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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Marketing Uncertainty Principle

"Anyone who says that they understand Quantum Mechanics does not understand Quantum Mechanics"- Richard Feynman

Yes, I am about to draw a comparison between marketing and quantum physics. (I'll wait a moment for those of you who believe you came to the wrong classroom to head for the door.)

Quantum physics (the study of the very, very small) is, at its heart, about probabilities. This characteristic led Albert Einstein, who felt that the theory was incomplete, to remark, "God does not play dice with the universe."

Here's the kind of thing that bugged him: Take at close look at a group of 100 atoms of uranium 235 (take your time, you're gonna need it). Every once in a while, you'll see a thing called an alpha particle buzz off and in doing so, change the atom from where it came from uranium into lead. Wait around about 704 million years (I warned you), and half of the atoms will have changed identity.

Here's the rub: During that entire time, no matter how hard you tried, you'd never be able to accurately predict which of those atoms was going to emit the alpha particle. All the evidence we have (and it seems pretty unequivocal) says that this inability to predict isn't our fault, for not knowing enough about some hidden forces bouncing around in the atom, for example. No, this is just how it is. We can, with 100% confidence, know that, after 704 million years, half of the uranium will have turned into lead, but we can never, I repeat, never, know when and which atom will transmute during that time.

People seem to be a lot like uranium.

In my last post, I related my experience with using past behavior and demographics to predict future buying behavior. Bottom line: It didn't work. I could, with a very high degree of accuracy, determine what percentage of a group would respond to my offer, but I could never seem to predict - above the level of random chance - the behavior of any single individual.

Again, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I believe most of the world's troubles come from over-simplifying and stereotyping people, manifested in characteristics such as racism, sexism, jingoism and...(insert your least favorite "ism" here).

What's weird is that we all know this. None of us has ever met anyone who is identical to someone else. We're all aware that the future is unpredictable.

And yet many of us continue to visit readers and advisors, astrologers and "psychics." We pay them, all the time recognizing the dissonance: if the psychic could really foresee events, they would buy the right stocks and lottery tickets. They don't, because they can't.

And we, as marketers, keep trying methods to increase the probabilities of predicting buying behavior.

Despite what you might think from what I've written so far, I'm not giving up, because I think the name of this site alludes to something that just may work - a method of marketing that has always seemed to be effective, and has been greatly enabled, thanks to the Internet. It's a form of persuasion that recognizes and capitalizes on the uniqueness of individuals.

It's called Conversation Marketing. I'll have more to say about it next time around.

Disclaimer: The portion of this post describing the transmutation of uranium was lifted from another self-penned article, entitled Oprah's fat again and she doesn't know why.

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