Chaos, marketing and magic

  • Voices
  • June 13, 2018
  • Michael Goldthorpe
Chaos, marketing and magic

Way back to high school, I loved algebra and hated statistics. It wasn’t so much the numbers, it was the answers. Algebra was pure math. A+B=C. It’s always true. So B=C-A and A=C-B. Then you puzzle that out with a similar sum and you can actually prove stuff. Quadratic Equations. Yum.

Meanwhile, statistics is applied math. It’s the ‘science’ of probability. The ‘answers’ run to multiple decimal places with ‘standard deviations’ and you never really know the “truth”. I reckon it’s way less satisfying. But that’s just me. More relevant here is why does this matter in marketing?

Marketing metrics are educated guesswork

Just over a hundred years ago, a department-store guy called John Wanamaker famously said “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”. Since then, we’ve used any number of tricks, tests and metrics to get a better idea which half. I don’t think we’ve gotten any closer.

The challenge is, marketing measurement is applied statistics presented as fact. If we make some ads or run a promo, people are more likely to buy our stuff. So far, so much common sense. But did I click your banner ad because I liked the colours? Was it the words? Was it the radio ad I heard on the way to the internet or the fact that I already love your stuff? Or was it just a slip of the mouse? The clear answer to all of that is ‘probably’.

You can't count chaos. Or butterflies.

Next-level statistical study is Chaos Theory. Not my thing. But Wikipedia tells me that Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.” It’s the math of moving parts. And try as smart people do, it’s beyond impossible to calculate them all.

Imagine you smack white for a brilliant break in a game of pool. Where do the balls go? If everything else is equal you could probably work out the physics. But everything isn’t equal. How much chalk? How hard the break, how bumpy the felt? You name it. It makes a difference. Even the smallest of stuff can really stuff you up. That’s the premise of the Butterfly Effect. Obviously, your initial smack makes the biggest difference of all. But the moving parts have a part to play – and that’s the basics of Chaos Theory.

How do we use math to make magic?

You can’t. And that’s why magic feels magical. You can’t explain it. It just is. Imagine you smacked the white, potted three off the break and pretty much cleaned up from there. That’s a magical marketing campaign. So how do you repeat it? Sure you can reset the variables and play again in a similar way, but lightening seldom strikes the same spot twice.

But that’s not to say the math isn’t handy. You’re clear on the direction, you know roughly how hard to hit it and a little expert spin on the cue ball can really help. But trying to drive success through metrics will never guarantee the magic.

Machines make metrics.
People make magic.

A hundred years on from Wanamaker, and we’ve got more ways of counting effectiveness than ever before. We’ve got reach, frequency and databases up the Wazoo. We count clicks, likes, KPIs and NPS. And luckily for those of us who don’t like statistics, these numbers are spat into dashboards from automated systems and clever machines.

But a hundred years on from Wanamaker we still don’t know which half is wasted. We understand the power of brand, we love the efficiency of email, we can count where the people are and what kind of mobile is driving them. But what’s the bit that makes them buy our stuff?

I reckon, it’s the magic. It’s the brand people like to buy from. It’s the packaging that jumps off the shelf. It’s the story they like to share. And the reaction of their friends when they lace up your sneakers or crack into a bottle of your latest brew.

Metrics matter. People matter more.

Of course the metrics matter. But they don’t give us answers. If someone says they can prove stuff with numbers, they’re kidding themselves or over-selling their ‘science’. So what if we spent a little less time on the testing and learning that drives probability and prediction – and more on thinking like a customer, feeling our direction, crafting our creative, crossing our fingers and giving it a crack? That’s where the magic can be found.

  • Michael Goldthorpe is managing partner at Hunch.

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