André Chaperon

I write about how Sovereign Creators can build a Digital World around their core idea. This new approach shifts focus from chasing audiences to attracting them, thus building trust and earning attention. Welcome to the art of building a Tiny Digital World.

Survival Guide to Building a Digital World

Digital narration via OpenAI text-to-speech (using Shimmer)

“In life the challenge is not so much to figure out how best to play the game; the challenge is to figure out what game you’re playing.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah (via Graham Duncan, The Playing Field)

(Emphasis is mine.)

This survival guide is as much about reframing and unlearning the conventional wisdom of digital marketing as it is about figuring out what “game you’re playing” — or want to play — amid the rapidly evolving landscapes of creator-led digital businesses (in 2024 and beyond).

If you’re honestly happy with the game you’re playing, keep playing it. Keep beating that drum. This guide isn’t about persuading you to change your stance.

This reminds me of a saying I heard from Seth Godin years ago in which he said, “Motivating the committed outperforms persuading the uncommitted.”

But if what you’re doing feels slightly off, however subtle that feeling, or if what you think you need to do doesn’t completely align with your inner Daemon, I have something for you in this Survival Guide.

I have a different perspective that might give you a new “lens” on digital marketing. Fair warning, however: Once you’ve internalized the implications, you’ll not be able to unsee them. In the same way, you’ll not be able to resist seeing a Rainbow-Colored Elephant in your mind’s eye right now. Try not to see it.

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A Survival Guide is not a Definitive Guide.

The latter aims to cover a topic comprehensively, offering detailed insights and understanding, often way beyond the basics.

In contrast, a Survival Guide is streamlined to focus on the most crucial 20% of information necessary for effectively navigating specific challenges or situations.

It prioritizes the immediate relevance and applicability of knowledge over breadth, aiming for practicality and utility. The goal is to equip readers with just enough information to manage, survive, or even thrive in specific scenarios. John ‘Lofty’ Wiseman’s “The SAS Survival Handbook” exemplifies this approach; despite being nearly 700 pages long, no section provides “PhD”-level depth, as that would defeat the purpose of a practical guide.

At the very least, a Survival Guide draws attention to a new reality, a signal often lost in the noise of overwhelming information trying hard to hack your attention.

With this Survival Guide, I aim to present the big picture quickly, orienting you and inviting you to wander down interesting paths to discover more based on your needs and desires (every hyperlink is intentional, offering additional depth and nuance).

There’s depth beneath the surface, so I invite you to explore. You’ll learn about Rome, which points to an even deeper adventure.

Finally, in presenting this Survival Guide, I’ve taken a straightforward approach: illuminating the process of building a digital world by contrasting the familiar with the unexplored.

By drawing a line between what we often take for granted and the new territories we can discover through digital world-building, I aim to provide a clear and engaging perspective.

Clarity often emerges from contrast. The well-trodden paths of conventional thinking serve as our starting points, providing a foundation for understanding new ideas.

Just as it’s challenging to evaluate a view without knowledge of competing perspectives or to make an informed product choice without understanding the range of alternatives, it’s difficult to grasp the potential of digital world-building without a point of reference.

By juxtaposing new ideas with the traditional, I aim to make the unfamiliar accessible and the unseen visible. This isn’t merely about highlighting differences; it’s about understanding the significance and implications of those differences for (sovereign) creators like us.

Through this contrast, I invite you to see digital world-building not as an abstract concept, but as a tangible tool for innovation, creativity, and a better expression of modern digital marketing that’s more engaging, slower, calmer, and personal.

Building on this foundation, this guide aims to inform and inspire you, urging you to explore the vast potential that lies beyond the horizon of conventional perspectives.

It’s wonderful on the other side. The water is warm. Promise.

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Before we embark on this short journey, there’s one final note I’d like to share about the narrative approach I’ve taken.

We need a stand-in hero to represent you and every other reader, an archetype that embodies the reader within the broader sense.

Meet Harper — an archetype embodying the collective spirit of us all. (Harper shows up in my other writing, too.)

Like you and me, Harper is burdened with a problem (which can be anything). While this burden is negative, it also serves as a motivation, driving Harper on a quest to seek a solution on the internet.

And with that, Harper is drawn into the orbit of our world and this guide.

Enjoy.

Creators vs. Sovereign Creators

In the context of the creator economy, it’s essential to define the specific type of creator this essay is addressing.

My concept of a sovereign creator diverges from the prevailing trend in the broader creator or passion economy, which, in my estimation, prioritizes blunt forced “creation” above all.

Yes, creators create. To that degree, we all engage in creation — some as a side hustle, others professionally, bringing our unique interests, skills, and expertise to bear.

Yet, the concept of a sovereign creator elevates this narrative, focusing on the quintessential value of independence. Owning our “digital dirt” — our platform, our content, our audience — marks the essence of sovereignty.

This ownership allows for the cultivation of equity and leverage over time, free from the whims of algorithmic changes. It enables a growth path that may be slower but also more sustainable, durable, and stable.

Online platforms (controlled by a few dominant billion-dollar players), while democratizing content creation, often seduce creators into a “rented” digital existence. Here, the illusion of free access masks the reality of lost control and dependence.

But sovereign creators don’t play this game.

In contrast, sovereign creators cultivate their “garden” on owned land, prioritizing quality and direct audience engagement over the erratic spikes driven by external platforms.

As sovereign creators, we define our path, creating content on our terms, building our assets, and fostering relationships with our audience directly.

We’re a specific ilk of creator.

This is not just about creation; it’s a declaration of independence in the digital age.

(Direct-Response) Website vs. Digital World

Of course, not all creators are tempted to build their online presence on free platforms they don’t own. They have websites.

These websites are special affairs. Embedded within them are carefully crafted marketing funnels built on time-tested principles of direct response that systematically move new visitors from prospect to customer.

When it works, it can feel like magic.

What’s not to love, right?

This is an expression of independence, after all. It’s a blueprint for living the internet dream.

Well, not so fast…

Because some of us choose not to have these sorts of “websites” to do business and transact.

We don’t use websites as containers for factory-farming customers at scale.

We don’t build funnels with lead magnets rigged with tripwires attached to countdown timers connected to elaborate marketing campaigns with offers and product promotions.

We could, of course, follow the crowd.

After all, the system, the methodologies, and the persuasion tactics outlined in the direct response marketing playbook “work.”

However, the definition of “work” doesn’t tell the whole story. It rarely ever does.

When the marketing process is obsessively optimized to chase immediate, upfront gains, the term “work” risks becoming misleading.

This is because it’s tethered to a narrowly quantified version of “success” that is often short-lived (measured in weeks or months rather than years and years).

If you’ve been involved in direct response marketing for any length of time, you’ll be familiar with some of the negative implications of this more aggressive style of marketing (no matter the flavor).

The solution, therefore, is a different system.

For those of us (sovereign creators) who don’t buy into this way of operating, the marketing funnel hasn’t disappeared — it’s just evolved. We don’t use websites as mousetraps to capture attention and then quickly sell stuff — we build digital worlds that attract the people we seek to serve.

This evolution starts with a different paradigm, a worldview that shifts from seeing a website as a funnel for “capturing” to a digital world that attracts.

Here, visitors are not mere leads to be caught, factory-farmed, and sold to. They are people like Harper, inhabitants and citizens of our digital world, designed to attract and engage through asynchronous invisible conversations.

This immersive environment fosters a slower, more intentional process of building lasting relationships, creating the affordance for transformative experiences, where connections deepen over time, and customers emerge from these genuine interactions.

By embracing this paradigm shift, we move from chasing audiences to inviting them into our digital world, fostering deeper, more meaningful relationships that benefit both the creator and the audience.

GPS vs. Map

Consider the contrast between using a GPS and a map.

A GPS offers a direct, thought-free path from point A to B, efficient until it fails, leaving the traveler lost. This mirrors the traditional marketing funnel, efficiently guiding prospects through a predetermined path peppered with predictable marketing devices like lead magnets and discounts and “free” webinar offers, etc.

This works well, to the degree it’s designed to … until the metaphorical “GPS” fails or inevitably stumbles, revealing its lack of reliability. Then, Harper is lost, flailing around, with no sense of orientation.

(Traditional marketing funnels “fail” all the time, after all — a 5% conversion means 95% failure.)

Any veneer of relationship building is in service of nudging a sale sooner rather than later, leaving Harper with a persistent sense of being a pawn in an elaborate transaction.

In contrast, a “map” empowers Harper with agency, demanding engagement with the environment, attention to digital landmarks, and an active role in navigating toward a destination.

This is the essence of building a digital world for sovereign creators like us.

We don’t rely on traditional marketing funnels, not merely because they can fail, but because they lack the capacity to make us and our audiences truly feel alive. I can’t overstate this enough.

We’re a special ilk of sovereign creator. We have magical powers. We’re magicians.

We’re digital world builders — our marking funnels are implicit.

As digital world builders, we adopt a more nuanced lens — embracing the principle of digital wayfinding from open-world marketing. This strategy doesn’t prescribe a singular journey but offers waypoints for exploration, much like Nintendo mastered with “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” masterfully guiding players through Hyrule.

This creates a digital landscape rich with potential adventures and grounded by waypoints for orientation. It encourages discovery while guiding Harper toward an inevitable destination.

Our marketing landscape, therefore, becomes an expansive world of engagement, where every interaction is a step on a unique journey, guided by reliable digital landmarks but defined by the choices and discoveries of each visitor like Harper.

