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How to Prepare for Automation in Digital Marketing

picture of Shawn Twing

Shawn Twing

Traffic Engine Specialist, Barn Door Media

Should we be afraid of automation in digital marketing? We hear some scary predictions about what automation will do to our jobs. In this episode, you’ll learn how much technology will impact the future of advertising.

My guest today is Shawn Twing, one of the top paid traffic specialists in the world.  He joins us to talk about the common mistakes he sees in paid traffic, how to prepare for the future of automation, and the one thing technology can never take from humans.

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We covered:

  • The reason why paid traffic agencies might not exist in 12 months
  • Two automation tasks that are often used in paid traffic
  • What the first step is for marketers to prepare for automation
  • Why you should know the key difference between principles vs. tactics
  • The link between paid traffic, innovation and investing
  • Why retargeting everyone who visits a website is a common mistake
  • Shawn’s three principles that have made his business a success
  • The one thing machines won’t ever be able to take from humans

Full Transcript:

Louis: Bonjour bonjour! Welcome to another episode of EveryoneHatesMarketers.com, the marketing podcast for marketers, founders, and tech people who are just sick of shady, aggressive marketing. I’m your host Louis Grenier.In today’s episode, you’ll learn how to prepare for the coming wave of automation in digital advertising. And how you can make your work more human, more creative and not less. So, my guest today is–according to my very good friend Andre Chaperon–one of the top paid traffic specialists in the world. Or, as my guest himself would say, “We’ll, I’ve been around long enough to make more mistakes than almost everyone else.”

Which is interesting because I can feel that my guest is very humble, very honest, with himself. I think we’re gonna get along quite well. He’s the owner and president of Barn Door Media, a website design and digital marketing agency based in Vermont, USA for the last 20 years. He has worked with clients for more than a decade, some of them, which is a lot in internet years, right? Shawn Twing, welcome aboard.

Shawn: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

Louis: So, people might feel overwhelmed about all of the thoughts about automation, robotization, and the fact that robots and automation is going to replace our jobs and everything. Especially in the marketing world. We’re gonna talk about paid traffic in particular in this podcast. Before we dive in to the topic of automation and how to prepare for it a bit, can you define briefly what paid traffic is?

Shawn: Sure. There are any number of ways that you can pay for traffic. You can pay for it in time, energy, dollars. When I talk about paid traffic, I’m thinking about those areas where we’re exchanging dollars for visitors. The two biggest ones are certainly AdWords Search and Display and then Facebook.

I’ve been doing AdWords since dinosaur years, just because it’s been around longer. And then Facebook is becoming increasingly robust. Interestingly, most clients that come to us now come for Facebook instead of AdWords.

In that, paid traffic is anytime that we’re saying we are willing to pay X amount for somebody to view content, to be expose to our brand. Whatever it is, it’s the direct exchange of dollars for that attention as opposed to indirect exchange, which might be like organic search optimization. That’s still paid too, unless you’re doing it yourself. Even then, you’re paying with your time. There isn’t a lot of traffic that’s free.

Louis: So, it’s also defined like pay per click, type of–

Shawn: Yeah, pay per click, pay per impression, sure. Anytime that you’re willing to say, I have one dollar and I’d like X in response. Most likely not a dollar anymore. But, that I’m willing to pay X for either a lead, or a purchase, or a view, or something that you’re putting a direct numerical value on. I consider that paid traffic. And the two big players are AdWords and Facebook.

Louis: You actually come from a time where you started AdWords at it’s infancy. Like donkey years ago, right? At this stage, you could pay for a link, you could pay for a click, for like one cent? Or like half a cent? The good ol’ days, right?

Shawn: The wild west days, right? We say the good ol’ days. They weren’t that good. I mean we got a lot of traffic for cheap, but the tools that we have now are so much better. I’ve used AdWords… I was trying to figure this out the other day. I was a beta user, so it’s been forever. I sort of grew up in AdWords.

AdWords was the first thing that showed me how wffective aystems theory could be when applied to digital marketing. Because it’s a close system that rewards excellence. The better you do with AdWords, the more you give the users what they want, the lower your click cost, the more traffic that you get.

Because it’s a closed system my brain just responded to that. I’m like, what a minute. It’s a closed feedback loop, where if I do well, I do well. Give me more of that. That was really my introduction to what I would consider true digital marketing.

Louis: So, we are recording this podcast in 2018. The reason why I mention this is because I hope that this, like many of those I recalled, can be useful in 5 years, 10 years, and 50 years. In this frame of mind, we are going to try and frame this conversation around that a bit. In 2018, what is the state of automation in paid traffic?

Shawn: I’m a big fan of Ray Kurzweil’s work. He’s the guy who’s written about the singularity, he’s the head of, I don’t even know what, at Google now. He’s very well known for his contributions to thinking around exponential technological gain.

We as creatures think in terms of linear gain. I do X, then I do Y, then I do Z. Then I get incrementally better. Kurzweil has spent his life predicting the impact of technology. His most famous one now was looking at longevity research and saying we’re essentially at a place where our life expectancy is about to outpace the rate at which we age.

What makes Kurzweil so interesting is he’s been right so many times. When you think about a tech curve–anytime you’re advancing technology, there is a very sharp incline at the base of the curve when change happens so rapidly once it starts to happen.

I believe we’re at the base of the automation curve. Meaning we are just seeing tools coming out that are taking as stab at doing the things that humans generally do to automate paid traffic campaigns. Some of those tools are very good. We use them. We’ve used some of them for over a year, some for a few months.

