The Chaos Theory of Marketing

Last week, I wrote why marketers are struggling with job security. In an effort to provide career counseling to an industry, I would offer this suggestion: start learning about the behaviors of non-linear dynamic systems. You’re going to have to get comfortable with the special conditions that accompany complexity.

Markets are always complex, but there’s a phenomenon that gives them the illusion of predictability. This phenomenon is potential. Potential, in this instance, means the gap between the current market state and a possible future state. The presence of potential creates market demand. Every time a new product is introduced, a new potential gap is created. Supply and demand are knocked out of balance. Until balance is regained, the market becomes more predictable.

Here’s an analogy that makes it a little easier to understand how this potential can impact the behaviors of a complex market. A model that’s often used to explain complexity is to imagine a pool table filled with balls. The twist is that each of these balls is self propelled and can move in any direction at random. Imagine how difficult it would be to predict where any single ball might go.

Now, imagine taking this same pool table and lifting one of the corner legs up 6 inches, introducing the force of gravity as a variable. Individual predictions are still difficult, but you’d be pretty safe in saying that the pocket that was diagonally opposite to the raised leg would eventually collect more than it’s fair share of balls. In this example, gravity plays the role of market potential. The market still behaves in a complex manner but there is a consistent force – the force of gravity – that exerts its influence on that complexity and makes it more predictable.

Marketing is built on exploiting potential – on capitalizing on (or creating) gaps between what we have and what we want. These gaps have always been around, but the nature of them has changed. While this potential was aimed further down Maslow’s hierarchy, it was pretty easy to predict purchasing behaviors. When it comes to the basics – meeting our need of food, water, shelter, safety – humans are all pretty much alike. But when it comes to purchases higher up the hierarchy – at the levels of self-esteem or self-actualization – things become tougher to predict.

Collectively, the western world has moved up Maslow’s hierarchy. A 2011 study from Heritage.org showed that even those living below the poverty line have a standard of life that exceeds those at all but the highest income levels just a few decades before. In 2005, 98.7% of homes had a TV, 84% had air conditioning, 79% has satellite or cable TV and 68% had a personal computer.

But it’s not only the diversification of consumer demand that’s increasing the complexity of markets. The more connected that markets become, the more unpredictable they become. Let’s go back to our overly simplified pool ball analogy. Let’s imagine that not only are our pool balls self-propelled, but they also tend to randomly change direction every time they collide with another ball. The more connected the market, the greater the number of collisions and subsequent direction changes. In marketing, those “collisions” could be a tweet, a review, a Facebook post, a Google search – well – you get the idea. It’s complex.

These two factors; the fragmentation of consumer demand and the complexity of a highly interconnected market, makes predicting consumer behavior a mug’s game. The challenge here is that marketing – in a laudable attempt to become more scientific – is following in science’s footsteps by taking a reductionist path. Our marketing mantra is to reduce everything down to testable variables and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. I’ve said it myself on many occasions. But, as with science, we must realize that when we’re dealing with dynamic complexity, the whole can be much greater than the sum of its testable parts. There are patterns that can be perceived only at a macro scale. Here there be “black swans.” It’s the old issue of ignoring the global maxima or minima by focusing too closely on the local.

Reduction and testing tends to lead to a feeling of control and predictability. And, in some cases (such as a market that has a common potential) things seem to go pretty much according to plan. But sooner or later, complexity rears its head and those best laid plans blow up in your face.

 

 

How Vision and Strategy Can Kill a Marketer’s Job Security

“Apparently, marketers today are losing confidence in their ability to meet key goals, like reaching the right customers with their marketing efforts, or being able to understand or evaluate the ROI of their marketing plans.”

Dave Morgan – Why Are Marketing Losing Confidence in Their Ability to Do Their Jobs?

“I think marketing is going to be getting much, much easier over the next couple of years.”

Cory Treffiletti – CMOs’ Vision Crucial to their Success

A couple of weeks ago, my fellow Spinners offered these two seemingly contradictory prognoses of the future of marketing. The contradiction, I believe, is in the conflation of the ideas of media buying and marketing. Yes, media buying is going to get easier (or, at least, more automated). And I agree with Cory’s prediction of consolidation in the industry. But that doesn’t do much to ease the crisis of confidence mentioned by Dave Morgan. That’s still very real.