It’s not just a path but a journey of exploration and connection, affording transformational experiences at scale without the need to assign people to archetypical boxes (more on this shortly).

Lead Magnets vs. Rome

The marketing funnel hasn’t disappeared; it’s just evolved.

While lead magnets (digital bribes) “work,” the same can be said about using a hammer to tighten a screw — forceful and effective for hammering but entirely misplaced for tasks that require precision, alignment, and a gentle touch.

There’s a misguided assumption that “bribes” work because they pull the persuasion lever of reciprocity, and to a degree, that’s accurate. However, it also undermines what happens next. When the emphasis is on getting the shiny thing for free in exchange for an email address or some appropriate action, the focus shifts to the freebie and resulting transaction.

However, when the freebie is downloaded (watched or accessed), all the tension is released. What’s more, the lead magnet is often never consumed, so whatever value is embedded is never realized (not ideal, really).

In contrast, there’s a very different experience of tension within a digital world, which is amplified and resolved continuously as Harper discovers new parts of the world, revealing insights (the connecting of dots), aha’s, and new pathways, engaging deeply without the bait of freebies.

There is no bribing, so the sense of what “free” means has an entirely different feel, pulling attention forward instead of push-push-pushing.

The old adage “All roads lead to Rome” serves as a vivid metaphor for our approach to digital world-building.

In our expansive digital landscape, “Rome” symbolizes a specific action we intend for our explorers to take.

We use waypoints to orient our new explorers like Harper.

Our waypoints point the way to something meaningful for Harper without ever needing to invoke the sense of reciprocity by overtly pulling the lever of free.

The sense of ungated value (and the subconscious feeling of reciprocity) are implicit features of this way of building our digital worlds without ever needing to engineer them explicitly and unnaturally.

“Rome” is a different destination depending on where Harper is exploring in the digital world.

Initially, Rome will almost always be our email list.

For example, visitors inevitably find themselves on my newsletter join page. Once there, they face a clear fork in the road: subscribe or exit.

Come closer into my World, or leave if it doesn’t resonate.

I don’t want everyone.

The “outer” World also serves as a filter — pulling closer and pushing away.

Remember: we’re a particular ilk of sovereign creator…

We are digital world builders…

And we’re in the resonance business, baby.

Harpers can meander, squirrel down rabbit holes, and step through portals and pathways that resonate with their unique self-interests. These choose-your-own-adventure journeys invoke a natural tension for more, eliminating the need for highly engineered linear funnels.

We’re in the slow marketing game…

Like water winding its way through a landscape, all paths eventually converge at a lake — at the “gates of Rome.”

This metaphor amplifies the “All roads lead to Rome” concept, capturing the organic, almost gravitational pull that directs adventures like Harper to a shared destination after an enriching journey that feels uniquely their own.

As the architects and engineers of our digital worlds, we guide our audience to the “gates of Rome” and the magic that lies beyond.

Our role is to create an immersive, engaging environment that naturally leads our explorers like Harper to meaningful destinations, ensuring that their journey is as enriching and transformative as the destination itself.

Siloed vs. Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA)

With traditional websites that use the principles of direct-response marketing, value is almost always siloed to appeal to a generalized archetype (or a few archetypes).

This engine moves people between prescribed silos until a point where there’s a requirement for money to change hands (for more).

By ‘siloed,’ I mean that information is packaged, then presented, then another idea is expressed and presented, and another, and so forth. But it’s rare that correlations or connections are made between these “byte-sized” canapés of information. There’s minimal higher-level context creating a bridge between silos, and there’s rarely a thematic arc embedded throughout.

Yet, as infinitely nuanced humans, we can’t be reduced to generalized archetypes. I don’t fit a box. I doubt you do, either.

However, this is the exact behavior (many) traditional marketing funnels try to overcome. Based on what we’ve clicked or responded to, we’re quickly assigned “boxes” (algorithmically, quizzes, narrow self-selection, or otherwise), and perfectly stylized marketing messages are served up like magic tricks.

There are edge cases, of course. In the land of ultra-high-trafficked e-commerce, no doubt there’s a place for rigorous scientific (A/B-style) testing and complex conversion rate tracking, where a percentage point uptick can result in millions of dollars in found revenue.

But that’s a different game, a game we’re not playing.

We’re sovereign creators, valuing the art and craft of a slower, more personalized marketing expression. We obsess over quality above all.

When browsing any creator websites, you’ll experience a distinct somatic feeling — an implicit “message” that transcends the explicit words on the page. Don’t mistake this for a marketing message written to an archetype (that’s different).

Rather, there’s an implicit gut feeling of resonance or dissonance, a spidey sense of conflicted tension on some websites, like you’re a marionette being controlled by unseen hands.

