Control Less, Nurture More: Rethinking How We Approach Marketing

It seems that every year we’re showered with new ways to exert control over our businesses, our customers, and ourselves. There are always new must-have sales funnels, frameworks for persuasion, and apps. There are new planners to use and new ways to declutter our digital landscapes.

Each new layer of control attempts to reduce uncertainty and increase the likelihood of success. Each layer helps us ignore our fear of failure for just a bit.

But in trying to find this sense of control and ignore our fear, we’ve lost touch with the natural systems of creation and exchange. Simply, our businesses have become tools for control instead of vehicles for trade.

How would our businesses be different if we tried to control less and nurture more?

I have some thoughts on that—but first, some history.

How my marketing tactics have evolved over time

I’ve been working for myself for over 12 years now. In the beginning, I blogged. The main way people consumed my blog was either by visiting the site (often daily) or by seeing my latest post in their RSS feed reader (if you’re unfamiliar, think Twitter for blog posts).

The main call-to-action was to subscribe to the RSS feed. There was no email list, no lead magnet, no complex webinar funnel. 

A year later, email lists were just starting to become more mainstream in the blogging world. Sending emails could be another way of communicating regularly with your readers. So I started a newsletter.

I signed up for MailChimp and started inviting people to subscribe.

I blogged and emailed and talked to people on Twitter. It wasn’t a marketing strategy, per se; it was just my way of being in the online world and it was enough to attract a fairly significant audience.

That’s when things started to go downhill.

My momentum as a writer and coach converged with a big wave of marketers sharing the “secrets” to accelerating success with email and social media. This is when “launching” and “lead magnets” became a thing. It’s when teleseminars—the precursor to the webinar—became relatively mainstream.

These marketers and their ideas got my attention. I mean, I was already doing well—going faster seemed like a no-brainer!

At first, it was great. Paying closer attention to how I was creating and sharing did accelerate my success in genuine ways. 

But once I started to pick up speed, I wanted to go even faster. I wanted a bigger audience and I wanted to make more money and I wanted… it all. And I certainly wasn’t interesting in losing anything I’d already achieved—I had to sustain my success or risk becoming a failure.

I needed to control my results.

So I dug in. I learned more and more about what to say, how to say it, and what order to say it in. 

I was still putting out good work and helping lots of people. It’s just that there was also a thick layer of control over the top of it all. If you were willing to dig through that muck, there was plenty of gold. But nobody likes digging through the muck.

I started to feel like I was losing control.

So, of course, I squeezed harder and tried to regain that control. I noticed that the more and more I squeezed, the fewer and fewer people were paying attention.

Eventually, it all got to be too much to bear (both for myself and for plenty of people who wanted to connect with me).

It’s taken over 4 years to dismantle the structures—both tactical and mental—that I’d built around control. And if I’m being honest, it’s still a work-in-progress. Every time an email or a podcast episode or an article “works,” I’m tempted to engineer that same result into the next one.

By the way, it’s absolutely possible to build an intentional and strategic marketing plan that nurtures instead of controls. And it’s a whole lot simpler than many people would have you believe. You can download our free marketing plan workbook to create a stronger marketing strategy for your business.

How do you dismantle those structures of control?

At the end of Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting The Attention Economy (spoilers), Odell proposes we pursue a “manifest dismantling,” deliberately disassembling structures that we’ve created in order to control the land, other people, animals, and our selves. 

Some of these structures are physical—damns that disrupt the breeding patterns of fish, parking lots constructed over ancient burial grounds, ports that decimate the habitat of coastal birds.

Others are technological, including the persuasive design components of the apps we use to “connect” with friends and family (and strangers on the internet).

The goal of manifest dismantling, as I read it, is not to eliminate damns or parking lots or shipping ports but, instead, to truly notice—and take care with—how the action we take impacts the world (natural, spiritual, cultural) we live in. 

By noticing and taking care, we can start to participate in the world instead of trying to control or dominate our particular patch of space—be it physical or mental.

That brings me back to marketing strategy…

(Or any other aspect of business-building that can be built on a foundation of control—which is all of them.)

Just like a parking lot or a port isn’t an act of control or domination in and of itself, an email list, a product launch, or a lead magnet on its own isn’t an act of control or domination either. I’m not suggesting you dismantle every marketing tactic you’re currently using or do away with approaching your marketing from a strategic perspective.

And I’m certainly not suggesting that you run your business naively or aimlessly.

I’m suggesting that you start to notice when you’re trying to control a particular outcome, relationship, or community.

When do you feel the urge to control?

How does your desire for control manifest? How do you act when you’re trying to dominate something or someone else? How does the urge to control feel in your body?

As I’ve tried to dismantle my own structures of control, I’ve started to reclaim the flow and satisfaction with my work and relationships that I felt in those early days of blogging. The difference, of course, is that I have a much, much bigger toolkit to play with.

I have new ways of creating, sharing, and relating. There are new questions to answer and far more stories to tell.

My goal now is to get creative with how I use the tools at my disposal to deepen the relationship that I have with you (readers, listeners, followers) and to forge new relationships along the way. I want to be a participant in the community and the conversations instead of a strong (wo)man exerting control of the community and conversation.

Ironically, as I lean into this posture of participation, I find I feel more empowered to lead than when I was trying to maintain control.

My participation is leadership and I can bring quite a bit to the conversation.

Participating isn’t lessening my power—it’s increasing it.

Dacher Keltner writes in The Power Paradox:

Groups give us power when we are enthusiastic, speak up, make bold assertions, and express an interest in others. Our capacity to influence rises when we practice kindness, express appreciation, cooperate, and dignify what others say and do. We are more likely to make a difference in the world when we are focused, articulate clear purposes and courses of action, and keep others on task. We rise in power when we provide calm and remind people of broader perspectives during times of stress, tell stories that calm during times of tension, and practice kind speech. Our opportunity for influence increases when we are open and ask great questions, listen to others with receptive minds, and offer playful ideas and novel perspectives.

Of course, knowing this can be its own challenge. Once we’re sold on the idea that participation creates power and influence, it’s easy to start trying to control that dynamic, too! Hence the “paradox” in the title of Keltner’s book.

Anyhow, what does this mean for your business and how you market it?

My first suggestion is to search all of the ways you’re currently trying to exert control over your business, yourself, or your community right now. Some will be obvious and you’ll have sensed there was something odd going on there for a while.

Other ways you’re trying to exert control will be much more subtle. It might be how you respond to an email from a prospect, how you engage with your team, or the variables you’re trying to solve for in your business model.

My next suggestion is to reconnect to the ways you love to participate in the loose community in your field, industry, or particular corner of the internet. Maybe you love to tell stories, share conversations with cool people, or teach technical information. Maybe you love to create art, produce silly videos, or build detailed tutorials. 

Take note of how that form of participation is received by others and how they answer back. Look for the call and response.

My final suggestion is to do the work of having real conversations with your customers or people who could be your customers. Invest time into getting to know people as people instead of wallets or likes or follows. Learn the questions they’re asking, the needs they have, and the desires that motivate them. 

Be receptive as well as creative. Be generous with your attention as well as with your knowledge or craft. 

Craft a strategy of participation and contribution instead of control and dominance.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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