Some of this is baked in already to Facebook and into AdWords. If you do CPA bidding, your cost per acquisition bidding on Google, you’re using algorithmic tools. You just don’t have access to the tools that Google does. Facebook’s dynamic creative optimization where you feed it in 30 variables, it creates 2,460 variations that you don’t know what the variations are and Facebook runs them and optimizes them. That’s automation.

Those of us in the agency world have been playing with this for a while. When we see where we are, and we know we’re at the base of the curve, what’s coming, we can’t even comprehend.

I’ve seen a little taste of this recently where once we start marrying automation tools to analytic tools, and we create a feedback loop between those two things–the pace of change will be so fast that no human being will be able to keep up. Period. That’s just the nature of technology. That’s where we’re going.

A couple things are easy. One, to dismiss it. Say that’s just not going to happen. I can tell you it is going to happen. That’s just the nature of where things are going. The other thing is to say, “Well humans are always going to be necessary. Who’s going to run the machines?” Sure. I think that’s true.

But if you own an agency right now, or if you are a very highly skilled contractor who specializes in a particular type of paid traffic, you need to be aware of this because your job is going to be very different in 12 to 18 months. Or it’s not going to exist. Period. That’s just reality.

To be clear, I have no horse in this race. I’m not on the board of any automation tool company. I haven’t invested in it. This is just where things are going. I think.

Louis: So, you mentioned two examples of automation, like black box automation, where you don’t control the machine. Google owns the black box, and you just take advantage of it. Can you share one or two examples of automation tasks that are usually used in paid traffic?

Shawn: Yeah, there’s a tool we’ve been using recently called Revealbot. Revealbot does automated Facebook optimization. Qwaya does as well, to a lesser extent. Different ways that they do it. I consider Revealbot a rules engine. You feed it the rules, and then it executes the rules with machine precision.

Let’s say you have a Facebook ad and you want a 3% or greater click-through rate, you can set up a rule that says if this ad does not get a 3% or greater click-through rate in 72 hours, pause it automatically. Now, would a human being do that? Sure. Absolutely.

But would a human being do that with absolute dependable precision on the 72-hour mark, 365 days a year? No. Is that a big deal? I don’t know. But if you stack up, say, each campaign you’re running has five variables and a human being has an 80% success rate vs. the machine?

The math just gets so increasingly in the machine’s favor, because the machines are unemotional. They don’t care. They don’t have bad days, they don’t miss opportunities. None of that is a factor.

From my perspective as an agency owner, I like to be able to say, well here are a set of guidelines, sort of principle level guidelines with which we manage our client accounts. And this is not the be all, end all, but this is the first 80% of optimization that I can depend on that somebody can set up in a rules engine in an hour and it runs dependably forever.

The economics of that are incredible. Absolutely incredible. Unless you’re the person I was paying to do that last year. Then the economics are not so great. Then you need to be retrained to do something where you’re adding value.

It’s really part of this discussion of automation is–if something’s able to do something better, why wouldn’t we move the human component up the value stream? In my mind, this is not about me figuring out ways how to replace people. It’s how to make people more valuable in a different spot in the value chain. That’s my goal.

Louis: We’re going to talk about that right now. Trying to lay the foundations of if you are working in paid traffic, or touching on it, or thinking about starting an agency, or having an agency touching on paid traffic, PPC, and all of that. How can you prepare yourself to be ready for this pace of change in the next 1, 2, 5, 10, 15 years? Right?

And how can you be more strategic about the choices you make, the type of work you offer, and how you get paid? So, before that, I want to say Shawn, I was expecting to talk to a geek today, and I think it’s-

Shawn: Well, I can geek out too. I can.

Louis: I can see how you love, and why you love, paid traffic. Because it’s like a system. A lot of numbers game, a lot of performance review, reviewing metrics and system thinking, and all of that. It’s great to hear someone that’s proficient on it. It doesn’t surprise me then why you are beta use of AdWords and why you’ve been using ever since. Which is great.

Going back to the practical aspect of this podcast, we might scare people a bit, you might have scared people a bit mentioning all of that, right? Which is fair, because people are very afraid of change and they like comfort and what not. It’s difficult to predict the future, isn’t it?

Louis: From your perspective, based on your experience, what do you think marketers–and people involved in the paid traffic in the marketing world–should do to prepare themselves? Maybe you would try to break it down into actionable steps.

Shawn: Yeah, that’s a great question. The first thing is, I believe in principles versus tactics. If you understand the principles of marketing then really, the sky is the limit. Any change that happens, you can just sort of change your worldview and integrate whatever the tactic.

Because tactics have changed for the last 20 years. I mean, I’ve watched all manner of things come and go. But the principles have never changed. Ever. I suspect they won’t, that’s why they’re principles.

I think the first thing I would do if I were coming into this game–or if I had been in it for a while–I would see if I could step back to the 30 thousand feet, 50 thousand feet, and really ask myself what is it I’m really trying to do here? Not just me, myself, but on behalf of my clients.

What’s really happening here? And understand that. Because if you want to feed a rules engines data and rules, you have to know what it is you’re trying to accomplish. If you haven’t taken 30 seconds to step back and really ask yourself what’s really going on here, you have no idea. You can’t create rules for wandering generalities.

Is that Thoreau or Emerson? I don’t know, I’ll get it wrong. One of them. Meaning full specific versus wandering generality, right? I probably misquoted both of them.

Louis: Can you define principle versus tactics for me? Maybe give an example of each so people understand the distinction.