The problem here is one of complexity. Markets are now complex. Actually, they’ve always been complex, but now they’re even more complex and we marketers can no longer pretend that they’re otherwise. When things get complex, our ability to predict outcomes takes a nosedive.

At the same time, an avalanche of available data makes marketers more accountable than ever. This data, along with faster, smarter machines, offers the promise of predictability, but it’s a dangerous illusion. If anything, the data and AI is just revealing more of the complexity that lurks within those markets.

And here is the crux of the dilemma that lives between the two quotes above. Yes, marketing is becoming more powerful, but the markets themselves are becoming more unpredictable. And marketers are squarely caught on the horns of that dilemma. We sign on to deliver results and when those results are no longer predictable, we feel our job security rapidly slipping away.

Cory Treffiletti talks about vision – which also goes by the name of strategy. It sounds good, but here’s the potential problem with that. In massively complex environments, strategy in the wrong hands can become a liability. It leads to an illusion of control, which is part of a largely disproven and outdated corporate mindset. You can blindly follow a strategy right into a dead end because strategies depend on beliefs and beliefs can dramatically alter your perception of what’s real. No one can control a complex environment. The best you can do is monitor and react to that environment. Of course, those two things can – and should – become a strategy in and of themselves.

Strategy is not dead. It can still make a difference. But it needs to be balanced with two other “S’s” – Sense making and Synthesis. These are the things that make a difference in a world of complexity.

You have to make sense of the market. And this is more difficult than it sounds. This is where the “Strategy” paradox can creep up and kill you. If your “Vision” – to use Cory Treffiletti’s term – becomes more important to you than reality, you’ll simply look for things that confirm that vision and plunge ahead, unaware of the true situation. You’ll ignore the cues that are telling you a change of direction may be required. The Sense Making cycle starts with a “frame” of the world (a.k.a. “Vision”) and then looks for external data to either confirm and elaborate or refute that frame/vision. But the data we collect and the way we analyze that data depends on the frame we begin with. Belief tends to make this process a self-reinforcing loop that often leads to disaster. The stronger the “vision,” the greater the tendency for us to delude ourselves.

sensemaking2

Sensemaking: Klein, Moon and Hoffman

If you can remain objective as possible during the sense making cycle you then end up with a reasonably accurate “frame” of your market. This is when the Synthesis part of the equation takes over. Here, you look at your strategy and see how it lines up with the market. You look for new opportunities and threats. Knowing the market is unpredictable, you take the advice of Antifragile author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, minimizing your downside and maximizing your upside. You pull this together into a new iteration of strategy and execute like hell against it. Then you start all over again.

By going through this cycle, you’ll find that you create a wave-like approach to strategy, oscillating through phases of sense making, synthesis and strategic execution. The behavior and mindsets required in each of these phases are significantly – and often diametrically – different. It’s a tough act to pull off.

No wonder marketers are having a tough time right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watson:2020 – America’s Self-Driving Presidency

Ken Jennings, the second most successful Jeopardy player of all time, has an IQ of 175. That makes him smarter than 99.9998615605% of everybody. If you put him in a city the size of Indianapolis, he’d probably be the smartest person there. In fact, in all of the US, statistics say there are only 443 people that would be smarter than Mr. Jennings.

And one machine. Let’s not forget IBM’s Watson whupped Jennings’ ass over two days, piling up $77,147 in winnings to Jennings $24,000. It wasn’t even close. Watson won by a factor of more than 3 to 1.

That’s why I think Watson should run for president in 2020. Bear with me.

Donald Trump’s IQ is probably in the 119 range (not 156 as he boasts – but then he also boasted that every woman who ever appeared on the Apprentice flirted with him). Of course we’ll never know. Like his tax returns, any actual evidence of his intelligence is unavailable. But let’s go with 119. That makes him smarter than 88.24% of the population, which isn’t bad, but it also isn’t great. According to Wikipedia, if that IQ estimate were correct, he would be the second dumbest president in history, slightly ahead of Gerald Ford. Here’s another way to think about it. If you were standing at a moderately busy bus stop, chances are somebody else waiting with you would be smarter than the President Elect of the United States.

