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Better Prospects: A Sphere of Influence Manifesto

17 min read + 10 min video

We’re living through a new reality as marketers and creative professionals. Ultra-low barriers to entry have dramatically increased competition to be heard.

In an effort to turn the world’s population into advertising eyeballs, the billion dollar social media platforms have successfully transformed everyone into a marketer with a free megaphone. Our competition can be a 13 year old kid from Alabama with an iPhone and a free Instagram or YouTube account.

Nikkie De Jager

Nikkie De Jager

Nikkie De Jager is a twenty-something year old Dutch makeup artist who shares her talents and techniques on her popular YouTube vlog and Instagram account. She has 13.4 million subscribers to her channel, 14m followers on Instagram, plus another 2m followers on Twitter. According to SocialBlade, her videos earn her over one million dollars each year (likely even more now as you read this).

This is our new reality.

It can be overwhelming when we think that our competition include kids still in school, kicking ass at attracting millions of eyeballs to their social channels.

Conventional wisdom says shout louder to get attention at all costs. But this is not the way to get noticed.

Conventional wisdom is based on a flawed assumption that lead volume matters more than lead quality because more leads = more sales. It’s simple math. But it’s also a red herring.

A significant part of successful marketing is counterintuitive (which this manifesto will reveal and unpack).

We don’t NEED millions of followers or tens of thousands of email subscribers to be incredibly successful. That’s the hard way, which requires random luck and good timing. That’s not a strategy, or everyone would be billionaires with six pack abs.

A repeatable strategy is to think narrower — tiny, even. Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans is a foundational concept of thinking smaller (the number itself is not important; it can just as easily be 100).

“Instead of trying to reach everyone, we should seek to reach the smallest viable audience and delight them so thoughtfully and fully that they tell others.” — Seth Godin

But to get there requires a shift in thinking.

This manifesto will likely change how you see marketing, business, what you’ve done in the past, and how you’ll likely change moving forward.

One word of warning…

As with a magic trick, you can’t unsee something that may push against the walls of your subjective reality in a way that makes you uncomfortable.

So I’ll say this: if you are happy and comfortable with your current reality about modern marketing and business, do not read further.

The thesis of this manifesto is that better prospects matter. But the reality is that prospects are not created equal and neither are customers. We get to choose the type of business we create, the people we want to do business with, and what “success” looks like to each of us.

There is a cause and effect that happens in every business; actions taken to get the attention of people (cause), and the type of prospects, and by extension, the type of customers acquired from those actions (effect).

Broadly speaking we all understand this dynamic on a basic level. But what’s interesting and revealing is how blind the majority of marketers are to the root cause of the results they see playing out in their businesses.

We live in a culture where the Band-aid solution rules supreme in every category of society. So it’s no wonder our ability to solve downstream problems by going upstream to the source, is generally nonexistent.

Example:

  • Problem (effect): not enough customers
  • Solution (cause): increase lead volume (clickbait, lowering barriers to entry, etc.)

Yet this thinking is fundamentally flawed. Worse, because our thinking is misguided, the solution (a better more desirable effect) has zero chance of being created.

I’ll use a really bad analogy to make the point.

You can’t lose weight by going to the gym and pumping iron and doing HIIT until your cardio system is screaming for mercy, if after each workout you consumed six donuts and washed them down with a 600ml full-sugar Coca-Cola. You can’t out-exercise the cause of the weight gain. The only intervention that will work would be to replace the upstream cause. Replacing the six donuts and Coke with something less, well … problematic. Perhaps a whole-food green smoothy made from spinach and avocado with no added sugar, would likely have an immediate positive effect.

In our world, success is not the result of a 100,000 email subscriber list that can only generate customers through coercion and the use of short-sighted tactics and loopholes that produce no long-term upside.

Shawn and I believe successful businesses are built on high-quality, long-term, happy customers. And the path to get there is based on earning lasting attention, not buying or gaming temporary attention.

Earning attention is an emergent property when we lead with empathy, serve first, provide real value, and care about who we serve (and the results they get).