Sure, so I’ll start with tactics. A tactic is the thing you do that works right now to get the result. So it might be the latest and greatest trick of how to exploit some overlooked feature in Facebook.

Allows you to get away with something for 72 hours. Everybody sells those tactics. You know, the never before secret to do X. The funny thing is when somebody sells that stuff, it’s already stopped working. That’s why they’re selling it. But anyway, I won’t go on that rant.

Principles are those things that are tried and true. They’re that underlying structure of the world. So here’s a principle that I use in my business. I’ve stolen this, not stolen, I’ve borrowed with enthusiasm from Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, his business partner. I think of what I do, as very similar to what they do. They’re investing dollars. I’m investing my clients’ dollars, to get a numerically positive result.

There are lots of crossover between paid traffic and investing. One of Buffett and Munger’s principles is that it’s not about being innovative, it’s about avoiding big mistakes. This is one that I live by. I am not the most innovative person in the world in this space. Like if you came up to me and said, hey did you hear that thing–and I hate this phrase–crushing it in xyz?

Most likely I have, and most likely I don’t care. I’m not on the cutting edge of the tactics that are just working so well today. I get, I want to say 90%. That’s probably an exaggeration.

Most of the value that I provide to my clients is making sure that they don’t make stupid mistakes. The best analogy is exercise. If you’re just going to the gym every day, you’re a cross fitter, you’re just absolutely out of your mind at the gym. When you leave the gym you shove six donuts down your throat. You can’t out exercise 6 donuts, right? That’s a fundamental mistake you can’t outdo.

No matter how great you are in the gym, you’re not going to get ahead of that mistake. I see this happen all the time. If somebody takes over an account. And there’s one thing that’s incredibly innovative, that’s all they focus on, and there are 50 things that are stupid mistakes? That one thing can never outpace the 50.

Classic example, because everyone always asks me, what’s an example of a great mistake? Retargeting everybody who visits a site, is a classic mistake. Everybody does this. Put a couple of rules in. Make sure somebody stays longer than 10 seconds, or sees two pages, anything!

Don’t retarget everybody, because 80% generally of people who visit a site, they’re not there for the long haul. I say 80, cause it’s just 80/20 sort of shows up in that regard, but people vote with their behavior. When somebody comes in and is like, “Nope. Sorry, wrong place. I’m out,” and you’re spending money to re target them over and over and over again, you’re wasting money.

Stop doing that. To me, if you stop making that one mistake, you’re recapturing 50, 60, 80% of your budget for retargeting in one stroke. Easily. That to me is a principle. Don’t make dumb mistakes.

Louis: This is such a good answer that I want to spend more time on this. Give me another example of a principle that you live by.

Shawn: Well, I have a whole document of principles that I live by. You probably don’t want that one.

Louis: No, no, no. Not the personal one, please. But pick, let’s say–

Shawn: Oh, those are pretty good too.

Louis: Another principle of yours. Another one that you enjoy because it’s linked to the business and stuff, cause this one was really really interesting to hear.

Shawn: Okay, so I’ll give you my sort of three legs for the stool. One big leg of the stool is the 80/20 principle. Two of them are very similar, so I’ll just give you all three. There’s no fourth, by the way, you can’t go to my site and buy the fourth one. This is all of them. I’m gonna tell you everything I know and that’s it.

One leg of the stool is 80/20, and I don’t mean the high level of Tim Ferriss. Let’s spend five minutes on this and I think we’ve got a view of 80/20. No disrespect to Tim Ferriss. I just don’t like the cursory approach to things.

80/20 is a mathematical power law and it affects everything. It affects things in ways that if you internalize you really get them. Here’s a classic one: In any large number, a thousand plus, ten thousand, grouping, the overwhelming majority of people there are not even willing to give you their attention.

If you have a thousand people come to your site and 20% of them have opted in for whatever you’re offering, a newsletter, a podcast, a lead magnet, don’t be disappointed by that. Because the other 80% are never even going to give you their time at all. That’s just a mathematical power law.

The first leg of the stool is recognizing that. And recognizing that most of the time you’re really only looking at 20% of an audience and within that 20% there’s another power curve that there’s a tiny minority that will drive most of the action. When you start understanding that, you stop trying to please everybody. You start trying to go find that minority of people.

Second leg of the stool is Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints. I have spent probably more time than I want to admit trying to really internalize what Goldratt was talking about. It’s systems theory, but it’s so much more, but really it comes down to this idea that trying to optimize local optima is not the way to get the system optimal.

That there is generally one–and only one thing–that is slowing everything down and if you spend your time monkeying around with everything else, you’re wasting your time.

I see this happen all the time. Someone’s like, but we’re trying to move–click through radius is good, and this isn’t good, and this isn’t good. And they’re doing 10 things. Let’s just assume that the goal is lead generation. You’ve got a lead magnet or something, for download. My question is very simple.

“What’s the opt in rate?”

“Oh, well it’s x.” Well, until it’s 20% or greater, we don’t do anything else. Everything is focused on that. Instead of monkeying around. Maybe if we drove more traffic that converted just as poorly, that would help. Makes no sense. There’s one and only one thing holding you back right now. Find that thing. Put all of your energy and attention on it. And then move on to the next thing, cause that thing will keep moving.

That’s the second leg of the stool. Yet, Theory of Constraints you could spend decades studying. Ask me how I know. Then the third leg of the stool is an unsung American hero, named John Boyd. He was a fighter pilot. Probably the greatest strategic thinker this country’s ever produced, and one of the greatest strategic thinkers of all time.

