All I could do was watch everything fall apart. With each passing week our emails were reaching less of our subscribers. Our engagement was cooked. The amount of people leaving our email list would soon outpace the rate we could replace them. Our “unsubscribes” were spiraling out of control.
What was happening? As head of growth, it was on me to come up with an answer. Maybe this was just the expected drop off rate as our email list was growing? Maybe we’d “exhausted” our list by sending too many offers?
But it wasn't any of these. We had a healthy list. We never sent spam. Up to this point, everything had been running perfectly.
If you’re new to email and automation, the truth is, things can go south pretty quickly. Often, like I was, you can only watch on helplessly as your list disintegrates in front of you.
Unsubscribes and low engagement, as I experienced early in my career, are bad enough in isolation. What makes it worse is when you don’t know why it’s happening.
But what causes this? How can something as simple as sending a few emails so often end in disaster? I’d later realize that what we were experiencing was something I now refer to as the “top-down cascade”.
The top-down cascade typically looks like this:
But after some time adding new campaigns and building automations these simple elements compound. Soon, there’s a spider-web of interrelationships. Before you know it, you’ve lost the full picture of how it all fits together.
One small detail can be overlooked in an automation and hundreds of subscribers are removed from the database. Or a seemingly insignificant element is ignored in a subscriber segment and your campaign is sent to the completely wrong audience.
Once your open rates start falling, it becomes harder to reverse the process. Once people start unsubscribing it becomes even more likely that you will lose more in the future. You soon realize these types of self-compounding effects become a defining feature of your email automation setup.
This combination of compounding simplicity, nonlinear effects, and feedback loops are the hallmark traits of advanced email marketing automation. These same traits just so happen to be precisely what Professor Paul Cilliers lists as defining features of complexity in his 2000 paper “What can we learn from a theory of complexity?”.,
While it definitely isn’t rocket science, setting up email marketing automation does possess a certain level of complexity. Look inside any reasonably sophisticated email marketing software (EMS) account, and you’ll find several automated sequences, with dozens of interconnected components and processes running simultaneously.
At a certain point with email and automation, we seem to cross a bridge. We go from simply sending emails, to managing a system with dozens of interacting components.
This isn’t a bad thing in itself - it only becomes a problem when we fail to recognize we’ve arrived at that point. When we are unaware the above processes are taking place we expose ourselves to the risks of the top-down cascade.
As things become more complex, they can more easily get out of hand:
The first time I came across the top-down cascade, I didn’t understand what was happening. After a frustrating few weeks thinking it through, the answer came from an unlikely place. I realized what was happening to our email list was actually something I was already familiar with.
After obtaining the relevant degree in my early twenties, I worked briefly as an Ecologist with the Australian Government. Half a decade studying taxonomy, population dynamics, plus time in the field for study and work had given me an understanding of how natural systems work.
When I experienced the top-down cascade for myself, there weren’t really any adequate terms in marketing or business to describe what had happened. On the other hand, the concepts and analogies for the same process I’d studied and observed in Ecology proved extremely helpful.
We’re all familiar with the idea of an “ecosystem collapse”. Whether via oil spill or bulldozer, we know how nature falls apart when we stress the system to its limits. Just like those collapses, a similar “cascade” seemed to be happening in our email database. Just like a collapsing ecosystem, our list was slowly dying.
All the factors were there. We had a replacement rate (churn), mortalities (unsubscribes) and fecundity (rate of new entrants). Just like an ecosystem, there was an overall health that needed to be managed. Just like an ecosystem, something had gone wrong at the foundations.
I saw that in order to avoid the top-down cascade, looking to nature’s solutions may be our best bet. After all, the classic “complex system” is nature itself. The best examples of Cillier’s hallmark traits of compounding simplicity, non-linear effects and feedback loops are best found in the forests, oceans and gardens that surround us every day.
Mine wasn’t an original conclusion. You don’t have to look far to see just how often nature is cited as the genesis for innovation.
While walking his dog in the Alps, Swiss engineer George de Mestral famously conceived the idea for Velcro. Noticing the way burrs would stick to his pet’s fur, he came up with the concept for the now widely known hook-and-loop fastener, patented in 1955.,
Another example is the bullet train. When Japanese engineers found that regular-shaped trains produced dangerous sonic booms entering tunnels at high speeds they sought an alternative design. Looking to nature, the engineers turned to the beak of the Kingfisher as inspiration. The characteristic bullet train shape we see today not only solved the sonic boom issue, but reduced electricity usage and allowed even higher speeds of travel due to being more aerodynamic.
This natural inspiration isn’t a recent practice. Even centuries earlier, Leonardo da Vinci’s studies on the flight of birds led to his schematics of an early flying machine he dubbed the “Ornithopter”. In contemporary times, the University of London looks again to birds to further improve the mechanics of flight. Mimicking the peregrine falcon, the world’s fastest flying bird, researchers have developed 3D-printed polymer filaments designed after the falcon’s wing-tip feathers, improving safety and preventing engine stalling.,
This design approach, today often referred to as “Biomimicry”, was organized into a formal structure in 2006 to promote the approach. Today, the Biomimicry Institute’s “Ask Nature” online resource documents hundreds of case studies where nature has been cited as the genesis to solutions for complex design and engineering challenges.
The popularity of the discipline grows yearly, nearly matching the number of elegant solutions it’s yielded. Centuries later, it seems da Vinci’s convictions were correct, in that “… human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous”.
In searching for solutions to our problems we often try to reinvent the wheel, but the most elegant design solutions are right around us all the time. They’re stress-tested and perfected by billions of years of evolution and countless generations of trial and error, yielding solutions perfectly fit for their environment. The biomimetic approach recognizes this and seeks to simply observe what solutions are already present in the natural world.
Yet for all its virtues this approach has been somewhat overlooked in marketing and business. This is surprising, as there are likely parallels to be drawn between the most effective growth systems we see in business and the spectacularly successful growth systems that surround us every day in the natural world.
Why haven’t we looked more toward nature to inform the way we grow our businesses? After all, the sole function of marketing is growth. Where better to imitate nature than in the design of a system intended, from its basic purpose, for growth?
Rory Sutherland, Creative Director at advertising agency Ogilvy, reflected on this oversight in his 2019 book “Alchemy”, writing “My analogy between signalling in the biological world and advertising in the commercial world may explain something I have noticed for years: if you talk to economists, they tend to hate advertising and barely understand it at all, while if you talk to biologists they understand it perfectly".
Ogilvy’s observation hits the right notes, but the broader idea of the “market as an ecosystem” yields plenty of other parallels:
There are many others. Admittedly, some of these analogies are somewhat superficial. But it was these connections that eventually led me to consider how this model might apply specifically in an email marketing context.
I began looking at the problem more and more through the lens of the email list as an ecosystem. If this were true, what would it mean for improving the overall health of the list? What would it mean for attracting new subscribers? How could we best mimic the growth patterns we find in nature?
There was clear value in this model for helping to solve the problems I was encountering every day with my work. Yet I wasn't prepared for just how valuable it would become.
It was through this lens that I was able to solve the problem of the top-down cascade. I had already come to the conclusion that there was something wrong with the foundations of our email list. As we’ll later explore, I discovered that those foundations were poor engagement and retention.
Once I had figured out exactly what those foundations needed to be, everything became easier. Once we found solutions to improve these two factors, the top-down cascade became a non-issue.
Since then, where other marketers have seemed to fall into many of the pitfalls and dangers of the channel, I’ve been able to sidestep them. I could actually avoid this all-too-common scenario of a deluge of unsubscribes and a downward spiral of engagement.
But I was able to do much more than simply avoid these risks. I soon discovered that laying this foundation at the beginning was the key to getting the most out of the channel.
While I initially started applying principles from ecosystems to avoid outcomes like the top-down cascade, in truth the biggest benefits came as something of a side-effect. In copying nature to avoid catastrophe, I also found a highly effective system for growth in general.
After implementing various forms of Natural Orders for almost a decade, I’ve seen how powerful this system can be as an email marketing automation strategy. I’ve seen it used to usher in dozens of new products to market, double revenue for a business over the space of a year, and even launch a new seven-figure venture. As of writing, various forms of the Natural Orders system are generating millions of dollars in sales for small online businesses across the USA, the UK and Oceania.
I’m now convinced that progressing an email list’s development, just as we would see in the natural world, is the best way to achieve the greatest profitability and most robust security over the long-term. Again, it was a concept from ecology that proved more useful than anything I could find in business and marketing.
By mimicking the stages of development of an ecosystem, we use the proven patterns of growth in nature to avoid the common causes of collapse and failure that surprise so many new to the channel. In doing this, we build an email marketing strategy designed from the beginning for continual growth.
Ecologists refer to these natural ecosystem progressions as the “Stages of Succession". At its most basic point, an ecosystem starts with bare rock. Soon, fungi and microorganisms anchor in the cracks to form the first layer. As these proliferate, they break down the rock to form soil.
The Stages of Succession are well studied, and it’s known that only by progressing first through the early stages can the later stages be reached. It’s not possible to go straight from rocks to rainforest.
Just like Cillier’s complex systems, this strategy specifically addresses the mechanisms underlying the top-down cascade:
On that last point, it’s this in-built ability to grow and scale that ultimately compelled me to write this book. Let’s take a look at exactly how Natural Orders can take your email marketing automation strategy, and the growth of your business, to the next level.
The first stage – Dispersal – is where we build our email list foundations. Just like an ecosystem, we need to make sure we’re creating an environment where new entrants not only visit but want to stick around. We do this by ensuring that we always deliver value with every email we send.
Doing so solves the top-down cascade. You won’t have to worry about your subscribers leaving en masse, or your engagement slowly dwindling to nothing. You also won’t have to worry about having access to your market taken away from you - the “bottom-up” cascade we’ll also cover.
Building these strong foundations isn’t just essential, it also opens you to the other benefits that come with a risk-free business. By building a healthy and engaged email list, you’ll create an asset that can increase your valuation, and allows you to take offers direct-to-market with an audience you actually own and control. With a healthy email list comes an on-demand traffic source you can direct anywhere online, influencing social media algorithms, creating partnerships, and freeing you from the whims of the almighty algorithm.
With Stage I complete, engagement and retention are at a high baseline. The Recruitment stage is where we then focus on maximizing conversions. Looking at our email list again as an ecosystem, only a certain number of entrants will reside there permanently, or “establish”. Similarly, there will be many subscribers joining our email list, but only a percentage of those will purchase our products or services. By understanding the factors influencing that outcome, we can systematically improve conversions and revenue.
To do this, we’ll build automations that collect data revealing more about our customer avatar and their journey to purchase. With this data, we’ll have the knowledge of how to best segment your audience, which allows us to send highly personalized offers. This superior timing and relevance is by far the best method to improve conversions.
Setting up the recruitment stage gives you your first glimpses of what it’s like to have an automated system generate sales for you, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also grants you the ability to create a truly “data-driven” marketing strategy, beyond just a simple buzzword. Not only will the data we’re collecting about our customers help improve conversions, it will allow you to define metrics and KPIs that tie back to goals, which can increase the accountability of team members assigned responsibility to those numbers.
The system we’ve built by this point will now be able to reveal and exploit new revenue opportunities that couldn’t possibly have been known previously. With a surfeit of data, healthy foundations and regular sales, we’ll finally be in a position to make more strategic marketing decisions.
Just like in an ecosystem, there are certain individuals that produce outsized effects. The most successful businesses in the world, just like the most productive ecosystems, are the ones that can leverage the largest possible returns from these key individuals.
In Establishment, we’ll leverage the patterns of growth shared between both natural systems and your email database to identify your top customers, and double down on them with advanced automations. The strategies in this stage are designed to optimize revenue and finally realize the full potential of what email marketing and automation have to offer.
The table below shows an overview of the Natural Orders system, the goals of each stage, how we achieve them, and the automations we build.
Among all the satisfactions that come from working for yourself, there’s really nothing that beats waking to find that the system you’ve built has generated new sales. Admittedly, this idea of building a business that sells by itself is something of a search for the golden fleece. Yet it was what began my fascination with marketing automation, and by extension, email.
When properly used, we can in fact get quite close to what seems like an impossible goal. The system works on it’s own, it generates sales, and it can definitely take your business to the next level.
But it’s the perspective shift that comes with this pursuit that is truly valuable. In fact, it can be one of the most transformative of your business life. Investing in email and automation is the easiest step you can take from working in your business, to working on your business. The automations we’ll build with Natural Orders will help you decouple your time from your income. This alone should be worth the time.
"There's no clearer guide to getting maximum results and impact from email.
This book will change the way you think about email marketing automation in your business"
— Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable