Is Digital Marketing A Zero-Sum Game?

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Marketing is a zero-sum game, you can’t win new customers unless you take them away from someone else.

Dave Trott’s Predatory Thinking is an inspiring book. It’s a highly readable and engaging book full of brilliant anecdotes and short stories. It made me reflect on life and work. For me it has some great insights that are very salient to both digital marketing and conversion optimisation. Dave recently shared this quote on Twitter which sums up advertising and marketing in a sentence.

“All advertising is unwanted, so if you’re going to crash the party, bring champagne.” – Buzzman Time


Your content and value proposition needs to be compelling, and persuasive, as otherwise your visitors may well sign up or purchase from another website.

It may seem obvious, but you only need to look at a selection of websites and many don’t communicate clearly what makes them unique from their competitors. Many copy the standard template of carousel and product images without much thought to include persuasive content. Design is a framework to build and structure content, but it is content that engages and persuades.

“Because marketing, like war, is a zero-sum game. If you want something you have to take it from someone else.” – Dave Trott, Predatory Thinking

A/B Testing

But that doesn’t mean continually adding new elements to your website or value proposition. You can’t have everything at once. When you add something you also need to consider taking something away as otherwise you are in danger of ending up diluting your value proposition and confusing visitors. A/B testing different messages on separate landing pages can assist this process as it helps maintain a single-minded proposition.

Digital marketers spend a lot of time trying to formulate the right messages for their landing pages. However, as Dave Trott reminds us ordinary people:

  • Don’t notice stuff
  • Are only interested in one thing at a time
  • Are conditioned to filter out distractions which can cause banner blindness
  • And will probably do the opposite of what you want them to do.


The insight here is that first and foremost we need to think about “how do we even get noticed”. We need to workout how to get the visitor’s attention and not bombard them with multiple messages or distracting graphics that don’t nudge them towards our goal. Look at your bounce rates and time spent on pages to see if you are being noticed.

“£18.3 billion is spent yearly in the UK on all forms of advertising. 4% remembered positively, 7% remembered negatively, 89% not noticed or remembered”. – Dave Trott, Predatory Thinking

“What’s in it for them?” Marketing is about getting people to do something that we want them to do. This means that content needs to be persuasive and not just communicate what we want to tell visitors. Further, people are not rational agents and attention is largely determined by implicit (psychological) goals and so don’t just focus on rational reasons for a purchase.

Take A Step Back

Don’t assume our visitors know what we know. As experienced digital marketers we understand the websites and brands we work on much more than the average user. It’s important to take a step back and accept we won’t see our website like a customer. We know how to navigate to the account page to change privacy settings, but a first visitor may not know it exists. Maybe they don’t even care.

“We can’t believe the world isn’t exactly the same way for everyone else, as it is for us.” Dave Trott, Predatory Thinking

You need to get closer to your visitor’s view of the world by observing how they behave and listening to what they say about your website and brand. Find out why they came to your site and what tasks they were looking to complete. But also what may have prevented them from completing their task and what frustrations they have about their experience. There are so many tools on the market to obtain customer feedback there is no excuse for not capturing visitor opinions.

The role of advertising:

Advertising has the potential to give you an edge over your competitors, but it can’t turn a core non-user into a core user. A person has to be in the market for your product in the first place to have the potential to convert. Similarly if your landing page or advert can grab their attention you have the potential to influence visitors.

However, the best you can hope for is to create a propensity to convert. Most of our visitors won’t convert because we don’t tick all their requirements at this point in time. Some may return to our site if they remember us or if something grabs their attention that makes them believe we can help them achieve a current goal.

The key implication from the book for conversion rate optimisation is that you need a compelling, single-minded value proposition that is communicated using simple and imaginative messages. A useful framework for evaluating your website is the Wider Funnel’s Lift Model. This demonstrates visually how you can’t rely on reducing distractions, anxiety and creating urgency etc, if you don’t have a strong value proposition. Your brand simply won’t get off the ground.

Recommended Reading:

Predatory Thinking: A Masterclass in Out-Thinking the Competition – Dave Trott

Related posts: 

Skyrocket conversions by fixing your broken user experience – Process for fixing your user experience

How should you prioritise your A/B testing ideas? – A framework for evaluating your A/B testing ideas.

Which A/B testing tool should you choose? – Considers the criteria for selecting an A/B testing tool and looks at a survey of user rating for 9 of the most popular tools.

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