There’s a great article at The Art of Manliness on one of his singular contributions to humanity which is the OODA loop. He was a fighter pilot and he had this thing where he would have any air to air engagement with any fighter pilot where they started at 6:00 position and in 60 seconds he’d switch and to do that he developed what he called his OODA loop. It’s a four part process he said human beings go through all the time. We observe, we orient, we decide, and we act.

I don’t know why that resonated with me the way it did, but when I realized that paid traffic is a closed system and that if I could cycle faster than my competitors, they could never catch me. And that’s part of what Boyd was talking about.

Boyd was the architect behind the ’91 US invasion of Iraq. It’s one of the reasons it was so overwhelmingly successful militarily. He had this idea that if you could get, what he called, inside your opponent’s decision cycle. So, let’s just use an example.

Let’s say that you and I are competitors. You’re looking at data twice a week and making once decision based on that data. And I’m looking at data five times a week, and I’m making one decision every time I look at that data. My pace is two and a half times faster than yours, and at some point you can’t ever catch me. I’m just cycling. I am inside your decision cycle.

If I had to point to three things and say these are the three things that have made my business successful well, for almost two decades. I’m two months away from two decades–those three things are it. That it’s a closed system that rewards excellence, and that I’m willing to cycle faster than whoever I’m competing against, and at some point they can’t ever catch … When I say me, it’s the imperial we. It’s my clients. That’s really it. And when we focus only on the things that matter.

Long answer to a short question. But if there were three principles I could give away to the world, those would be the three. Absolutely.

Louis: What an answer. What an answer. I would recommend people to listen to the talk from Elon Musk about first principle and all the philosophical work of a first principle as well, because this is exactly why I started this podcast, and this is what I’m trying to get to every time.

This is why I ask, what can you do right now that still be relevant in 5, 10, 50 years. Because asking this question forces you to think if there were principles and not shitty tactics that won’t work in two weeks. Right?

Shawn: And probably don’t work now.

Louis: And don’t work now, because as you said if you’re talking about this tactic now and selling it, it’s not working anymore.

So, it sounds like the first step of this process to prepare for the future, regardless of what’s gonna happen, is to take a step back and focus on first principles, right?

Shawn: Absolutely.

Louis: Do you have any resources to share? Usually, ask that at the end, but it’s such an interesting topic, do you have any resources to share other than the one you mentioned about principles and how to select principles to focus on in the marketing world?

Shawn: That’s a good question. That’s a hard question. I like Shane … I can’t remember his last name. Farnam Street blog. He’s got some great thinking tools. Why can’t I think of his name? He has some really good thinking tools. I might start there. It’s not marketing specific. But, at least from a mental models perspective, you need some place to start. Kind of an architecture that you can wrap things around.

I like the term scaffolding. I think one of the reasons that I’ve had the success that I’ve had is that I’ve built, over time, this mental scaffolding of ideas. So, when I hear something I know where to put it and I know what it relates to. There’s no fast track to that.

Somebody asked me one time, I had this conversation like, could you recommend a book to learn that? I’m like, I could recommend about 500. I mean, that’s really the answer. As I look at my bookshelves all around me.

This is something that nobody wants to talk about in our $9.97-become-an-expert-in-60-days culture is that this is hard and it requires work and effort. Our mutual friend Andre Chaperon, I think Andre is gifted. Absolutely gifted. One of the most talented human beings I’ve ever met.

He will say something in passing, or write a comment somewhere to somebody who’s asked a question, that is so profoundly good. I always have this thought, how did he write that in five minutes? I’m like, oh, because he spent the last 20 years working to know how to answer that question in five minutes. Right.

So, that’s really the first thing that I would share, is that be prepared to do the work. There are shortcuts. You had probably the greatest guest of all time to get there faster on your podcast, who’s Seth Godin. Seth, like we’re friends. I don’t know Seth Godin, to be clear. He just seems like such an approachable first name kind of guy. Seth has done the work to package up the principles.

Udemy, you can get sort of condensed versions of it. He has some that are show stoppers, I mean, his first ten blog posts is probably the greatest business advice of all time in under 500 words. If you’re not willing to go do that work, I don’t know. I don’t sell easy. It’s just not who I am. I don’t try to pretend. I mean, things that are worth doing, they require time, energy, and dollars.

You can shortcut stuff. Absolutely. There’s some great training products out there for specific things, but at a principle level, I think if I had to start over knowing what I know. If I could leave a note for myself and all my memory was gonna be gone and I wanted to do this, be back in this field, how would I get there the fastest?

I think I would leave myself a note that would be every resource I’ve ever read by Seth Godin, and just go read that. Because he’s spent a lifetime honing this. It should be good. His podcast with you was excellent too. That is. That’s PhD, MBA, level thinking in an hour that probably could save somebody a decade. So, start with Seth. That’s my answer. Final answer.

Louis: To go back to principles, there’s another thing I want to say. I have a few questions. I don’t have them written down, I should have prepared that. But there’s one that I constantly remind myself of. Last week someone reached out to me and asked me, I work in this industry–I don’t remember which one –do you think influencer marketing would work for me?

I recorded a small video to answer the question. I basically told this person, think about the principle behind influence and marketing. Just a shitty word to talk about building relationships with others, you know?

It’s just a shitty word to talk about when someone you know has other people they know, if they trust this person because they are friends, they have connections, if this person says I think this product is good.

