by Frank Cowell | Updated Mar 31, 2024


This is a chapter from the best-selling book
Building Your Digital Utopia by Frank Cowell.

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Suppose you want to get in shape, so you sign up for a gym membership. During the first month, you go to the gym consistently. It’s not easy. You’re sore, you’re tired, and you’re frustrated. As a result, by the second month, you’re going less frequently, skipping a day here and there. During the third month, you only go to the gym three times in total.

What if, by the end of the third month, you were to say, “Working out at the gym is a waste of time. I’m not seeing any real results in the mirror.” Wouldn’t it be irrational to blame the gym for your poor results? You simply didn’t put in the consistent hard work necessary to achieve the results you wanted.

It’s the same in almost every area of life. If you don’t do the work consistently, you don’t get the results. Despite this basic truth, I am amazed at the response business executives all over the world have to their marketing efforts. They adopt some tactic, give it ninety days, and look at the results to decide if they should continue. Nothing amazing happens in marketing in ninety days, so setting these short timetables is entirely arbitrary.

In fact, if you look at the beginnings of the organizations themselves, you’ll probably find that their first ninety days were pretty lackluster. It takes years for most organizations to begin making real progress. Why, then, do companies adopt such short-term expectations when it comes to marketing? Logic and reason seem to go right out the window, and suddenly leaders start thinking, “There must be some marketing agency out there that can come up with the right campaign, or the right verbiage, or the right tactic to produce immediate results—something we can just turn on and it’ll work.”

Marketing doesn’t work that way. Nothing works that way.


It’s so important to get a healthy view about the ROI of marketing. Consider the following graph. On the X axis, we have length of time. On the Y axis, we have the effort, which means the hours, money, and resources you invest.

If you put in high effort consistently for years, you will start to experience ROI on your efforts. However, before you get to that point, there’s that triangle area on the chart where you experience negative ROI—let’s call it the “Triangle of Pain.” That’s the place that most companies never get past. Company leaders put in a few months of effort, look at the results, and say, “Well, this is a waste of time and money, so forget it. We’ll start over with something else.”

That, however, is the nature of a hamster wheel: constantly starting over and never getting past the break-even point. You have to take the time to build equity and let your brand start to work for you. Eventually, all of the audience-building you’ve done will become a trickle of positive ROI and then a gushing stream. If you keep starting over, you will never build momentum. 

That Triangle of Pain is where your brand is born. All of the people above the ROI break-even point get the glory, but the truth is, the real glory belongs to the people working below the line. The people who pour their time, energy, and resources into the Triangle of Pain to make long-term momentum possible.

This is the paradigm shift that companies need to make when it comes to investing in marketing and sales. Everyone wants to avoid the Triangle of Pain, but you can’t. There is no shortcut. Every time you try to take a shortcut, you’re just spinning the hamster wheel again.

This is how the ROI of marketing works, but, in reality, it’s the ROI of everything. This graph could apply to just about any effort. Think about it. What’s the ROI of getting in shape? As I said, three months of increasingly sporadic gym attendance won’t do it. You need to start getting up at five in the morning to work out, but, more importantly, you have to stick with your exercise routine for a long time before you start to see major changes.

Consistently working out—day after day, month after month, year after year—will eventually produce amazing results. Everything you’ve done, all the hard work, will begin to pay off, and the day will come when you look in the mirror and see a dramatic difference.

The amount of effort you put in after the break-even point doesn’t change. You’re putting in the same amount of work, but suddenly you’re starting to see the results you’d hoped for. This is what companies get to enjoy when they stick it out. At this point, some leaders will start saying things like, “What are the marketing and sales departments doing? All of a sudden, we’re driving so much ROI. Has something changed?”

In reality, nothing has changed. They’ve just been consistent long enough that it’s starting to pay off. Suddenly, the trickle becomes a steady flow. It’s the point at which brand starts to work for you. People start talking about you, and they start responding to your calls-to-action. From this point on, if you continue with the same degree of consistent effort, that flow of return is going to increase.

So many executives never get to that point because they are desperately trying to avoid the Triangle of Pain. They never push past the break-even point, so they never enjoy the fruits of their labor. Tragically, when you dump a strategy, you start back over at zero. All of those executives trying to avoid the Triangle of Pain are just cycling back through it over and over.

There’s simply no avoiding it, just like there’s no avoiding the early days, weeks, even months of a new workout routine where you’re tired and sore, struggling to stick with your diet, depriving yourself of delicious cheeseburgers, and moaning about getting up every morning but not seeing any difference in the mirror. Ironically, most businesspeople understand this about getting in shape, but somehow the logic doesn’t transfer to the world of business.

You can’t escape the Triangle of Pain. If you want to get past it, you have to be willing to push through it.


At this point, you could simply take the principles I’ve shared in this section and apply them to what you’re already doing. Drill them into your organization until you begin to change the overall mindset. If you do, you will experience better results, even if you don’t choose to implement the framework presented in Part Three.

However, in the next part of the book, I will share a blueprint you can build upon, with actionable steps you can take to begin making progress toward your growth objectives to help get your team on the same page once and for all. The end result will be a holistic strategy that creates a digital utopia of ongoing, consistent growth and ROI.

This is a chapter from the best-selling book
Building Your Digital Utopia by Frank Cowell.

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