The marketing misconception: Why money can’t buy your customer’s love

Founders from non-marketing backgrounds are making a big mistake with marketing. Many view it as a coin-operated activity. Put in X dollars in marketing efforts, get back Y dollars in revenue. Switching from brand communications to brand conversations may help break the mindset.

For those who don’t know much about marketing, there is a perception that one marketing activity = one customer. 

This perception is common among staff who deal with external marketers. Startup founders are no less guilty. 

Some think of marketing as a science, some as an art. But it’s never a magic wand. Non-savvy founders looking to conjure up customers often treat it as a coin-operated machine that delivers a predetermined outcome. 

Common requests include: “we need to hit our EOM sales quota, can we get some paid ads up on Instagram?” and “no one opened our last email, can we send it again? Maybe with a different subject line?”.

No matter how dry, esoteric, or difficult to predict marketing can be, its intention is to create long-term relationships and meaningful engagement. Not one-time transactions.

In stark contrast to the “coin in, customer out” perception, even successful marketing campaigns are beset by diminishing returns. Initial spend may yield a high return (in comparison to the 0 generated revenue you would have had without it). As you funnel more and more into one channel, returns taper off. Eventually, you’ll be spending $1 while yielding less than $1 in revenue.

There is only so much value you can squeeze out of a campaign before engagement plummets. 

This is the nature of the beast. Just like love, taste, and happiness, money can’t buy customers. 

Race to the bottom

How often do you, as a consumer, reach inbox zero? When was the last time you sat down with a coffee and said “time to catch up on my promotional emails!”. 

The endless torrent of email marketing is a classic example of the coin-operated mentality that everyone with a WiFi connection is familiar with. 

Most outgoing emails will have some kind of return. Send out a discount or a checkout reminder and you’ll probably secure a handful of sales. This is fine, as long as mailing list members aren’t unsubscribing by the hundreds. And as long as the discount (or the cost of the campaign itself) isn’t undermining your bottom line.

You can see how easy it is to veer off strategy, or to fall into the trap of thinking you don’t need one. A shocking amount of modern businesses are still sending out generic mass emails that aren’t tailored to their customer segments. 

Being a daily or weekly email spammer isn’t the only problem, it’s that you’re also competing with other daily or weekly email spammers. You can try to shout louder in an email inbox using caps or clickbaity headers, but consumer brains register this kind of language as unwanted solicitation in approximately 0.01 seconds.

Adobe found in 2019 that 75% of marketing emails go unread and unopened. Globally, clickthrough rates sit at around 20%, and conversions around 2%. Those are narrow goals to shoot for already. 

That golden 2% can only be reached if you’re keeping the right customers engaged and on-side over long periods of time. 

Don’t forget the CTA

Blog posts are still getting widely confused with sales pitches by non-marketers everywhere. 

Longform content creation has exploded as a means of connecting with customers and acquiring new ones. A rookie mistake is to focus on selling over education.

On the most innocent end, they give something away for free (tips, professional advice, industry knowledge). On the more cynical end, they can be effective in cultivating likes, follows, trust, and a touch of obligation to buy in having got that something for free. 

But none of it matters if the content isn’t honest and meaningful. Neutrality is essential for trust. If you’re an all-natural shampoo brand that tells your audience all other shampoos are bad, you might get some readers to drink the Kool-Aid, but most will see right through the obvious ploy. 

And then there’s the scourge that is SEO.

Optimising content for search engines is fine and necessary. But businesses tend to think hitting a keyword count directly and automatically translates to higher traffic and boosted rankings.

For every SERP-ranking page, there are hundreds, thousands, even millions more SEO-optimised pages that never make the cut. Climbing the ranks of Google takes many months of dedicated strategy. And even then, there’s no guarantee that those finding your blog posts will buy what you’re selling. 


Brand activation events are often experiential in nature, immersing the consumer in the brand experience so they can connect with and remember it on a deeper level. 

But their non-digital nature makes them very hard to track, people might remember the event but not the host, and what they often manifest as is “making a scene”. 

London did this best with Westminster’s Marble Arch Mound. A campaign designed to keep tourist dollars rolling into the capital, Westminster spent £6 million on… a literal mound. There’s nothing else to say. It was a mound of grass. It was shut down after 6 months.

Innocent pulled a similar stunt down the road in Trafalgar Square, “rewilding” the space with 6000 temporary plants. The point of the marketing effort was to show the world how “green” the smoothie brand was. Slightly more engaging, slightly more on brand. But transporting 6000 plants for a one-day display only for them to die, decompose, and kick out methane as they did was greenwashy and kinda pointless. 

Communication vs. conversation 

The problem is that businesses still see people as dollar signs, not people. In early-stage startups, the overwhelming pressure of raising capital and then delivering returns on it exacerbates this blind pursuit. 

No one’s pretending they’re not out to make money. But they could probably make a lot more if they made their undeniably transactional nature feel less transactional. 

Rather than treating mail shots like slot machines, founders should think brand communications vs. brand conversations. 

  • Comms are one-way, bulletin-like announcements. Conversations flow back and forth.
  • Comms are vertical and purpose-driven, conversations are horizontal and meaning-driven.
  • Comms are business- or founder-focused, conversations are customer-focused (an easy switch out for founders is to stop saying “we”, “us” all over websites and throughout email campaigns, and start saying “you”). 

Finally, comms demand something, conversations offer something. Every point of contact should make a customer feel valued and respected. 

Not annoyed, overwhelmed, or like a giant walking dollar sign.

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