The Power of Belief to Sabotage Your Marketing

Perhaps the worst product of modern education is that it leaves us unable to distinguish beliefs from reality – at least in principle. We hear people talk of having their own reality: “in my reality, global warming isn’t a thing.” When I was in college, I always offered to discuss it on the roof. Whatever sophomore was saying we each get our own reality was to be pushed off to see if gravity (which doesn’t care what we believe about it) gets the last word, or if something different happens in that person’s “reality” than in the one the rest of us all share. No one ever volunteered to be sacrificed to their beliefs, so I suggested their commitment to belief wasn’t as strong as their commitment to our shared reality, and that was that.

It’s tougher with businesses. Business stakeholders are often less accountable to other people. If we make decisions based on belief rather than reality, no one comes and carts us away and says “regrettably, we can’t issue this person a degree”. We reap the results of erroneous beliefs in other ways – lost revenue, lost opportunity. Our beliefs merely redistribute the information on why it’s happening, allocating cause to yet another belief. In other words, beliefs are self-supporting. If we lose to them, we never realize it, as long as belief itself keeps running our lives. I’m not knocking belief; I’m just saying that it’s not the way I recommend approaching one’s marketing.

Here’s why and how belief sabotages your marketing:

Belief Treats Hypotheticals as Real

Hypotheticals aren’t real; that’s a basic principle of reasoning (courtesy of Maximus the Confessor). But if a stakeholder is saying they believe something will or won’t work and therefore we shouldn’t do it, we are triply unprepared to challenge them. First, challenging beliefs, let alone the beliefs of someone about their own business is deemed impolite – you’re challenging their experience and accumulated wisdom – we’d sooner argue with a nun about the Bible. Second, it’s their dime – they get to spend it how they want – and belief is powerful enough that, often, we spend it on people who reinforce what we already believe. Third, you can’t argue with a hypothetical without appealing to another hypothetical – unless you’ve got experience; but then experience gets reinterpreted by belief: “I’m sure that worked for that business and that other business and that one too, but it won’t work for this one, because this is a different kind of business.” In short, belief can’t hear anything but other belief.

Belief Thrives on Inertia

Also, it’s easier to believe that a thing won’t work than to put in the time, energy, and money needed to get a thing to work; belief is often the means by which our own inertia keeps us from putting enough real effort into any one thing to achieve results. That’s because there’s a belief underlying the belief that a thing won’t work – namely, the belief that a thing can be effective without putting in much real effort in the first place. Belief is subtle; all our beliefs work to reinforce whatever we’re already committed to believing. They are the descriptions, not the basis, of how we live. Even the belief that we’re open minded and aren’t committed to many beliefs is a belief, not a reality. It often looks like an endless search for the answer, which often means we believe that a perfect answer exists, that it’s simple, and that looking for it is wiser than doing something imperfect that has a helpful but imperfect result. This was the key criticism leveled against the Gnostics in the 3rd century by Irenaeus of Lyons – that they are always seeking the truth, with no intent of ever arriving at it. Beliefs are a whole lifestyle choice, and they don’t care how smart we are. Belief is destiny; “as a man thinketh, so is he”. If we believe a thing we try will fail, it will surely fail, because we cannot possibly give it the same attention, energy, and devotion we give our beliefs. What we disbelieve is doomed for us, What we believe is likely to succeed may or may not do so, but we will never really notice unless somehow we have a system for challenging our core beliefs – the ones that are behind the things we’re aware of believing. Those unaccountable absolutes are stubborn and come out only with with the kind of discomfort one associates with fasting and prayer.

Belief Loves the Confirmation Fallacy

We believe that a thing works or does not work a certain way. The more a thing has the air of mystery, and the more people profit from encouraging that mystery, the more beliefs it encourages. Believers account for a good chunk of revenue for a lot of businesses; we have an economy that is highly invested in belief. For example: maybe we believe Google ranks pages based on a secret, highly technical set of adjustments, so we should put a lot of effort into SEO tweaks. If we just get it right, our business will take off and land on the front page for every search. Or maybe we believe that we’re already on the “first page”, because we type our company name into Google, and there it is on the first page. Or we believe that we should put most of our effort into customizing our home page, because we want that to rank highly, and so continually adding secondary pages in the form of blog posts is simply a waste of time; we’re sure home page rank comes mainly from what you do to the home page itself, so that’s where we focus our energy and thought. All of these beliefs are, of course, inaccurate. But we have lots of confirmation that they’re accurate. We have a friend who got on page one, and he’s not blogging; that means fresh, frequent, original content isn’t relevant. You can probably spot the fallacy. And the fun thing is that we keep believing it, even when Google says fresh, frequent, original content is the second most significant ranking factor; they must be pulling out leg. The confirmation fallacy drops the information that doesn’t fit the belief, and draws on the parts of an example that do support it. We believe in our own experience, but only PART of that experience – the part that supports the things we believe.