You are more likely to buy it. You’re gonna trust this person. That’s how it works. And asking me if someone will recommend this product and whether it will work, is just questioning the first principles of how humans interact with each other. Obviously, it would work if you do it the right way. If you connect with the right people, if you build genuine relationship, if you’re patient, and all of that.

So, that’s one I wanted to share. Another one that I like to say is very simple as well. It’s not that smart, it’s just about people hate to be sold to and they love to buy. Right? And that when you think of it this way, it’s also easier to think about marketing.

I love that you started this answer by talking about first principal instead of thinking of technology, or automation, because that’s what I’m trying to fight for in this podcast a lot. Moving onto maybe step 3. Cause you mentioned, think in terms of first principles. Decide of the principle that you could learn in your life, humans.

And the second thing that you said is put the work. It’s not gonna happen overnight, right. So I would say those are the two first steps. You mentioned Seth Godin and checking out his blog post. Now we are at a place where we’ve looked up in terms of what are the first principles, we understand now that we need to fucking do the work because we avoid that.

What is the third step, maybe going more into the paid traffic world and marketing world? How do you cope with this radical change that is going to come up?

Shawn: I say this to my clients a lot. I say this to my employees a lot. I probably say this to more people than want to hear it, a lot. But, if you can’t draw on a piece of paper with a crayon how things that you’re trying to do work, you don’t understand it. So, to me, the third step is:

From my perspective as an agency owner. If I can’t sit down and listen to you and have you explain to me how your business works and in an hour or two take out a crayon and a post it and draw something that’s kind of like, “Is it like this?”, then I don’t understand it. I shouldn’t be doing anything with it until I understand it.

Yet, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve either been on a team, I’m brought in on a lunch or something, where nobody knows how the thing works. Like nobody! The owner doesn’t know how it works, or the owner has offloaded that to the launch expert they hired. The launch expert went through the course, but doesn’t really understand the business.

Everybody’s kind of looking at each other. I come in and I’m like how does this thing make money? Like what’s the thing that happens, or assuming it’s to make money, what’s the thing that happens that indicates success?

“Well, somebody buys.”

“Oh, okay. What did they do before that?” And then they kinda sear together some answer. And I’m like, “Ah, no wait. What has to happen?” I tell people this all the time, I say, “You talk to me like I’m a 3rd grader. Like really. Explain your business to me like a 3rd grader.” And if they can’t, they don’t understand it.

That sounds overly simplistic but to me, this is the secret sauce. If you can’t figure out the six steps to success in a venture, like see an ad, see a landing page, opt-in, read a really interesting story, find out later there’s a product to buy, buy it. Right? If you can’t have that conversation with that level of clarity, something is horribly wrong. Yet, I would say 8 out of 10 people at first conversation haven’t done that. And if you can’t do that, then you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing.

If I don’t know that my job with the ad, first and foremost, is to stop the scroll. That’s the number one job of an ad on Facebook. To stop the user from scrolling past it. Then I have to make sure the person is both the right person and they’re in the right frame of mind when they click. Meaning, I haven’t shown them something that’s valuable to people that are like them, but also not like them. Because I want more traffic. I want more clicks.

That’s another fundamental mistake is to go broad. Add that to the list. Make the targeting so broad that you get a really false positive first response. Like, if I don’t know that. If I don’t know the whole point of getting that click, is to get a lead, then I will do the dumbest stuff in the world to get a lot of clicks that cost a lot of money that don’t get me a lot of leads. Like, its the most fundamental mistake.

I ask this over and over, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

“I want somebody to click on the ad.”

“No you don’t. You want somebody to buy.”

“Oh, right. I want somebody to buy, eventually.”

“Great. So, why are you trying to appeal to an audience where overwhelmingly the people you’ve included are not inclined to buy?” Especially with Facebook, why not make a basket of people who are so likely to buy, that you’ve stacked the deck in your favor? Instead, people come back, “Oh, we have an audience of 6 million.” Well, that sounds stupid. Are there 6 million people in the planet who would buy what you would offer? Probably not. Probably 60,000. Why not go find them?

It makes no sense to me. To me, that level of understanding is critical. I very rarely see people do the work to say I understand your business enough that I could run it like it’s my own. That’s really what I’m always interested in.

If I woke up tomorrow knowing what I know owning your business, is this the decision that I would make? Yes or no? If my answer is no, I’d better get my head out of my ass and change a few things. Long answer to a short question.

Louis: Like always on this show. Another thing that I want to mention here, is that you’re mentioning Facebook as an example. Obviously, let’s say if Facebook by any miracle in five years disappear, the principle that you mentioned are the same.

Meaning, why on earth are you trying to sell to someone who’s never heard of your business before and expect a sale like this straight away? You know, out of the blue. Why don’t you build the relationship with this person, starting with a small video explaining what you do? Or focusing on the problem. Another longer video once they view the first one. And take the time to sell, right? Because once again, people hate to be sold to and they love to buy. Just take the time.

So, what you mentioned about Facebook works for anything else. In my opinion–I’m not an expert as you are–in my opinion this probably one of the biggest mistake I see happening online all the time. It’s like, why are you in a rush that much? Take your time!

Shawn: Right. The rest of monetization is fascinating to me. Like, how fast can we get that dollar from you? If I presented you with an offer. Said, okay, I will give you five dollars in the next five minutes. Or, I will give you five hundred over the next year. You’re not going to choose five dollars in five minutes-unless you’re starving.

Yet, I see that decision made that way all the time. I get it if you get a list of buyers you’re more likely later. I understand that. I know all the economics, but the reality is you’re gonna turn off a lot of people if you’re hammering the sale early. Or disguising the sale early. You know, how many funnels have we seen that’s a contest or a quiz? What type of X are you? At the end you get to opt in to find out to get hammered with junk for the next however long, right?

So, does it work? If it didn’t work, people wouldn’t be doing it. Is it the way I wanna run a business? No. I really don’t. From a principles perspective to further your point … I’ll use Facebook and Google as references, just cause that’s managed tens of billions of dollars between them. But any source of traffic anywhere the rules are the same. These are just two of the big players.

You wanna go do some niche specific CPA networks, same idea. If you wanna go publish a really high quality article on Medium, same idea. Right? For me it’s about leading with value, connecting with the people who you actually can contribute to, establishing that relationship somehow or way that’s authentic as it can possibly be and then see where it goes. I don’t know how to engineer success differently, I guess, is how I put it.

I say a lot, I’m a better editor than a writer. Meaning that if you show me your business I can do a lot more with that than if you put me in a room and was like hey, make up a business! I’m not as good at that. So, it’s easier to look at something someone else is doing, and say okay, I know how to structure this in a way that can be successful and find the value and share that value.

Then when people raise their hand, having responded to that value, to have a deeper conversation with them. That’s very easy to do. But to just say everybody gets everything all the time as fast as I can puke it on them? Yeah, that’s not my game.

Louis: As a marketer, as an agency owner, as someone who was thinking of getting into paid traffic, how do I move from the menial task of doing … if you task in AdWords, moving on to Facebook and all, to like the creativity, the strategy side? How do I move up a layer, so that I don’t lose my job or I don’t become redundant?

Yeah, this is a great question. One thing I don’t think the machines are ever going to be able to do. Two things I don’t think they’re ever going to be able to do as well as humans, unless they just do it with brute force, is craft an expression of an offer well. In a way that’s interesting, and frame the expression of that offer in a way that’s interesting. Like those are two highly mental level conceptual things that human beings know how to do. I don’t see the machines doing that.

So, I think learning basic communication skills, reading Cialdini’s stuff, certainly. I might read Robert Greene’s stuff on power as well, just because there’s some intellectually interesting things there. Neil Strauss has written some really interesting stuff on framing and pre-framing. When he wrote the book The Game, I guess a lot of the pick up artist scene is about framing an it’s an interesting concept. That’s meta level stuff the machines aren’t going to figure that out.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that I woke up tomorrow and I didn’t really have any experience and I wanted to learn how to do, we’ll just choose Facebook. I wanted to become a Facebook marketing specialist. Sure, I have to learn the mechanics. There’s some basics. Audience targeting, getting that right. Sort of ideal audience sizes.

I need to know the rules of the game I’m playing, at a fundamental level. Know where the edges are. But what I really need to be able to do is craft a message that’s intriguing to the person that I care about reaching. A machine’s really not going to do that for me. Again, we can brute force it, and that’s why dynamic creative optimization is.

You know, 30 different variables, 2,460 potential combinations. Just hammer a large audience with variables to see what wins. Okay. But even then somebody has to write the headlines. Somebody has to write the body copy. Somebody has to choose the images and have that sent. Machines aren’t going to do that. I don’t think.

I would spend my time there. How can I craft an expression of the idea? Because this is the number nobody talks about outside the direct response world, especially when they’re selling something about direct response, is 80% of all offers fail. Everybody knows that. 80% fail. Not 80% of products fail. The offer is the expression of the product. 80% of offers fail, so you need to get pretty good at writing offers. And articulating offers. It could be written, could be verbal, could be video.

We’re not gonna find a machine tomorrow, I don’t even think 50 years from now, that does that as well as a human being does. To really think, what’s valuable here? Who’s it valuable to? How is it valuable? What’s the external pain that they have that makes this valuable? What’s the internal manifestation, the emotional tug that creates? Machines aren’t going to do that. Human beings are uniquely qualified to do that.

I think that’s where we can do so much better than we have been doing. Let the machines do the work that they do, that’s fine. Let’s all of us start locking ourselves in rooms, trying to come up with the best expressions of things that actually matter for our fellow human beings and figuring out interesting ways to share those with each other. Machines can do everything else.

Louis: Another point on that related to the strategy side, is something I remember from a guest that I interviewed, David Baker. He talks about the concept of if you’re an agency owner, or freelancer, or consultant, try to be paid to think not to do. That stuck with me because that’s exactly what I used to do in my consulting business. I used to be paid to do stuff, and never really to think.

If you really remove the layers after layers, what you should really be paid to do is to think. Because as you said, it’s very unlikely that machines can perform this super meta, super complex task, such as thinking about your user as like, interviewing them to extract what triggers them. The emotions. It’s so in depth that it’s very difficult to foresee machines doing that as well as we are.

Therefore if you own a PPC Agency maybe you should stop charging for this automation to reporting or whatever, because it’s just the menial task that a machine can do. Maybe can you should start charging for understanding what products you’re trying to sell in the business. Understanding what type of offers you should get started. Understanding how to be in the right funnel, based on the channels that the company’s facing, and all of those questions.

Shawn: There’s a great story. I’ve heard it expressed this way. Company X has this machine that their whole company depends on it. Machine breaks down, there’s one guy in the world that knows how to fix em. They fly him in. He takes out a screwdriver, he turns one screw, and the machine is back up and running. He sends an invoice. Fixed machine – $10,000.00.

