Legibility: Seeing the Forest for the Trees in Email Automation

"Technique denies mystery a priori. The mysterious is merely that which has not yet been technicized" — Jacques Ellul

Waldsterben roughly translates to “forest death”.

But unlike most German-English loan words, this one is relatively recent. First appearing around the middle of the 20th century, it saw wide usage around the same time as the collapse of the massive, state-planned forest plantations across Europe, and later, North America. 

Many of these collapsing European forests, first planted in the mid-18th century, were the result of the first applications of “scientific forestry” practices. Around that time, Prussian and Saxon forest managers were devising methods to more precisely catalog the amount of harvestable timber in their forests. 

This may sound mundane to a contemporary, with our increasing emphasis on data and measurement. But in the 18th century these techniques were cutting-edge. Today, most of us operate on the premise that everything we know can ultimately be broken down into components and “measured”. But joined with this lay a hidden assumption: that the only things which are real, are those things which we can measure

The cult 1999 book Seeing Like a State addresses this hidden assumption. According to author James C. Scott there’s a type of blindness that can occur when we become over-zealous in our focus on data and measurement. Taken to the extreme, Scott explains how this particular type of blindness has resulted in many of the major planning and management catastrophes of the 20th century. 

The waldsterben is an illustrative example. As the technique of the proto-German forest managers advanced, this led to massive tables of data, grouped into harvestable tree species, with growth, yield and revenue projections. It was maybe the first ever example of “big data”. 

Their efforts paid off, with timber output increasing in both volume and reliability. From there, these data-minded managers sought to further improve the efficiency of these forest “systems” they managed. 

As they continually optimized toward a single metric of “increased output of timber”, the data “blindness” began to take hold. They could now only see the forest in terms of how they were measuring it. According to Scott, “the underbrush was cleared, the number of species was reduced (often to monoculture), and plantings were done simultaneously and in straight rows on large tracts”.

The resulting aesthetic became representative of the type of blindness that Seeing Like a State makes lucid: long running avenues of trees, uniform in size and species, easily accessible, measurable, and completely without surprise or complexity. Again via Scott, it was at this point that they “… transform(ed) the real, diverse, and chaotic old- growth forest into a new, more uniform forest that closely resembled the administrative grid of its techniques”. 

The “legible” forest plantation. Credit: Willem van Aken, CSIRO

Scott describes the driving force behind this aesthetic as the seeking out of “legibility”: the physical manifestation of this problem of data blindness. For the forest managers, a neatly organized row of trees is legible, as opposed to a comparatively complex — and therefore illegible forest — growing unperturbed.

For a while, these new, highly legible forests were a success. They did again increase timber yields in the short term. The mechanical structure in which they were laid out suited the mechanical technique with which they were managed: their navigable laneways provided more easy access for harvest and better matched the zoning and categorization of the tables of data kept in central planning. 

But in organizing the forest toward this single-metric view, it had also transformed it. Its illegible aspects were reduced or eliminated wherever possible. The countless other uses and products of the forest were being slowly obliterated: “The monocropped forest was a disaster for peasants who were now deprived of all the grazing, food, raw materials, and medicines that the earlier forest ecology had afforded”. 

These were precisely the aspects that failed to align with the central metric of “output of timber”. The utilitarian spruce was planted in place of the previous diverse array of tree species. Fallen trees were cleared. Rotting logs and snags were removed. Every control you can think of was employed to maintain the uniform aesthetic of legibility.

It wasn’t until almost a hundred years later that these illegible factors would lead to the easy discovery of Waldsterben. The removal of all other tree species eliminated most animal habitats. The clearing of logs and snags on the forest floor led to a reduction of insects, fungi and bacteria in the already reduced leaf litter. The speed of decomposition slowed, leading to nutrient-poor soils. As the soil compacted from the single species of tree, diversity suffered further, a feedback loop spiraling downward, resulting in further reduction in species diversity. 

This was except of course for the singular spruce, which, laid out in their uniform rows, were set like a feast for the previously limited population of insect “pests” (as the planners had defined them). Many of these insects had evolved to specialize alongside the spruce, locked in a complex relationship of competition spanning perhaps a million of years or more. But now the legible forest, optimized relentlessly toward its single metric, broke the balance of this ancient struggle, the gates swung open, encouraging plague-like populations of the very “pests” the system had first sought to reduce via its interventions.

The forest was on life support. The system that had once thrived on its own was now entirely dependent on direct human management. It required constant action to keep it alive, with frequent administration of pesticides, fungicides and other external chemicals. Vulnerable and exposed, from there it only took little to destroy the forests entirely, a top-down cascade — a waldsterben — to match the top-down legibility that had been imposed upon it. 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Scott makes the point that the mistake of legibility is in trying to impose an idealized vision of order onto a complex, messy reality. In trying to reduce the “illegible” we violently dismantle and reduce a system to visually align it with our own goals. Like the planned rows of trees in a plantation, in doing so we lose many of the features that are essential to that system’s complex functioning. 

The lessons of legibility apply to the Natural Orders system we’ve outlined in this book. When it comes to marketing, a skillset like so many others increasingly defined by data and measurement, Scott’s idea of legibility has daily implications for our decision making. Now more than ever, Scott’s ideas can help us avoid the mistakes that so often accompany optimizing metrics and interpreting data. 

In the posts I've published here on Symbios Growth Automation, I've attempted to guide you in avoiding the causes of collapse so common to the channel — the top-down and bottom-up cascades. I also show you how to build the most profitable strategy possible by focusing first on collecting data; then personalizing offers; then compounding the value of your top customers. 

But avoiding the mistakes of legibility is also central to the Natural Orders system we use. The primary objective of marketing is always going to be about increasing the bottom line. But when we become tunnel-visioned about optimizing toward this single metric is when we come unstuck.

So rather than imposing an idealized, one-size-fits-all automation solution, I've gone to efforts to ensure that the system we build is the result of gradual and sustainable growth from strong foundations. I have attempted to guide you in how to best grow an email marketing ecosystem, a Walled Garden, that's safeguarded against our in-built tendency toward shaping it into what appears a more legible aesthetic.

With Natural Orders we avoid this in several ways.

  • The competitive practices of the dominant “information empires” places small business owners at a disadvantage. We are exposed to platform risk — the bottom-up cascade — the potential for our audiences to be taken away from us without recourse.

Building an email list solves this problem to a great extent. However, it must be approached with an understanding of why these Walled Gardens are so successful in the first place: their competitive advantage depends entirely upon a fervent focus on the customer experience above all else. 

The legible way to build an email list would be to optimize relentlessly toward improving your website's TSC. This would mean crowding it with intrusive pop-ups or slide-ins, littering your copy with aggressive or dishonest CTAs, or on the other end of the spectrum, reducing the site to little more than a subscription form. 

Such single-minded reductionism would have myriad consequences. The overall brand experience would be repulsive for new users. In optimizing only for TSC, we’d destroy the very thing we were working towards: the positive user experience we need in order to be competitive online. Those whom we did manage to coerce into subscribing would likely not be a valuable customer longer term.

The better approach is to temper our subscription CTAs with a focus on value for our site visitors. By setting the standard for the relationship with our subscribers as one based on value, we build a higher quality list and set a stronger foundation for buying behavior later.

  • It is often possible to quickly win sales from new subscribers. But optimizing for sales beyond anything else at this early stage would result in what I termed the top-down cascade.

The legible way to approach new subscribers would be to email them with a sales pitch immediately after sign-up. Just like the first generation of legible European forests, everything would seem great at first. But over time, the impacts of our interventions would begin to show. 

Subscribers would soon tire of the one-sided relationship of your emails. They'll be less likely to interact, and more likely to unsubscribe. The “engagement-retention feedback loop” of our email list would eventually lead to its collapse.

For this reason, we focus instead on always providing value to subscribers — to educate, inspire and entertain. In using the Five Awareness States as a guide, the experience of a new subscriber will always be that of value. The entire health of the system is set at a high baseline. 

After building the Awareness Automation, we also take our first step toward personalizing our email automation strategy for our subscribers. But we also move further into the world of data and measurement, where the tendency toward legibility increases further.

  • We focus on revealing the Black Box of marketing:  defining our customer avatar and the journey they take to purchase. We deliver value to our subscribers, while simultaneously developing them into paying customers. 

Consider if we had gone with the legible approach in earlier stages. In order to maximize conversions, we spam our subscribers with pitches and offers as frequently and as soon after signup as possible. Again, this legible optimization toward "increased sales" may have yielded some results in the short term. 

But even if we could avoid the top-down cascade of Dispersal, over the medium to long-term our strategy simply wouldn’t be able to maximize for the very metric we believed we were optimizing towards. Just as a messy, real-life forest is more “productive” than a planned and managed one, so too would our short-sighted email strategy have been capped in its potential. 

It would be predicated on sending offers to a single group of subscribers, with no ability to speak directly to the different segments of our market. With a focus on offers, not value, we’d eventually have an exhausted list of one-time buyers, with no strong relationship with the brand or further interest in what we had to spam them with. Our potential for conversion would be quickly reached.

Instead, we focus on personalization — improving the timing and relevance of the emails we send. We are focused on learning more about our market, and in doing so avoid the above outcomes while also providing an experience of value for our individual subscribers.

But we don't just provide value, as our timely and relevant messages play to the wants and needs of our segmented audience, producing better conversions. This realization of true maximal outputs is continued:

  • We explored ways we can make our ecosystem as productive as possible. We build strategies that exploit the distinct pattern in which sales revenue is distributed in an email database. By focusing on increasing the AOV and repeat purchases from our top customers, we take the most efficient path to improved revenue. 

This again runs contrary to the legible path we've traced so far. For many small online business owners, when they think about growing their business the first thing that often comes to mind is to get “more traffic”. But this idea is as pervasive as it is misleading. Rarely is it the most direct path.

It is true that improving traffic will increase input to your system. But in practice, maximizing traffic should actually be one of the last steps we take. The system first needs to be optimized so that the traffic we send into it has the greatest likelihood of generating as much revenue as possible. 

To this end, the more efficient and profitable way to go about growing your business is actually to focus on your existing customers and improving their LTV. That way, we can first understand and then leverage our improved numbers to access previously prohibitively expensive paid traffic sources.

  • Finally, all efforts taken together, we avoid perhaps the most common of all mistakes in email marketing automation: the attempt to design a masterpiece automation from scratch. 

Playing the role of architect, of some auteur who will create the masterpiece automation from nothing, is a tempting fantasy. Yet if we've learnt anything from the previous examples, to do this without feedback is as grandiose as it is unrealistic. 

This, as with the other examples, represents the legible approach to email marketing automation. With it comes not only the potential for collapse, but the blind optimization toward ideals that may be better achieved with what may seem, at times, as the more lateral approach. 

Yet as we’ve seen, there are natural orders that underlie the structure of your email database. By revealing them and putting them to use, it’s possible to cultivate a Walled Garden of our own and in turn avoid the risks and competition that defines the current online business environment. Not only do we avoid risks, we actually build an email marketing automation strategy based on the same powerful principles that drive the abundant growth we see in the world that surrounds us every day. 

This is the strategy at the heart of Natural Orders.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Natural Orders: Email Marketing Automation for eCommerce & Small Online Business. Go here to learn more and receive early release updates.

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