The Art Of War Of The Inbox

Principle #5 - Know your enemy

Publishing Date: August 1, 2022
“The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”
– Sun Tzu –
When you hear the words’ enemy or competitor, your brain will probably jump to the company that is outranking yours on G2, Clutch, Upwork, TrustPilot, etc., Or the crew that’s outspending yours on LinkedIn ads. Or the fake guru you hate for wooing away your best clients.
When you plan your email campaigns, you likely look at their email copy, sequence, design, and offer and compare them to yours.
If you are more sophisticated, you probably steal or recycle a few ideas and tactics from them, intentionally or subconsciously.
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 actual competitors.
You think you got the villain. You think you know your enemy. Sun Tzu knew this deadly assumption would lead to losing the campaign or the war. He dedicated much of The Art of War to the study of enemies.

The myth of competition

“Corporate strategy is rooted in military strategy and thus overly focused on competing.” @category pirate

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

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. Thiel further concludes that:

It’s competition, not business, that is like war: allegedly necessary, supposedly valiant, but ultimately destructive.
Before I unravel the last four tomes of advice in this series, let’s unpack Thiel’s assertion, starting with the definition of competition. 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.
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, who – or what – 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. Your goal is to earn an open, reply, click, appointment, order, purchase, forward, share, or other reaction from your prospect/customer.
Action requires attention, and attention is a limited resource.
Modern humans are exposed to 5,000 – 10,000 advertisements per day. And we are only talking about ads here. In reality, hundreds of other attention thieves prey on you and your client prospects.
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.
When examined in this way, we might conclude that our true enemy is anyone competing for the attention of our specific clients and prospects.

The opposition unmasked

Imagine if we switch the word enemy with opposing force. What would make your list?

1) Other Senders

What you are competing against in the inbox is not just your competitors’ emails but all the emails your target audience receives, including: transactional emails, receipts, newsletters, and calendar confirmations.
Rather than getting bogged down by outmaneuvering your competitors’ messaging, think of the distinct categories of emails your target customer receives regularly and explore ways to exploit that knowledge.

2) Other channels

Returning to the battle for attention, think of all the other channels/mediums/places where your customers/prospects get bombarded with advertisements. LinkedIn and Facebook feeds, billboards, text messages, mobile banners, cold calls, snail mail, posters, etc.
Think about your typical client and dissect their daily routines and activities.
Ask yourself: Which mediums get most of their attention? How noisy are those mediums? Will my pitch do better there?

3) You

Your most powerful enemy is you.
Your inertia. Your complacency. Your inner myopia. Your biases. Your emotions. Your desire for conformity and acceptance and recognition. Your feelings.
quick story from fellow bandit Nate Wright:
After 20,000 marketing campaigns and nearly 14 years of grinding, I have racked up a lot of fails. When I examine them, I struggle to nail down the weak point that triggered the failure.
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? Was it bad data? Or bad luck? Or bad timing?
I’ve obsessed on all of this. The humbling conclusion – my own emotional state triggered nearly every one of those failures.
Overconfidence. Fear. Ego. Anger. Sadness. Hope. Cynicism. All of my baggage, good and bad.
Thus, to make effective decisions, keep your emotions in check above everything else. Or at least beware of how they affect your choices.
However, sometimes making what others would label an emotional decision on a campaign can help you win the inbox war.

When to Pick a Fight

Standing against something can generate more influence than standing for something. Look at politics.
Charlie Munger has addressed this paradoxical disliking-hating tendency head-on:

As most apes & monkeys, we are born with dislike and hate – as a result, the 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. Robert Greene listed
“Declare War on Your Enemies: Polarity” as the first principle in his book, The 33 Strategies of War.
Look at evolution.
Threats helped us survive. Those who paid attention or even over-reacted survived and passed on their genes. We fear snakes, spiders & heights, however irrational it may seem in the modern world.
You need a villain in your messaging.

Create a villain, unite people, and separate yourself from competitors.

The villain can be an enemy/competitor/group/set of ideas.
Many business leaders fear villainization as a marketing tactic because of peer pressure. What will my peers think of me? Will I be labeled as an enemy among my friends now?
In your campaigns, you may have to ‘go gangster’ and choose emotional and social discomfort to survive the attacks of direct competitors or break out of a stale market.
All humans feel the evolutionary urge to belong to a group. By creating an enemy for your chosen group and emailing them about it, you can confidently exclude everyone else and spur them into action.

Go to War

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