CEO looks at the invoice, thinks it seems like a lot, sends it back to him and says would you mind doing this as a line item invoice for additional detail? The guy sends it back and it says, 1 screwdriver $10.00, knowing where to put screwdriver $9,990.00.

That’s the game here. I see my Facebook feeds full of it, anybody can start an agency tomorrow. Anybody can write the lead magnet about five ways to grow your agency. Anybody can do all of that stuff. But the number of people who’ve been doing it for a couple of decades? That’s not a lot.

It’s one of those things–I look around and I see, sure, the barrier to entry here is pretty low. There isn’t a good feedback loop in this business to weed out the low performers. A lot of fields have that. Athletics have that. If you’re not a great football player you’re probably not gonna be playing for the Patriots, kinda thing. There’s a self-correcting mechanism in there.

There are plenty of people willing to pay low dollar rates for really bad work. So, there’s always going to be a subset of people who don’t do work very well. Years ago I had a client who fired us. Not fired, but moved from us to someone. I went and looked at their site and they, no joke, they did landing page design and dog walking. I was like, there it is, I’ve lost to someone who does… This was a long time ago. Landing page design and dog walking. How much lower do I go?

Louis: Nice offer.

Shawn: It’s good.

Louis: I’m curious to know, as you said, you mentioned the barrier to entry to create an agency is zero at this stage. You buy a domain name, you get it for free from GoDaddy. You have your laptop, you can start an agency tomorrow. But you said, there are not a lot of people who have run an agency for 20 years, almost 20 years, as you’ve been doing. Which is why I mentioned it in the intro.

So, to move from the practical things we’ve been talking about towards yourself. If you can pinpoint one event that summarizes who you are? Because that takes some guts to have one business, to run it for 20 years. It takes some guts to focus on those first principles and say no to a lot of the bullshit out there. It takes some guts to do all of that, right? If you can choose one event that made you who you are today, that summarizes your personality, what would it be?

Shawn: So, I wasn’t supposed to do this, right? There was a very clear defining event. I went to graduate school. I have a Masters Degree in International Relations, I was living in D.C. traveling all over the world, traveling all over the Middle East. Really, that’s what I was supposed to be doing.

I got a call in November. My father was diagnosed in the summer of 1998 with stage 3 lung cancer, did chemotherapy. I didn’t really understand cancer at the time. You know, they said stage 3 and he’s gonna have some treatment.

Looking back, my memory’s not great of it, but looking back it wasn’t overwhelming. November 3, 1998 got the call. I was at work in D.C. Got the call. It’s not stage 3, it’s stage 4. It’s terminal. You know, might have weeks, maybe a month. You need to come home. So, arrived home the next day.

My father was a lifelong martial artist. Black belt in Tae Kwan Do. He had intended to go to Korea the following summer to get his 8th degree black belt, in Korea, which would at the time would have made him one of two non-Koreans in the world to ever have had that happen. I came home expecting to say goodbye and my father had something he wanted to do.

He did the radiation, got better. Did the chemo. I don’t know that the chemo had any impact, but the condensed version of the story is that he lived until the following August. He went to Korea, he got his 8th-degree black belt. In the interim, I had to make a decision.

Am I going to go back to D.C.? Or am I going to come back home? My mother was here, and the writing was on the wall. Stage 4 lung cancer is terminal. Overwhelmingly so, he was going to be gone so I made that decision to come home.

I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I had savings from when I was working in D.C. Not a lot. Bought a house, had to be successful on day one. And was. The business started with design-build work. We’ve done about 450 design-build projects for big name places like the Guggenheim Museum, the government of Kuwait, Nestle Purina, and tons of smaller ones. That’s what we did for a long time, when there was money to be made in that world. That’s kind of a different world now.

This is probably the turning point, which is to me is hysterical in retrospect. I was too dumb at the time not to realize that design-build and marketing were separate, so every time we did a project … This kills me looking back. The honest answer, this is how dumb I was. We would do a design-build project but I would look at it and say, okay we built you this 15,000 SKU eCommerce store.

You probably need traffic for that, so then I would go out and learn how to do AdWords. Or learn whatever was happening at the time. Or be a guest CO for a long period of time. I would just go out and learn it and then do it for the client. That was just part of what we did. I just assumed that’s what you did.

This is so embarrassing. It wasn’t until 2008 when I had a conversation. I remember this so clearly. I had a conversation with a colleague at a conference, and we were talking about our respective businesses and he partnered with a marketing agency. I was like, what do you mean?

He was like, “Well, we do the design-build work, but we obviously don’t do the marketing work.” I was like, “Wait, what?” It baffled me that you would build somebody an asset that can make them money and then not use the asset to make money for them.

It’s just so funny now because that world is so bifurcated, it’s very rare that you do design-build and marketing. I was just too dumb to know that. So, that’s probably changed the trajectory for me. Because by the time 2010, 2012, rolled around, when the money that was to be made in this world was to be made in the marketing side, I’d been doing it for 10 years by then already.

And understood all parts of it. Understood what it meant to design and build something, that could then become an asset. But I also knew how to then take that and generate money with it. So, I’d love to tell you that I did that on purpose, because that was so smart. But the reality is, I was so dumb and I got so lucky that when it became really important, I had a decade of experience under my belt. Which was a total accident, so there’s the harsh reality of how smart I am.

Louis: I appreciate your honesty and thanks for sharing your story as well. It’s nice to hear where you’re coming from from a business perspective. It always adds a lot of context to the answer.