Watson won Jeopardy in 2011. Since then, he’s become smarter, becoming an expert in health, law, real estate, finance, weather – even cooking. And when I say expert, I mean Watson knows more about those things than anyone alive.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has probably learned little in the last 5 years because, apparently, he doesn’t have time to read. But that’s okay, because he reaches the right decisions

“with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

In the President Elect’s mind, that also qualifies him to “wing it” with things like international relations, security risks, emerging world events, domestic crises and the other stuff on his daily to-do list. He has also decided that he doesn’t need his regular intelligence briefing, reiterating:

“You know, I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years. Could be eight years — but eight years. I don’t need that.”

That’s right, the future leader of the free world is, “you know, like, a smart person.”

Now, President Watson could also decide to skip the briefing, but that’s because Watson can process 500 gigabytes – the equivalent of a million books – per second. Any analyst or advisor would be hard pressed to keep up.

Let’s talk about technology. Donald Trump doesn’t appear to know how to use a computer. His technical prowess seems to begin and end with midnight use of Twitter. To be fair, Hillary Clinton was also bamboozled by technology, as one errant email server showed all too clearly. But Watson is technology: and if you can follow this description from Wikipedia, apparently pretty impressive technology: “a cluster of ninety IBM Power 750 servers, each of which uses a 3.5 GHz POWER7 eight-core processor, with four threads per core. In total, the system has 2,880 POWER7 processor threads and 16 terabytes of RAM.

In a presidential debate, or, for that matter, a tweet, Watson can simultaneously retrieve from its onboard 16-terabyte memory, process, formulate and fact check. Presumably, unlike Trump, Watson could remember whether or not he said global warming was a hoax, how long ISIS has actually been around and whether he in fact had the world’s greatest memory. At the very least, Watson would know how to spell “unprecedented

But let’s get down to the real question, whose digit do you want on the button: Trump’s “long and beautiful” fingers or Watson’s bionic thumb? Watson – who can instantly and rationally process terabytes of information to determine optimum alternatives – or Trump – who’s philosophy is that “it really doesn’t matter…as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of *ss.”

I know what you’re thinking – this is us finally surrendering to the machines. But at least it’s intelligence – even if it is artificial.

Note: In writing what I thought was satire, I found once again that fact is stranger than fiction. Somebody already thought of this 4 years ago: http://watson2016.com/

Sorry Folks – Blame it on Ed

Just when you thought it was safe to assume I’d be moving on to another topic, I’m back. Blame it on Ed Papazian, who commented on last week’s column about the Rise of the Audience marketplace. I’ll respond to his comment in multiple parts. First, he said:

“I think it’s fine to speculate on “audience” based advertising, by which you actually mean using digital, not traditional media, as the basis for the advertising of the future.”

All media is going to be digital. Our concept of “traditional” media is well down its death spiral. We’re less then a decade away from all media being delivered through a digital platform that would allow for real time targeting of advertising. True, we have to move beyond the current paradigm of mass distributed, channel restricted advertising we seem stuck in, but the technology is already there. We (by which I mean the ad industry) just have to catch up. Ed continues in this vein:

“However, in a practical sense, not only is this, as yet, merely a dream for TV, radio and print media, but it is also an oversimplification.”

Is it an oversimplification? Let’s remember that more and more of our media consumption is becoming trackable from both ends. We no longer have to track from the point of distribution. Tracking is also possible at the point of consumption. We are living with devices that increasingly have insight into what we’re doing at any moment of the day. It’s just a matter of us giving permission to be served relevant, well targeted ads based on the context of our lives.

But what would entice us to give this permission? Ed goes on to say that…

“Even if a digital advertiser could actually identify every consumer in the U.S. who is interested—or “in the market” for what his ads are trying to sell and also how they are pitching the product/service—and send only these people “audience targeted ads”, many of the ads will still not be of interest…”

Papazian proposed an acid test of sorts (or, more appropriately – an antacid test):

“Why? Because they are for unpleasant or mundane products—toilet bowel cleansers, upset stomach remedies, etc.—-or because the ads are pitching a brand the consumer doesn’t like or has had a bad experience with.”

