Digital liabilities

"I feel like so much of the inbound marketing that used to work well for us is now a liability because the quality of leads it generates is so bad."

Source: The owner of a digital agency I had coffee with recently

All rise. Let us begin by reciting the marketing catechism together:

  • Lots of things can work

  • Context bounds what can work and disposes what is likely to work

  • Experimentation determines what will work (until the context changes)

  • The context rarely stays the same for a long time

  • Marketing based on enduring facets of the context can have enduring potency

You may take your seats now.

A key word in my playfully-named marketing catechism is "context". It's a shorthand for: the set of consequential particulars of whatever your situation is. These particulars could include:

  • Your personality, skills, talents, and preferences

  • The market you serve and its current state and particulars

  • The tools available to you; the cost, capabilities, and constraints of those tools

  • The path dependence of agents in the system

  • All sorts of other stuff

This "context matters a lot" stuff is why one agency owner can correctly describe previously good-performing inbound marketing as a current liability, and another agency owner might have a totally different experience with the same marketing approach, and both of them are right.

From this starting point, we could migrate to two possible extremes. One extreme focuses on the uncertainty that is part and parcel of marketing and does the equivalent of stuffing money under the mattress instead of investing it. The other extreme energetically and thoughtfully leans into the required experimentation.

We can view the experimentation that marketing requires as a fixed and -- if an experiment doesn't succeed -- sunk cost. And we can feel bad about the sunk cost part of experiments that don't go well, or of stuff that used to work well and now doesn't. Or, we can just view the whole thing as a necessary fixed cost, sort of like an investment portfolio where some parts of the portfolio won't pay off and others will in a way that more than makes up for the ones that don't.

I wonder how this feels to y'all? Lots of us came of age as business owners in an era when we literally could publish a few blog posts on a basic WordPress template on a nearly-free-to-run website and that investment of a bit of time and almost no money would yield good leads. It's pretty easy to consider this "normal", and anything that requires more time, money, or skill as a distasteful deviation.

But, the context changes. It eventually changes enough to force us to change or to be painfully out of alignment with it.

When I was pricing OpportunityLabs. Well, hold up. I actually had two friends price it for me, and I went with their numbers with no edits. But when I was thinking about the pricing model before they chose prices for me, I had a strong desire to avoid subscription pricing because that forces a re-consideration of value on every subscription renewal. And in a context that is ever-changing and always requires experimentation, that subscription pricing model is hostile to the required mindset and timeframe.

Anyway, the fixed cost of this marketing experimentation might feel burdensome. I think our best remedy is to approach it like an investment portfolio, experiment thoughtfully, and walk away from losing experiments as soon as they've had enough time to show results. (I sense there's a good how-to book in here somewhere.)

Let's try this Substack Poll feature and see if you can vote in-email or if you have to click the Open in browser link at the top of the email: