One of the essential jobs for a marketer is figuring out why things happen. Why did this project take off, and that one flopped? The only thing worse than failing is learning the wrong lesson. Understanding your “locus of control” as a marketer can help in surprising ways.
Recently, I came across a LinkedIn post from Wil Reynolds about personal development in the face of bias (it can be found here). To summarize, Wil explained that he chose to respond to possible discrimination by doubling down on self-improvement, which has led to growth for his agency.
It’s a great message that will serve people well: focusing on excellence can overcome many barriers. Looking back on my life, I know that if I had spent more time growing myself rather than blaming others, I would be a lot further in life. But I also think there is more we can learn from reflecting on how what leads to our success or failure.
According to psychology, people make sense of events as being controlled from a “locus of control.” There are three loci of control:
Internal: events happen because of my choices, effort, and ability
External: events happening because of the preferences of others and outside forces
Chance: events are entirely random
Everyone has a bias to view the world through one of these three perspectives. We can flip between these views, but we each have a default. To reflect effectively, we should understand what these “loci of control” are, when to apply them, and how they can hurt us when implemented poorly.
Internal Locus of Control
An “internal locus of control” sees events as being dictated by your abilities, choices, and efforts. Comments like the following would fall under an internal locus of control:
- “The YouTube video was successful because it was well made.”
- “This advertisement is underperforming because I am not targeting the right keywords.”
- “The quality of our email determines the number of people who register for my event.”
You should think of the “internal” world as being your company, not just yourself. You don’t have control of everyone in your team or their performances, but you probably have significant influence. Besides, blaming others on your team for messing up a campaign leads to a toxic attitude.
Benefits of an Internal Locus of Control
Wil’s post does a spectacular job of outlining some of the benefits of an internal locus of control, but I will explain them more explicitly.
First, the internal locus of control means you have control. It is a lot easier to change yourself than change others. You don’t even have to wait for anyone else! Go practice, pick up a book, or search the internet for resources, and you will start making progress.
Focusing on your growth is never a mistake. Let’s say your blogs aren’t connecting – there are many reasons why this might be happening. Your writing skills may not be the most significant shortcoming, but improving is not going to hurt you! If you are a master at your craft, you can overcome many other obstacles.
These benefits are also longer lasting and more universal. Writing, salesmanship, data processing – these are fundamental skills that can be applied to marketing any product or service. Your newfound abilities will help you in more ways than you expect!
Dangers of an Internal Locus of Control
Leaning too heavily into an internal locus of control can become a problem if you experience a streak of success. You have earned your wins through a combination of hard work and years of training. While this is a satisfying story, it can also make you complacent and lose the hunger to improve. This is especially dangerous in marketing, where you need to evolve to keep up with trends and technology.
Taken to an extreme, this perspective can cause you to ignore the way bias affects others. “If I overcame barriers and prejudice, they aren’t that big of a deal, and other people should stop complaining!” This creeps into some conversations about privilege and opportunity.
(To be very clear: I do not believe Wil was advocating anything like this in his post. This is a general observation I have seen elsewhere.)
On the flip side, an internal locus of control is a heavy weight to carry. You are responsible for your success, so if you fail, then you are just not trying hard enough. An internal locus of control can also lead to Sisyphean cycles where you are trying to upgrade a terrible strategy to a merely bad one.
In these cases, you should switch to the external locus of control.
External Locus of Control
An “external locus of control” sees events as being dictated by outside forces, such as the preferences of others. Comments like the following would fall under an external locus of control:
- “The YouTube video bombed because the algorithm hates my channel.”
- “This advertisement is doing well because the timing is perfect.
- “Getting our speakers to share our event on social media is the only way to generate registrations.”
“External” should be defined as all elements outside of your company’s control. That includes clients, end consumers, suppliers, partners, and platforms. It also includes timing and seasonal effects.
Benefits of an External Locus of Control
An external locus of control helps you find strategic solutions to your problems. What if you are targeting the wrong audience or using the wrong channel?
Let’s imagine you are a new marketing agency. You try pitching big companies, but all you hear is “no,” assuming you hear back at all. Do you think polishing your promotional materials is going to get you in the door? That is playing on hard mode. Start by pitching smaller clients, and work your way up to bigger fish when you are ready.
Using an external locus of control helps you think strategically. Marketing is a game of strategy: you need to get the maximum impact with limited time and resources. Is there a critical timing I should plan for? How does this synergize with events happening outside my company?
Thinking with an external locus of control will also make you sensitive to opportunities. Focusing on only doing the same things may keep you noticing alternatives, such as new platforms or taking advantage of trends. This is a great way to score big wins without the years of practice needed to hone a skill.
Dangers of an External Locus of Control
Too much emphasis on an external locus of control has substantial risks associated with it. For example, you can make everything someone else’s fault. “People don’t read my content because they don’t know who I am” or “because they are biased against me” – entirely possible, but what good does it do to focus on this?
Alternatively, you could end up flip-flopping too much. Strategy A doesn’t work? Switch to B. Then C. Etc. There is nothing wrong with experimenting, but if you can’t find a strategy that works you should consider whether your execution might stink. It’s like that friend who jumps from break-up to break-up: maybe you have terrible taste, or maybe you are terrible at relationships, but either way it is a “you” problem.
One thorny trap is blaming algorithms. Much of our online experience is dictated directly or indirectly by algorithms that we know little about. Algorithm blame is a flexible excuse, and it is nearly impossible to disprove. Yes, algorithms play a role in how content performs, but if you keep striking out, you need to either fix your approach to the algorithm or fix your content.
Locus of Chance
Say you are planning an in-person product launch event. You booked a venue well in advance, confirmed a killer panel of speakers, and guest confirmations are filling in ahead of schedule. Everything is going according to plan.
The only problem? The event is scheduled for April 2020.
This may seem like a crazy exception, but chance clearly plays a role in whether marketing activities succeed.
- An issue in the email server causes a link to break
- A company releases a significant update to their software the day after you write a guide or review
- High profile influencer or ad actor gets caught up in a scandal (see: Peloton)
Technically, luck is often categorized as a subsection of an external locus of control. Still, it operates by a unique mechanism, so it is helpful to treat it separately. Let’s see how a chance-based locus of control can be beneficial and how it can hurt.
Benefits of the Locus of Chance
Perfectionism is paralyzing. Marketers can sometimes obsess about why things happen, trying to understand precisely why a specific piece of content took off while another fell flat. You need to accept that you can’t make sense of everything and move along at a certain point.
Appreciating the role of chance will stop you from overcorrecting. One weak campaign isn’t a reason to take a writing course, revamp your marketing strategy, and re-evaluate your life choices. This will also help you be a better team member because you will not be overly critical of others when their work doesn’t perform up to expectations.
Dangers of the Locus of Chance
Chance does play a role in marketing performance, but we need to remember that “bad luck” is the go-to excuse of lazy marketers. Using an internal locus of control means constant self-improvement, while an external locus of control means strategizing. Focusing on luck gets you out of this work.
Imagine marketing was pure chance. How would you plan your work? You would treat it as a lottery, where you grab as many tickets as possible for the lowest price. Just pump out crappy ads and shallow content, and hopefully, something sticks. In fact, this marketing approach sounds like some companies.
Thinking About Failure
In reality, all events are a product of internal, external, and random factors. Our mental habits dictate how we process those events and which aspects we emphasize versus ignore. Many things inform mental habits. Your parents, education, and culture all play a role. You can also alter or shift these habits with practice and concentration.
By analyzing events with a 360-degree perspective, we can add detail and depth to our thinking. Break events down into alternate views to dissect them and determine how to respond. The mental habit of considering your “locus of control” is more work in the short run, but it is essential for becoming a better marketer.