The value propositions, the big promises, the overt amplification of curiosity about what’s behind the curtain, feeding our greed glands for more, as if puppeteers are masterfully pulling at our psychological and emotional hot buttons.

The sense of manipulation is never far away, clouding the whole experience.

This causes an oscillation between moments of resonance and others of sheer dislike and contempt for the style of marketing being used. We’ve all experienced this.

As a creator, on the one hand, they’re trying their best to connect with their audience as authentically as they know how. They’re not malevolent puppeteers. But they’re also unable to extract themselves from the direct-response exoskeleton, with hammers in hand as their only perceived tools of the trade.

I’ll leave you with a metaphor that I think captures the essence of a traditional marketing funnel website contrasted with a digital world (wrapped around a core idea) from the perspective of Harper, our stand-in hero with a problem to solve.

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In the siloed approach of traditional funnel-based marketing, navigating information is akin to walking through a maze.

A maze is designed with high walls and a single, predetermined path to the exit. It’s linear and limiting, where people are funneled through a specific journey with limited room for exploration or deviation.

The walls of the maze represent the silos, separating information into isolated categories without interconnection, forcing Harper down a path that might not suit their unique interests or needs (outside of a superficial generalized perspective).

Contrastingly, the framing of a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ (CYOA) approach opens our perceptual aperture, offering a structured yet open-ended mechanism for Harper to navigate a digital environment. This experience can be likened to wandering through a well-designed garden, such as those showcased at the renowned Chelsea Flower Show. These gardens provide a clear structure with defined paths while still allowing for exploration and discovery within their boundaries.

A garden is a cultivated space but one that allows for myriad paths to be taken. It’s open-ended and inviting, filled with different trails that lead to various nooks, crannies, and hidden delights.

Visitors like Harper can choose their own adventure, lingering in areas that catch their eye, skipping others, and essentially creating a personalized journey (the implication of this is profound).

Each visitor’s experience is unique, guided by their curiosity and preferences that resonate most deeply with them. The path Harper chooses is different to everyone else.

This metaphor highlights the transition from a rigid, one-size-fits-all pathway to a more personalized, explorative journey.

It captures the essence of moving away from overt marketing funnels and towards a more engaging, user-driven experience that honors our nuances and individuality.

CYOA can seem chaotic from the outside looking in, where the “funnel” can’t be easily observed, if at all.

But CYOA isn’t a design principle that exists alone.

Digital wayfinding intentionally orientates, preparing Harper to engage meaningfully with an environment that is coherent and enriching (based on their individual self-interest).

Invisible Conversations invite personal engagement across a digital world.

These asynchronous dialogues enable users to reflect on and internalize ideas, fostering a personal connection to the digital world. Through content that sparks these conversations, Harper explores the world on their own terms, feeling the energy of the embedded ethos, leading to a more profound and meaningful understanding embedded within the character and values of the digital world.

These principles emphasize agency and personalization, enabling Harper to carve a unique path through the digital world that reflects their engagement through these loops of invisible conversations.

Orientation, Wayfinding, CYOA, and Invisible Conversations form a latticework of principles that create an implicit marketing funnel.

Within this funnel, users like Harper can choose their own path based on their extrinsic and intrinsic needs. Through self-directed choices and asynchronous ‘invisible conversations’ with the author, they engage in a process of emergence and sense-making that feels deeply unique and personal.

This experience transcends generalized archetypes, allowing for a more nuanced and individualized journey through the digital world.

Tiny Digital Worlds

Tiny Digital Worlds act as the narrative container for these principles (and a few not mentioned in this guide), providing us with a set of more nuanced tools from which we build an engaging digital world around our core idea.

This new approach shifts focus from chasing audiences to inviting them into our world, thus building trust and earning their attention.

These internet-based worlds are where groups of creative people come together around shared ideals, values, goals, and dreams, fostering an environment where transformative experiences naturally emerge.

Welcome to the art of building a Tiny Digital World.

Epilogue

In writing this Survival Guide, I was intentionally facetious at times when expressing the perspectives of direct-response marketing funnels. It’s easy to miss important points when the message is too subtle and implicit.

Of course, not all creator websites that use the principles of direct-response marketing behave in such an overt and manipulative way. Sure, many do, but there are also many who don’t, and the creators behind them are wonderful human beings wanting nothing but the best for their audiences.

However, the essence of what I was trying to convey in this guide is that when we, as sovereign creators, limit ourselves to a few direct-response “hammers” as our only tools, we risk seeing everything as nails to be driven home. This narrow perspective can lead to a lack of creativity and adaptability in our approach, undermining the experience we want in serving people like Harper.

Expanding our toolkit invites a richer, more nuanced engagement with our work and those we aim to impact.

I wanted to offer you a new perspective on how we can build digital worlds that feel alive for people like Harper.

André