Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.
- Sun Tzu-
Acquiring information others do not - or cannot - reach is a source of immense power.
In war, to gain an ‘information edge,’ you would deploy spies on your enemy. Applying this tactic to the modern inbox is worthy of exploration. One way to illustrate this principle is by using an inversion mental model . What’s the opposite of using spies?
You rely on information accessible to everyone else, especially others vying for your prospects’ attention. The key word is ‘accessible’ because the internet has leveled much of the digital playing field for everyone. Access has become egalitarian.
There are very few secrets left that could sway the outcome of an inbox battle. Yet, they do exist, and I’ll try to help you find them by repurposing Sun Tzu’s principle of Using Spies.
First, let’s start with a few examples of how outdated, recycled intel can lose you the battle of the inbox.
1) Scraped Lists
Scraping websites for email addresses is immensely popular, and for a good reason - it can work well. However, where you will likely go wrong is how you target the scrapes.
For example, if you are an enterprise SaaS company and want to sell straight to CIOs, you could go to LinkedIn Sales Navigator and filter for:
Job title: Chief Information Officer
Headcount: 11-200 employees
You can be certain that every one of your prospects with scrapeable emails on that target search has already been carpet bombed by your competitors and anyone else trying to sell to the C-Suite in California. It will become a battle of mediocre versus mediocre.
2) Off-the-Shelf Databases
Off-the-shelf databases and data enrichment tools like ZoomInfo, Clearbit, Seamless, and Ocean.io can be helpful and speed up your sales engines. And your competitors use them too. You may need to keep augmenting your campaigns with paid databases to stay in the fight, but you cannot expect to create an unfair competitive advantage
using the same weapons as your opponents.
3) Conference Attendees
It’s no big secret that conference attendee data fuel many proprietary lists and public databases.
And it’s also common for attendees to register for events using a ‘spam trap’ email address since they know their contact information will be bought and sold over and over again to god knows who.
The myth of no secrets
When people assume that all the significant discoveries & inventions are behind us (or “there is nothing new under the sun”), they have fallen prey to the Myth of No Secrets .
This belief weakens your ability to win a fight inside the inbox. In some cases, people may cynically avoid acquiring secrets because they are afraid someone will steal their new ‘secret weapon’ the second they wield it publicly.
The best way to overcome the pull of this logical fallacy is to frame your business spycraft as an experiment instead of a tactic. Let the reality of the results or lack thereof guide your efforts, not loss aversion.
'Spycraft’ and the Inbox
1) Cross-promotion campaigns
If non-competitors out there sell to the same people/target market you are, they likely already have an opt-in list that’s not accessible to any scraping tool. They also likely have insights & perspectives on your customers that you don’t have - just like a spy or double agent.
Develop a human-to-human relationship with them. Find someone who can arrange a warm intro for you. Create a win-win proposition that these “influencers” simply cannot refuse.
One of our favorite win-wins is a Cross Promotion, or in layman’s terms, a back-scratch campaign. If you have 10,000 email subscribers of homeowners, and the non-competitor has 10,000 email subscribers of homeowners, then you can promote their product to your list and vice versa. This approach capitalizes on social proof and exposes your product or service to a fresh audience in a way you cannot do yourself.
2) Bribe Gatekeepers
In the B2B world, we often want to go straight after the top dog in the organization - the founder, CEO, or Partner.
The truly influential business leaders typically have ‘gatekeepers’ checking their inboxes for them to filter out all of the noise & bullshit. Suppose you befriend the gatekeeper first and gain some favors through light bribery (flowers, chocolate, donuts, genuine compliments). In that case, you can ask them to float your request past the inbox blockade, and maybe even skip the inbox entirely, and go straight to the leaders’ calendar.
Our co-founder, Nate Wright
, is a former US Air Force officer who used this in actual wartime environments. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was a First Lieutenant and the gatekeeper to a full bird Colonel. Every day dozens of people would try to get their agenda or request floated to the boss’ desk. One guy would swing by nearly every day with no demands, just a hello, and a small Twix candy bar. Weeks later, he easily wedged his way onto the colonel’s calendar due to investing in some ‘legal bribery.’
Nate’s military story:
Many many years ago, in my military days during the operation Iraqi Freedom, I used to be a gate-keeper for cournels. I was the guy who answered phone-calls, managed emails - all the good stuff. People that were nice to me, and brought me presents (I had a guy bribe me with Twix), would get a spot on the boss's calendar. Others, who weren’t as nice, wouldn’t.
This tactic may sound manipulative, but sometimes you have to bend some rules to close deals.
3) Befriend Data Brokers
There’s a whole ecosystem of niche data brokers. They have exclusive access to tools, lists, and information not accessible publicly or via paid database subscription. Unfortunately, many of these influential allies in your battle in the inbox don’t label themselves as data brokers. Some are career salespeople that work in stealth for several companies, arranging warm introductions and meetings for a sizable referral fee. Others are conference organizers. And others may be professional business matchmakers.
It couldn’t hurt to invest some real money in data brokers as long as they are not allied with your enemies. In all cases, you should make friends with them and commit to staying in touch.
Gaining their favor and getting a niche email list could provide a measurable competitive advantage to your business. The most powerful weapon data brokers could equip you with is timely market intelligence. Is your competitor preparing to launch a price-matching campaign to steal your customers? Did a competing consultant just retire, leaving their current clients without an easy alternative?
Digging for secrets
The best place to look for secrets is where your competitors aren’t looking, or when they’ve stopped paying attention. Start building your network of spies and forging relationships with the enemy of your enemy. Your organic, human relationships will always be the most difficult weapon for your competitors to steal.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Where have others stopped looking for email lists?
What additional business intelligence sources can help me craft and time my campaigns more accurately?
How can I secretly - and affordably - tap those sources?
Who is worth bribing for intel and access to someone’s inbox - or calendar?
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.