Okay, let me take up the challenge that Ed has thrown down (or up?). Are ads for stomach remedies always unwanted? Not if I have a history of heartburn, especially when my willpower drops and my diet changes as I’m travelling. Let’s take it one step further. I’ve made a dinner reservation for 7 pm at my favorite Indian food restaurant while I’m in San Francisco. It’s 2 pm. I’ve just polished off a Molinari’s sandwich and I’m heading back to my hotel. As I turn the corner at O’Farrell and Powell, an instant coupon is delivered to my phone with 50% off a new antacid tablet at the Walgreen’s ahead, together with the message: “Prosciutto, pepperoncinis and pakoras in the same day? Look at you go! But just in case…”

The world Ed talks about does have a lot of unwanted advertising. But in the world I’m envisioning, where audiences are precisely targeted, we will hopefully eliminate most of those unwanted ads. Those ads are the by-product of the huge inefficiencies in the current advertising marketplace. And it’s this inefficiency that is rapidly destroying advertising as we know it from both ends. The current market is built on showing largely ineffective ads to mainly disinterested prospects – hoping there is an anomaly in there somewhere – and charging the advertiser to do so. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a sustainable plan to me.

When I talk about selecting audiences in a market, it’s this level of specificity that I’m talking about. There is nothing in the above scenario that’s beyond the reach of current Mar-Tech. Perhaps it’s oversimplified. But I did that to make a point. In paid search, we used to have a saying, “buy your best clicks first”. It meant starting with the obviously relevant keywords – the people who were definitely looking for you. The problem was that there just wasn’t enough volume on these “sure-bet” keywords alone. But as digital has matured, the amount of “sure-bet” inventory has increased. We’re still not all the way there – where we can rely on sure-bet inventory alone – but we’re getting closer. The audience marketplace I’m envisioning gets us much of the way there. When technology and data allow us to assemble carefully segmented audiences with a high likelihood of successful engagement on the fly, we eliminate the inefficiencies in the market.

I truly believe that it’s time to discard the jury-rigged, heavily bandaged and limping behemoth that advertising has become and start thinking about this in an entirely new way. Papazian’s last sentence in his comment was…

“You just can’t get around the fact that many ads are going to be unwanted, no matter how they are targeted….”

Do we have to accept that as our future? It’s certainly the present, but I would hate to think we can’t reach any higher. The first step is to stop accepting advertising the way we know it as the status quo. We’ll be unable to imagine tomorrow if we’re still bound by the limitations of today.

 

The Rise of the Audience Marketplace

Far be it from me to let a theme go before it has been thoroughly beaten to the ground. This column has hosted a lot of speculation on the future of advertising and media buying and today, I’ll continue in that theme.

First, let’s return to a column I wrote almost a month ago about the future of advertising. This was a spin-off on a column penned by Gary Milner – The End of Advertising as We Know It. In it, Gary made a prediction: “I see the rise of a global media hub, like a stock exchange, which will become responsible for transacting all digital programmatic buys.”

Gary talked about the possible reversal of fragmentation of markets by channel and geographic area due to the potential centralization of digital media purchasing. But I see it a little differently than Gary. I don’t see the creation of a media hub – or, at least – that wouldn’t be the end goal. Media would simply be the means to the end. I do see the creation of an audience market based on available data. Actually, even an audience would only be the means to an end. Ultimately, we’re buying one thing – attention. Then it’s our job to create engagement.

The Advertising Research Foundation has been struggling with measuring engagement for a long time now. But it’s because they were trying to measure engagement on a channel-by-channel basis and that’s just not how the world works anymore. Take search, for example. Search is highly effective at advertising, but it’s not engaging. It’s a connecting medium. It enables engagement, but it doesn’t deliver it.

We talk multi-channel a lot, but we talk about it like the holy grail. The grail in this cause is an audience that is likely to give us their attention and once they do that – is likely to become engaged with our message. The multi-channel path to this audience is really inconsequential. We only talk about multi-channel now because we’re stopping short of the real goal, connecting with that audience. What advertising needs to do is give us accurate indicators of those two likelihoods: how likely are they to give us their attention and what is their potential proclivity towards our offer. The future of advertising is in assembling audiences – no matter what the channel – that are at a point where they are interested in the message we have to deliver.