In order to present the idea that we should over-invest in the process to create better prospects (cause) — because better prospects matter downstream (effect) — I’ll need to start with first principles to unpack two fundamental realities of every business on the planet.

Then I’ll explain why over-investing in creating better prospects will affect everything else you do downstream (customers, revenue, happiness, meaning, and purpose).

The journey starts with this first fundamental reality.

Fundamental Reality 1: Businesses are Systems

To help make this point, I’ll start with a universal framework that is objectively true for every business on the planet.

This basic framework is broadly useful to understand the directional flow of attention to prospects to customers. So far I’ve shared nothing you don’t already know.

Next we can think of this framework as a system once expressed.

Meaning: once this conceptual framework has been manifested in reality (as a funnel into your business), it can be thought of as a system (a set of things working together as parts of an interconnect mechanism that functions as a complex whole).

An important thing happens when we realize that our funnel (the flow of attention to prospects to customers) and business (how we capture and deliver value) is a complex system. We realize that our business is subject to the insights of systems theory.

Common sense suggests that 1 + 1 = 2 and 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. And in the world of finance, accounting, and mathematics, this is true.

But in the predictably irrational world of behavioral economics (why people do what they do, and how to influence them) and the reality that businesses are complex systems and subject to the insights of systems theory, reality can be counterintuitive.

Emergence is the outcome of the synergies of the parts of a system. The outcome of nonlinear things interacting together.

Therefore, the sum total of a system is more than its component parts. As a system evolves, its structure can transform in interesting (positive) ways, or negatively (a suboptimal outcome).

In a complex system, 1 + 1 + 1 ≠ 3.

We can’t apply simple linear 1 + 1 + 1 = 3 thinking to how we generate customers in a complex system, just because it seems intuitive. Because of emergence, 1 + 1 + 1 may equal 5, or 9. But it definitely won’t equal 3.

Jay Wright Forrester, a former professor at MIT, was the founder of system dynamics, which deals with the simulation of interactions between objects in dynamic systems.

Counterintuitive.

That was Jay Forrester’s word to describe complex systems.

“Leverage points are not intuitive. Or if they are, we intuitively use them backward, systematically worsening whatever problems we are trying to solve,” he said. “We know from bitter experience that, because of counter-intuitiveness, when we do discover the system’s leverage points, hardly anybody will believe us.”

Those last five words are probably why the majority of marketers and creative professionals spend the majority of their efforts pushing in the wrong direction.

Dr. Russell Ackoff, one of the founding fathers of systems theory, said:

“In any system, when one improves (optimizes) the performance of the parts taken SEPARATELY, the performance of the whole doesn’t necessarily improve, and frequently gets WORSE.”

Another clue came from Donella Meadows, who was an American environmental scientist, teacher, and writer. She is best known as lead author of the books The Limits to Growth and Thinking in Systems: a Primer.

In her article, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, she presented another insight into understanding how we can influence the system that drives the success of our business.

Donella revealed that the #1 place to intervene in a system to create the greatest leverage, is the mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, power structure, rules, and its culture, arises.

Fundamental Reality 2: Business Is An Infinite Game

When we understand where mindset fits in the system, we get another clue how we can intervene to change cause and effect at the source.

Mindset can be defined as our paradigm and worldview — our beliefs that inform our decisions, our actions and behaviors, and inform how we see and understand the world, and our place in it.

When we revisit the directional framework I shared earlier, mindset governs everything below it.

Because of this, and because we now know that our business is a complex system once expressed, the framework can be visualized like this:

Because our business is an expression of our mindset (paradigm/worldview/beliefs), how we see and understand marketing will have a profound affect on everything we do. Cause and effect. Decisions that produce the downstream effect that we desire.

Thinking of mindset can be too conceptual, too fuzzy. So it’s helpful to have a mental model to help us orientate.

The concept of finite and infinite games is a powerful metaphor that makes a complicated idea more easily accessible. This short 10 minute video by Simon Sinek (author of The Infinite Game) sums up the thesis of the idea and why it matters:

(It’s an important video to watch. It’ll give you an extra layer of color and context.)