One Belief Spawns a Multitude

I spent two hours in a store and my party comprised the only customers during that time; I doubt our purchases paid for the overhead. The marketing person happened to be there and, after inquiring about what I do, began asking questions. I made several suggestions, and then one of the stakeholders ran up and said things like “Our customers aren’t in social media. They don’t respond to e-mail marketing or even have e-mail accounts, mainly. They’re all older people who still have land lines. We mail out a flyer – that’s all they’ll read. Nothing else works in our particular type of business. I’ve been doing this for years, and know this business, and that’s just how it is.” Of course, I politely observed that if you’re happy with the clientele you already have and aren’t interested in growing, then that’s a fine belief; it will serve you well. But if you’re interested in new clientele, then you don’t ask ‘who are my clients?’, but ‘who are the people we’re not reaching – the ones who don’t know us, who aren’t reading our flyer?’ The belief she was operating on is the confirmation fallacy – a thing has worked before, so that’s the thing that works; a thing hasn’t worked with this group of people, so it doesn’t work at all. Beliefs exist to “prove” themselves to us and sponsor even more ‘child’ beliefs. Like all living things, they strive to reproduce. Beliefs aren’t knowledge but, if all we have is beliefs, then we cling desperately to them since as though they were the same as knowing a thing. Without them, we would question the value of our own experience. What is it worth at all – these years, the experiences we’ve accumulated – if we don’t know more because of them?

Lives Written in the Ink of Our Beliefs

Beliefs will even drive us to confirm them. We’ll commit to “trying” a thing, but our disbelief will prevail. Hope will avail us nothing, when we disbelieve. Belief is too powerful. If we try something for a few weeks, and it doesn’t produce results, it’s also our belief that will determine our response. The man who still believes in it will put *more* effort in, not less – he’ll ask what can we do to make it work – he’ll accept that it’s an experiment and that you test your ground, learn, and refine your solution. In the end, not everything he does will work; but most of it will begin to, for him. The proverb is “The constant, gentle pressure of a tongue will break bone.” You keep up that belief and keep the pressure on, and most things will eventually yield. That’s how explosive new businesses get built. The people that believe a slight, infrequent pressure will yield results quickly arrive at reasonably derivative beliefs about why it wasn’t going to work, and they’re on to something else. In other words, the person who disbelieves a thing will try it for a short time and, when results are not immediate, abandon it for something else. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum. The quest for the bone that breaks with slight, infrequent pressure continues. One reason I don’t oppose all beliefs is that people seem built this way; instead, I try to take their beliefs into account and work with those. If they believe in a thing, and it doesn’t contradict reality, I say let’s put our effort there; if they disbelieve but are willing to ‘try’, I suggest we focus instead on what they do believe in. There are destructive beliefs (“nothing will work!” or “it has to be perfect”) and beliefs that are just harmless (if limiting) beliefs. Fighting the harmless ones is like trying to bowl a strike underwater.

Tearing Down the Prison of Beliefs

One of the ways I’m effective as a Marketing Director for other people’s businesses is that I ask business owners to yield their beliefs in the area of marketing, focus on what we know and what we don’t know, and give the strategy over to me. I ask them to let go. And I only get two responses:

1) yes – in which case we get to free the marketing of the company from the beliefs which have kept it from scaling all along. Most business stakeholders need to ‘let go’ in LOTS of areas, but marketing is a great place to start. What we do at MadPipe is not try simply to get someone more clients – of course we want that too – but our focus is bigger; we use marketing as a way to scale a business. Everything we do has that objective in mind. More customers is part of that, but you get a lot more customers when your beliefs about why you’re not getting customers fall away and we can focus on an objective, shared reality, and locate barriers to scale. Marketing is our entry point.

2) no is the other answer we get – “I can’t let go. I need to drive this. Actually, I need my beliefs to drive. Be my consultant in that.” OK, so we don’t say no to those gigs – at least not on that basis alone. What we do then is try to show the value, over time, of letting go. If we have to tear down the prison of beliefs brick by brick, then we do it that way. There’s really no other choice than working within beliefs but doing our best to challenge them one by one. Anything less is rooking someone for their money, and dumping the onus on their shoulders. I’ve heard so many, many professionals say, “Hey, they pay me to confirm what they want to do. I tell them what they want to hear. Why make life hard?” I wasn’t a yes-man in corporate life, and that’s not a way to differentiate MadPipe now. If someone wants an echo-chamber, they’re easy enough to come by. I prefer giving my clients a reason to thank me when I say “I don’t think that’s the way to go.” They know I won’t do it out of self-interest, a need to control things myself, or to get more of their money. And if they learn they can trust me to be straight with them, they have a powerful alternative to beliefs which, despite how smart and alert we are, are relentless in crawling into our ears and convincing us to defy gravity rather than work WITH it. I take my own medicine too, and have multiple advisors who challenge MY beliefs with what has been a pretty amazing degree of success. We’re all unbricking outselves, to a greater or lesser degree.

If any of this makes sense to you – if you aren’t pissed off that I said it, but find in it something of the common temptation that we all share, I’d love to hear from you – even if only a thumbs up or a shout out or a social share. And if you have a business you want to scale, and are tired of being your own Marketing Director or getting a lot of “yes” that just confirms but doesn’t challenge your beliefs, then let’s talk about working together.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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