of course, the modern inbox is not a 19th-century battleground, so the stakes are not the same, but fortunately (or not), the human biases haven’t changed a bit.
I’ve distilled this list down to four biases that will wreak the most havoc on your email campaigns.

1) Survivorship Bias

In technical terms:

The logical error of concentrating on the people or things that ‘survived’ some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not work because of their lack of visibility.

In plain English, it means that you survived a particular scenario and now think you will always survive it in the future.

In email marketing, an example could be uploading a “borrowed” list to Mailchimp or Klaivyo. Your account’s fine. Maybe the campaign goes well, and you decide to borrow another list, ten times as big, to get 10x the ROI. Because it worked the first time, it HAS to work this time.

But what happens is you get kicked out of your account and burn your domain which comes with a minimum 30-day “email prison” sentence.
The previous win may have been due to the smaller size of the “stealing” … or maybe just dumb luck.

One way we dampen the impact of this enemy of good campaigns is to add a few questions to our pre-launch checklist that goes something like this:

☐ Look back at my previous successful email campaigns.
☐ When did you get away with a bad strategy?

☐ When did you have a solid plan, but a single bad result made you dismiss it?

☐ Are either of these factors at play in your current approach?

2) Projection Bias

There are various definitions of this bias, but at its core, it makes us predict a future outcome based on our present emotional state.
In your head, it probably goes something like this: I looooove this new service we’re launching. My clients are most definitely gonna love it too. I should probably double my headcount because the demand will be so high.
Optimism is necessary for successful entrepreneurship, but you should dial it back a smidge. Don’t project your emotional state on your potential customer. Inject some rationality into the mix, and make a rational-optimist soup.
Here are three things we do to defend against projection bias:
● Ask your clients or prospective clients what they really think about your new something – and treat their answer as truth, even if it doesn’t make any goddamn sense.
● Find a hard-truth teller, e.g., your wife, mother-in-law, or sister. Not trying to be sexist, but there’s just too much damn science proving that women will verbally deliver hard truth more consistently. Ask them about your emotional state and the decision you are about to make.
● Study your past failures and see if you can spot when and where projection bias may have gutted a campaign.

3) & 4) Endowment Bias & The Sunk-Cost Fallacy

These two usually come in pairs – and they are a dangerous duo.
Endowment biases make you overvalue what you already possess.
For example,
because you spent 14 years perfecting this analyst algorithm, you feel that your knowledge and time justify a much higher price tag.
On the other side, the sunk-cost fallacy is a sneaky way to rationalize a bad decision because of previous investment. Maybe you have spent ten grand on a failing ad campaign.
You continue it because you think, “If I stick with it, maybe I can recover the cost,” or “If I end the campaign now, I’ll lose the ten grand I already spent.”
Put these two villains in the same room – a.k.a. your brain
– and disarming them can be nearly impossible.
Your services are worth what people are willing to pay. Period.
You cannot recover your sunk costs in a failed campaign without investing more time and money. Period.
In email marketing, this typically plays out when announcing a new thing or slinging a new offer and putting extra time and money behind it. Here’s how we try to battle this. We ask ourselves:
● What else do my clients/prospects consider valuable?
● What’s the gap between what I charge and the value I bring?
● Are you willing to increase your loss on a failed campaign in the hopes of breaking even?

So How do We Overcome Our Biases?

There are several ‘tactics’ that you can deploy to battle all of your biases. Here are two that we work hard to ritualize at B2B Bandits:
Believe the Data
Data is critical, but it needs to be statistically significant to be useful for choosing a campaign. This statistical significance calculator by Neil Patel might prove a valuable tool in your arsenal.
When running a/b tests, look more closely at unexpected failure & success. Even if it doesn’t seem rational, treat it as fact and act accordingly. That gap between your assumptions and reality is where your biases lurk. See if you can label the bias that drove the assumption.
Believe Subscriber ‘Behavior’
Your clients’ and subscribers’ behavior will always tell the truth. Beware polls and vanity metrics, and look at what they are spending and how they act (or not).
Open rates are far less critical than booked appointments and Google Analytics “Time on Site” & “Pages Per Visit” stats. Also, be careful with making choices after a campaign is ignored. You cannot know with any level of certainty why you are being ignored.

Ground Yourself in Reality

“Truth––more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality––is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.”
– Ray Dalio-  

Whether we study Marcus Aurelius, who wrote at length about piercing through immediate perceptions in his Meditations, or follow an indisputably successful business thinker like Ray Dalio, one thing is clear: our mind will eventually mislead us. Take up arms in the battle of you vs. your brain by following Sun Tzu and not underestimating how powerful your biases are.
We can not eliminate our biases, but we can continue checking ourselves – and our campaigns – before making high-impact decisions.
Until next time. Be a bandit, or be broke.

About The Author

The business world is Konrad’s playground for testing unconventional B2B marketing strategies, writing whacky copy, and sharing unique insights about the art of strategy & marketing. In his spare time, he uses his Quest For Questions podcast to question conventional wisdom, widely-held assumption, and deeply-rooted beliefs in order to figure out the capital T-Truth.

Table of Contents