This is where the digitization of media becomes interesting. It’s not because it’s aggregating into a single potential buying point – it’s because it’s allowing us to parallel a single prospect along a path of persuasion, getting important feedback data along the way. In this definition, audience isn’t a static snapshot in time. It becomes an evolving, iterative entity. We have always looked at advertising on an exposure-by-exposure basis. But if we start thinking about persuading an audience that paradigm needs to be shifted. We have to think about having the right conversation, regardless of the channel that happens to be in use at the time.

Our concept of media happens to carry a lot of baggage. In our minds, media is inextricably linked to channel. So when we think media, we are really thinking channels. And, if we believe Marshall McLuhan, the medium dictates the message. But while media has undergone intense fragmentation they’ve also become much more measurable and – thereby – more accountable. We know more than ever about who lies on the other side of a digital medium thanks to an ever increasing amount of shared data. That data is what will drive the advertising marketplace of the future. It’s not about media – it’s about audience.

In the market I envision, you would specify your audience requirements. The criteria used would not be so much our typical segmentations – demography or geography for example. These have always just been proxies for what we really care about; their beliefs about our product and predicted buying behaviors. I believe that thanks to ever increasing amounts of data we’re going to make great strides in understanding the psychology of consumerism. These  will be foundational in the audience marketplace of the future. Predictive marketing will become more and more accurate and allow for increasingly precise targeting on a number of behavioral criteria.

Individual channels will become as irrelevant as the manufacturer that supplies the shock absorbers and tie rods in your new BMW. They will simply be grist for the mill in the audience marketplace. Mar-tech and ever smarter algorithms will do the channel selection and media buying in the background. All you’ll care about is the audience you’re targeting, the recommended creative (again, based on the mar-tech running in the background) and the resulting behaviors. Once your audience has been targeted and engaged, the predicted path of persuasion is continually updated and new channels are engaged as required. You won’t care what channels they are – you’ll simply monitor the progression of persuasion.

 

Media Buying is Just the Tip of Advertising’s Disruptive Iceberg

Two weeks ago, Gary Milner wrote a lucid prediction of what advertising might become. He rightly stated that advertising has been in a 40-year period of disruption. Bingo. He went on to say that he sees a consolidation of media buying into a centralized hub. Again, I don’t question the clarity of Milner’s crystal ball. It makes sense to me.

What is missing from Milner’s column, however, is the truly disruptive iceberg that is threatening to founder advertising as we know it – the total disruption of the relationship between the advertiser and the marketplace. Milner deals primarily with the media buying aspect of advertising but there’s a much bigger question to tackle. He touched on it in one sentence: “The fact is that a vast majority of advertising is increasingly being ignored.”

Yes! Exactly. But why?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because of a disagreement about what advertising should be. We (the buyers) believe advertising’s sole purpose is to inform. But the sellers believe advertising is there to influence buyers. And increasingly, we’re rejecting that definition.

I know. That’s a tough pill to swallow. But let’s apply a little logic to the premise. Bear with me.

Advertising was built on a premise of scarcity. Market places can’t exist without scarcity. There needs to be an imbalance to make an exchange of value worthwhile. Advertising exists because there once was a scarcity of information. We (the buyers) lacked information about products and services. This was primarily because of the inefficiencies inherent in a physical market. So, in return for the information, we traded something of value – our attention. We allowed ourselves to be influenced. We tolerated advertising because we needed it. It was the primary way we gained information about the marketplace.

In Milner’s column, he talks about Peter Diamandis’ 6 stages that drive the destruction of industries: digitalization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization. Milner applied it to the digitization of media. But these same forces are also being applied to information and rather than driving advertising from disruption to a renaissance period, as Milner predicts, I believe we’ve barely scratched the surface of disruption. The ride will only get bumpier from here on.

The digitization of information enables completely new types of marketplaces. Consider the emergence of the two-sided markets that both AirBNB and Uber exemplify. Thanks to the digitization of information, entirely new markets have emerged that allow the flow of information between buyers and suppliers. Because AirBNB and Uber have built their business models astride these flows, they can get a cut of the action.