There are two kinds of games — finite and infinite.

A finite game has known players, fixed rules, and an agreed upon objective. You have winners and you have losers. Example: baseball.

An infinite game has known and unknown players. The rules are changeable, and the objective is to keep playing.

The mindset we choose will affect everything we do.

What’s interesting is that the “game of business” is by its very definition, an infinite game. It has existed before every single company on this planet, and it will outlast every single company on this planet.

As Simon Sinek explained in the video above — problems arise when you pit a finite player versus an infinite player (when the game being played is an infinite one).

Adding infinite and finite mindsets to the framework adds another layer of clarity.

At this point it’s helpful to embody each of these mindset traits as a character that we can relate to, which represent all the characteristics of that mindset. I’ve named one character Matt and the other Frank.

And here is the zoomed out framework will all the components I’ve unpacked so far:

When we choose the finite mindset, our focus is on competition, and our tactics are about beating a competitor. Consequences include short-term thinking and sub-optimal results. Frank symbolizes this mindset.

You’ll recognize the behavior of people like Frank who believe they’re playing a finite game, because in their world there are winners and losers. The winners are hustling to acquire leads at scale at the cheapest possible price, and optimizing for lead flow.

The marketer with an infinite mindset playing the infinite game, sees the world, and by extension the work they do, altogether differently. Their goal is not to win but keep playing long-term.

Because Matt’s primary objective is to keep playing long-term, he does the work upfront to optimize for lead quality. He fundamentally understands that better prospects matter, because he is optimizing for happy customers downstream (the people Matt chooses to do business with).

When we choose the infinite mindset, our focus is on improving the people we serve and influence, irrespective of the competition. Consequences include long-term thinking and optimizing for what we really care about (example: happy customers). Matt symbolizes this mindset.

Frank vs. Matt: Finite Player vs. Infinite Player

I first created the concept of Frank & Matt back in 2011 to demonstrate the two archetypes that make up the vast majority of internet marketers and creative professionals who go on the entrepreneurial journey for success and freedom.

I named one archetype, Frank (the larger segment). The other, Matt (the much smaller segment). I’m not going to unpack the details of Frank and Matt here. You can read the full narrative here (prerequisite reading if the concept of Frank vs. Matt is new to you).

Frank and Matt help attach emotion to a concept that can feel somewhat esoteric. They give color to the picture. Both Frank and Matt build their businesses within the same environment, on the same field of play.

I’ve already mentioned that everyone is a marketer. I’ve also revealed that the driving force behind every marketer is a mindset that informs how they see the world, their place in it, and their behaviors.

Facebook and Twitter have conditioned the masses to scroll and click.

Their billion dollar advertising models are powered by this simple economic engine. Free use of their platform gives them the right to sell your attention and privacy to millions of advertisers eager to enlist in the war of winning more clicks and attention (at any cost).

This is our current reality.

But how Frank and Matt behave within the same reality is worlds apart.

Browse any of your ‘social newsfeeds’ (or inbox) and you’ll see the majority of marketers, like Frank, are trying to game your attention (some intentionally, others unintentionally as they follow the herd like sheep) through the use of short-sighted tactics and loopholes like clickbait. But faux trust doesn’t last. It’s a short-term strategy with no long-term upside.

This zero-sum dynamic seems to reward short-sighted marketing hacks because they produce instant gratification. Frank loves this shit. This thinking has spawned a culture of short-sightedness, not helped that it has become a badge of honor to worship at the altar of hustle.

The winners get to insert another coin and continue to play, and the losers disappear in the screaming noise — rendered invisible and irrelevant.

This dynamic has been around for years, but today it’s worse than ever, and tomorrow will be worse still. Whether you accept this thesis or not, this is the new reality.

Frank represents the predominant behavior of marketers in our current reality who think they are playing a finite game that needs to be won and conquered. Frank’s behavior of gaming clicks to flog his stuff, isn’t wrong or immoral. But it’s not very effective if our measurement of success is to build a long-term asset. Frank is running on hamster wheel. If he stops running, stops hustling, it all ends — his house of cards come crashing down.