Shawn, you’ve been great. More than great, actually. You’ve talked about a lot of things I wasn’t expecting you to talk about, which is always kind of happening with great guests like yourself. But before we stop this episode, I have three questions I always ask my guests.

The first one we touched on already, but I think you might have some additional thoughts to it. What do you think marketers should learn today that will help them in the next 5, 10, 50 years?

Shawn: I think we have to figure out as a group, how to lead with value. Consumers systems now are just too sophisticated, and people are too sick and tired of being sold at every level. People don’t like to buy cars. Every industry is changing to reflect that. As consumers, we’re driving the train and the more marketers fight that and try to be an antagonistic relationship with consumers, the more difficult the battle is. For me, the future of marketing is to lead with value. Period.

The example that I think of a lot, and somebody that I’ve bought so much stuff from them that I don’t need. Partly, it’s just because I love the brand, which is a company called GORUCK. GORUCK, they make special forces grade, American made gear. Like, back packs and bags, and all this other stuff. I don’t need special forces grade back pack. I really don’t. I certainly don’t need two of them. I have five, if I wanna be honest.

I’ve spent thousands with GORUCK. They have never tried to sell me, once. They put it all out on the line. Here’s our product, here’s how it’s made. Super detailed. Here’s why it’s made this way. Here’s the founder’s story. It’s right out there. I look at that and I think to myself, I want to have some connection to that. You know?

I think the more sophisticated consumers get, the more valuable that’s going to be, and the more specialized it’s going to be. Because everybody is one click away from your competitor all the time, and if they don’t like the bullshit that you’re doing, and your competitor’s not doing it, they’re one click away. Conversely, if your competitor is doing it, you’re one click away. Right?

That’s the principle I would like to live the rest of my professional career by, is to lead with value.

Louis: So, maybe connecting to this answer. What are the top three resources you would recommend listeners today? And you mentioned a lot of them throughout your answers, but if you had to pinpoint the top three, what would they be?

Shawn: This is so hard because I’m a massive consumer of information.

Louis: I’ve noticed.

Shawn: I’m gonna limit this to digital marketers, so that’ll give myself a little room. I would start with Seth Godin’s marketing seminar. If you can afford the marketing seminar, do it. If that’s more money than you want to spend, Udemy has a condensed version where Seth does a short version of marketing seminar. It’s a couple hundred bucks and worth three or four thousand times that. I would start there to orient myself to what marketing really is all about.

As a digital marketer, the next place I would go. He’s a friend. Sort of full disclosure, he’s a dear friend of mine. But if I were going to do digital marketing and wanted to follow one person, I would go look and see what Andre Chaperon has done.

He has more integrity than the next thousand people that I know in this world. He’s just transparent, he’s a decent human being who happens to also be ridiculously smart and gets it. Gets the game, will explain the game to you, and will show you how to play the game the right way.

Third thing that I would do–I didn’t expect to say this one. The third thing that I would do is I would buy the book Value Proposition Design, and I would really go deep to learn how to create a Value Proposition Canvas. I teach entrepreneurship at a Vermont Technical College. I’ve used Value Proposition Design Canvas.

It is the single most effective tool that teaches students entrepreneurship as a framework. That tool really allows them to understand how you connect the needs of a market to a product, and how you refine that messaging. It’s such an elegant tool.

And you don’t have to pay a dime, you can buy the book or if you go to strategyzer.com, it’s S-T-R-A-T-E-G-Y-Z-E-R.com, they have free training on how to do one-hour webinars, they have great PDFs with question prompts for each part of it. Massive education in how to create a valuable … or to connect an audience and a Value Proposition together for free. Like, those are the three resources I’d recommend most.

Louis: Pretty good answer, I’d have to say. Shawn, thank you so much once again for your time. I think listeners will get a lot of value from your thinking about the principles, about your thinking to us like the futures of automation, how to deal with it, all the resources you mentioned throughout the episode.

So, you’ve been absolutely fantastic and I mean it. The last question then, I’m sure a lot of people would like to follow up with you, but where can listeners connect with you and learn more from you?

Shawn: I’m gonna give you two things. I have the most ridiculous website in the history of humankind, which the irony is not lost on me. It’s my name.com. So S-H-A-W-N-T-W-I-N-G.com. It is literally text. You can’t buy anything. It’s so ridiculous, but what I’ve tried to do is put into some sort of concise format, sort of who I am and what I do. Who I can help and who I can’t help.

Beyond that, if someone wants to reach out to me directly, my personal address is stwing, S-T-W-I-N-G@gmail.com. Happy to answer any questions. Fire away. If it’s, how do I become a better marketer? Watch your podcast, is my answer. You don’t have to send me that. Or listen to your podcast, that you don’t have to send me that question.

But, happy to reach out and connect with people. The one caveat I will always offer is, I can only tell you my experience. There are people who have different experience out there with a different opinion, and am I right or are they right? Everybody’s right. Everybody’s wrong. I can share what I think makes sense from my own experience, but that’s all it is. It’s one. One person’s opinion.

What I probably bring to the table more than anybody else is, if there’s a mistake to be made I’ve made it. And I can tell you how not to make it. That might be the greatest value that I can offer, right there.

Louis: I think it is. Shawn, once again, thank you very much for your time.

Shawn: Absolutely. It’s a pleasure.

Next: check out the 500+ marketing resources mentioned on the podcast over the years (sorted by the number of mentions and format).

Become a confident marketer that gets real results (without treating people like garbage)

Bonjour bonjour! I’m Louis Grenier I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).

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