But the premise of the model is important to understand. AirBNB and Uber are built on the twin platforms of information and enablement. There is no attempt to persuade by the providers of the platforms – because they know those attempts will erode the value of the market they’re enabling. We are not receptive to persuasion (in the form of advertising) because we have access to information that we believe to be more reliable – user reviews and ratings.

The basic premise of advertising has changed. Information is no longer scarce. In fact, through digitization, we have the opposite problem. We have too much information and too little attention to allocate to it. We now need to filter information and increasingly, the filters we apply are objectivity and reliability. That turns the historical value exchange of advertising on its head. This has allowed participatory information marketplaces such as Uber, AirBNB and Google to flourish. In these markets, where information flows freely, advertising that attempts to influence feels awkward, forced and disingenuous. Rather than building trust, advertising erodes it.

This disruption has also driven another trend with dire consequences for advertising as we know it – the “Maker” revolution and the atomization of industries. There are some industries where any of us could participate as producers and vendors. The hospitality industry is one of these. The needs of a traveller are pretty minimal – a bed, a roof, a bathroom. Most of us could provide these if we were so inclined. We don’t need to be Conrad Hilton. These are industries susceptible to atomization – breaking the market down to the individual unit. And it’s in these industries where disruptive information marketplaces will emerge first. But I can’t build a refrigerator. Or a car (yet). In these industries, scale is still required. And these will be the last strongholds of mass advertising.

Milner talked about the digitization of media and the impact on advertising. But there’s a bigger change afoot – the digitization of information in marketplaces that previously relied on scarcity of information to prop up business models. As information goes from scarcity to abundance, these business models will inevitably fall.

Where Should Science Live?

Science, like almost every other aspect of our society, is in the midst of disruption. In that disruption, the very nature of science may be changing. And that is bringing a number of very pertinent questions up.

Two weeks ago I took Malcolm Gladwell to task for oversimplifying science for the sake of a good story. I offered Duncan Watts as a counter example. One reader, Ted Wright, came to Gladwell’s defence and in the process of doing so, took a shot at the reputation of Watts, saying with tongue firmly in cheek, “people who are academically lauded often leave an Ivy League post, in this case at Columbia, to go be a data scientist at Yahoo.”

Mr. Wright (yes, I have finally found Mr. Wright) implies this a bad thing, a step backwards, or even an academic “selling out.” (Note: Watts is now at Microsoft where he’s a principal researcher)

Since Wright offered his comment, I’ve been thinking about it. Where should science live? Is it a sell out when science happens in private companies? Should it be the sole domain of universities? I’m not so sure.

Watts is a sociologist. His area of study is network structures and system behaviors in complex environments. His past studies tend to involve analyzing large data sets to identify patterns of behavior. There are few companies who could provide larger or more representative data sets than Microsoft.

peter-2937-X2

Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google

One such company is Google. And there are many renowned scientists working there. One of them is Peter Norvig, Google’s Director of Research. In a blog post a few years ago where he took issue with Chris Anderson’s Wired article signaling the “End of Theory”, Norvig said:

“(Chris Anderson) correctly noted that the methodology for science is evolving; he cites examples like shotgun sequencing of DNA. Having more data, and more ways to process it, means that we can develop different kinds of theories and models. But that does not mean we throw out the scientific method. It is not “The End of Theory.” It is an important change (or addition) in the methodology and set of tools that are used by science, and perhaps a change in our stereotype of scientific discovery.”

Science as we have known it has always been reductionist in nature. It requires simplification down to a controllable set of variables. It has also relied on a rigorous framework that was most at home in the world of academia. But as Norvig notes, that isn’t necessarily the only viable option now. We live in a world of complexity and the locked down, reductionist approach to science where a certain amount of simplification is required doesn’t really do this world justice. This is particularly true in areas like sociology, which attempts to understand cultural complexity in context. You can’t really do that in a lab.

But perhaps you can do it at Google. Or Microsoft. Or Facebook. These places have reams of data and all the computing power in the world to crunch it. These places precisely meet Norvig’s definition of the evolving methodology of science: “More data, and more ways to process it.”

If that’s the trade-off Duncan Watts decided to make, one can certainly understand it. Scientists follow the path of greatest promise. And when it comes to science that depends on data and processing power, increasing that is best found in places like Microsoft and Google.