Frank is driven by seeking the quick-fix, the short-term win, the shiny objects. He finds it torturously hard to delay gratification. The classic example of the marshmallow experiment comes to mind.

Frank only sees the first order consequences of his behavior:

  • clickbait and short-term hacks to get more clicks,
  • lower barriers to entry to acquire more leads,
  • promote heavily using any and all tactics available in an attempt to acquire customers to make the economics back-out.

But Frank doesn’t see the second, third, and beyond consequences (cause and effect: shitty customers), which means he’s trying to win at a game that has no endpoint.

“Failing to consider second and third-order consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions, and it is especially deadly when the first inferior option confirms your own biases. Never seize on the first available option, no matter how good it seems, before you’ve asked questions and explored.” — Ray Dalio

The reality is, because people with a finite mindset see the world through this lens, they win big and lose big. These people come and go. They’re there one minute, a force of nature, then gone the next, like a David Copperfield disappearing act. Poof!

Frank pursues short-term, finite-game solutions because he’s seeking to “compress” the time it takes to get a sale and realize revenue. In Frank’s world, the formula is simple:

more leads = more sales = growth, scale, and status.

Why wait longer to ROI a lead when he can leverage his “toolbox of tricks” by funnel hacking a better mouse trap to compress the time horizon, and coerce a sale sooner?

That’s just simple math for Frank: 1 + 1 + 1 = 3.

This is the reality of Frank who sees business and marketing through the finite game lens. Frank’s business is not sustainable long-term.

This means the finite mindset works against us, even when it seems like it’s the “right” way to get what we want.

Matt has discovered the reality of operating as his old self — Frank. He learned the hard way that Frank’s actions don’t produce long-term results. The customers that are generated are not the type of customers he chooses to do business with

As an infinite thinker, Matt doesn’t see the world as a zero-sum game that needs to be won. His world is filled with opportunities, and he can happily coexist with his competition. Competition is not a force to be crushed and beaten, it’s a signal that validates the health of a market.

Matt goes the other way: because his primary objective is to keep playing long-term, he does the work upfront to optimize for lead quality. He understands that better prospects matter, because from better prospects comes better customers (the people Matt chooses to do business with).

The infinite game is a different mindset entirely, embodied in the character of Matt. The first order consequences of that paradigm are different. It’s only when we look at second, third, and beyond order consequences that we start to see how Matt’s approach is so much better. He’s building for the long-term, so he can keep playing the game, keep serving and mattering to his peeps.

For Matt, the downstream reward from delaying gratification makes all the sense in the world. Two marshmallows, after all, are better than one.

Meaning: it’s the behavior and actions now that produce favorable downstream consequences, even when the time horizon is in the distant future.

Finite and infinite mindsets fundamentally shape the worldview of Frank and Matt, the decisions they make, and the long-term results they get.

Conclusion

The rare resource online is not the ability to reach almost anyone (broadly speaking, that’s the easy part that requires only dollars or time), but earning attention that has a shelf life longer than a carton of open pasteurized milk.

Short-term, attention can be purchased. But earning it takes longer because earning it requires the dynamic of a relationship and a longer time horizon.

What reveals itself through this thinking is that attention is an asset to be earned, not gamed. That the assumption that more leads equals more sales is fundamentally flawed.

When you optimize for a short-term result (to maximize lead flow, for example, or to steal attention for a quick win), the second and third-order downstream consequences will be negative (suboptimal). Just because negative downstream effects are invisible, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

When we over-invest in long-term relationships with our prospects, we earn trust, and with trust comes attention with a very long half-life.

This is what it means to be a modern marketer, who gives a shit about the people they seek to serve. When our marketing leads with generosity and empathy before a transaction ever takes place, we win because our prospects win first.

This is the new reality; you can either accept it or keep playing by the old rules. Reality won’t change — but, based on your mindset and behavior, your outcome will be radically different.

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