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A Physicist’s Approach to Marketing

  |  November 25, 2013   |  Comments

While marketing doesn't adhere to a strict set of universal laws like physics, it can and should be a rigorous, left-brained discipline. Marketing at its best can be tested and measured and with the right balance of accuracy and rigidity, marketing can be akin to science.

I come to my career in marketing by way of a degree in Physics. Instead of continuing my studies in MIT's PhD program, I decided to explore business; it's been twenty years since my first job as a management consultant and I haven't looked back since.

Some think I would have been better served studying business, marketing or economics, but I couldn't disagree more. Physics trained me to think in the uncompromising, quantitative way that has made me the marketer I am today. While marketing doesn't adhere to a strict set of universal laws like physics, it can and should be a rigorous, left-brained discipline. Marketing at its best can be tested and measured and with the right balance of accuracy and rigidity, marketing can be akin to science.

There are countless physics lessons that have crossed over into my life as a marketer; here are a few:

The Importance of Natural Frequency

In classical mechanics, a harmonic oscillator is a system where the more an object is pushed away from the equilibrium "resting" position, the stronger the force to bring it back. Momentum/inertia, as it moves back to the resting position, will cause the object to overshoot its resting position and go to the other side, before coming to a stop and then returning in the other direction.

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These systems resonate at a natural frequency (ie.: the number of swings per minute). For example, a simple pendulum swings at a frequency determined solely by the square root of the length of the string; the mass of the object being swung is irrelevant. This means that you and an elephant would both swing back and forth on a playground swingset at the same frequency.

Consider what this means for how much one can push (or drive) the system, using the swingset example. Pushing in time with the natural resonant frequency makes the swing go increasingly higher. However, if you try pushing at a different tempo, you lose efficiency, since at times you will be pushing against the natural motion of the swing.

Those same principles make for a great marketing lesson -- we can't force customers to act outside of their natural frequency. When we have goals to meet, we often demand customers to buy from us on our schedule. We need to recognize, though, that each buyer has his/her own natural frequency for when he/she wants to act.

Like pushing the swing, marketing can be a powerful driver to the system, but only when synchronized with the buyer's natural timing. Only the right message at the right time can really resonate with the buyer. Otherwise, the marketing may end up pushing against the buyer's natural frequency and reducing marketing effectiveness. We need to understand each buyer's natural frequencies and personalize our outreach to resonate with their rhythms; trying to drive action on any other frequency will always dampen the results.

Attraction is Built Through Valuable Exchanges

There are four fundamental forces recognized in modern physics: gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear. We are most familiar with gravitational, though it is by far the weakest of the forces. Electromagnetism is actually 10^36 times stronger than the gravitational force; that's how a simple refrigerator magnet can overpower the entire Earth's pull, to keep your child's drawing from falling to the floor.

Physicists ask, "What's transmitting the force, or interaction, between objects such as the magnet and the metal refrigerator?" One theory is that the objects actually exchange "force particles" to attract or repel each other. Here's a simply analogy: There are two skaters on an ice pond and one skater throws a heavy ball at the other, driving him backwards; the other catches it and she is driven backwards. The exchange of the particle "repelled" the two skaters.

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The marketing analogy here is obvious. Want to attract customers? Stay in close contact by exchanging valuable content. Every time you share content that is useful, enjoyable and engaging, you are nurturing the relationship and bringing them closer. Want to push them away? Send a steady stream of promotional, sales-y, product-centric content and its an almost certainty that your drip marketing will feel like water torture. In a nutshell, exchanging useful, enjoyable content is attractive, while promotional messages are repellent.

Intuition and Perception are Unreliable

A pillar of modern physics is that reality is not what we perceive. The more physicists discover about the universe, the more difficult it is for them to intuitively understand the discoveries. At one time, we believed that the world was flat and that the Earth was the center of everything. Now, of course, we know that's not the case.

Countless discoveries in quantum mechanics, string theory, and especially the theory of relativity have presented things that do not makes sense intuitively (eleven dimensions, time warp, uncertainty principle, etc.), since it's not what we perceive. Yet they are true, so how do we understand them?

The answer is with theory, mathematics, and experimental testing. These are the most powerful tools to understand the world we live in.

They can be powerful tools for marketing, as well. Marketers commonly rely on intuition and experience, making them vulnerable to questioning and second-guessing. As Ira Kalb of the Marshall School of Business explains, no non-physicist would go up to a trained expert and tell them that their calculations were wrong. Still, non-experts in marketing have no problem expressing their opinions about a campaign or creative design.

The world is actually much more complicated than we perceive; we need to rely on data and analysis to make sense of it. The same is true for marketing. Don't trust intuition about what works; understand it with theory, mathematics, and experimental testing.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jon Miller

Jon leads strategy and execution for Marketo. Before co-founding Marketo, Jon was Vice President, Product Marketing at Epiphany and held positions at Exchange Partners and Gemini Consulting. He is executive editor of the popular Marketo blog, Modern B2B Marketing, and author of the comprehensive handbook, The Definitive Guide to Marketing Metrics and Analytics. In 2010, The CMO Institute named Jon a Top 10 CMO for companies under $250 million revenue. Jon holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard College and has an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

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