Marketing is part art, part science. In the past, there was probably too much focus on art.

Now with the advent of new technologies like the internet, I’d argue there’s probably too much focus on science. The truth is that good marketing incorporates both.

Unfortunately, as science has taken a more prominent role in the marketing world at the expense of art, the notion that there are formulaic methodologies for creating a successful marketing campaign is being accepted by more and more people in the marketing community.

Some have gone so far as to say that technology is going to completely redefine what marketing is.

Kool aid sipper Hank Williams, for instance, recently wrote a post entitled “In 10 Years, Marketing Will Be Taught In Engineering School”, stating:

“Marketing is still primarily perceived as a fuzzy touchy feely discipline. But the Internet is bringing this to an end rapidly. In ten years our current perspectives on this will seem quaint.

“Marketing will be much more like what Wall Street quant guys do. Everything will be math. There will be few “soft” taste judgments.”

While I don’t believe that there’s anything wrong with leveraging technology to make marketing more effective, especially in the areas of targeting and tracking, the lack of perspective that so many technologists exhibit should disturb sensible marketers.

I recently came across a perfect example of the robotic thinking exhibited by many “geeks” who have fashioned themselves as marketing minds (if not marketing experts).

This post by “Jesse,” who writes a blog “aimed first and foremost at programmers, computer scientists, and mathematicians,” was of particular interest because it attempts to apply mathematical theory to the problem of marketing on social networks through “influential” users.

Given my recent post on ‘Influentials’, Jesse’s article is quite timely. Jesse starts off by stating:

“Let’s step back and think like a marketer for a second. Facebook, thanks to the newsfeed, is essentially a word-of-mouth engine. Everything I do, from installing applications to commenting on photos, is broadcast to all my friends via the newsfeed. Intuitively, however, we know that some people are just more influential than others.”

I’m always amused that ostensibly smart people will make incredible efforts to provide some sort of logical rationale for their hypotheses. Yet these hypotheses are often flawed simply because they’re based on the most unscientific of concepts: intuition.

I’m not dismissive of the idea that different people have different levels of influence, however as I pointed out, this is not a black and white issue.

Influence is nuanced and hard-to-predict. Some people might exhibit greater influence among their contacts in some realms (i.e. fashion) while having little to no influence in others (i.e. films).

Jesse writes:

“If my cool friend writes a note about an awesome new shop he found in the Lower Haight I’m probably going to pay more attention. People like this, who are influential and highly connected, are a marketer’s dream.

“If I can identify and target these people, “infecting” them with my marketing, I’ll get ten times my return than I would going after random people in my target demographic.”

Unfortunately, according to actual experiments, this simply isn’t the case. I find it amusing that any self-respecting geek would simply throw around figures (”ten times my return”) without providing any logical and mathematical rationale for them.

Is this the type of science marketers are going to rely on? I hope not.

Jesse’s post continues:

Consider a corporate hierarchy in a large company. The CEO only has direct relationships with his board, the VPs, and maybe a few other employees. He is undeniably more influential than an administrative assistant to the deputy regional director of sales for Southern Montana and yet might have fewer direct connections.

“One way to capture this sort of indirect influence is to use a measurement called eigenvalue (or eigenvector) centrality.
The idea is this: a person’s influence is proportional to total influence of the people to whom he is connected. We’ll call this influence measure Ie.”

The primary problem with this rationale is that Jesse again assumes that influence has no nuance. That is, a person simply has a static level of overall influence. I believe this is flawed.

Let’s take Jesse’s CEO/administrative assistant example. Jesse believes that, even though the CEO has fewer direct connections, he is simply more influential than the administrative assistant to the deputy regional director of sales for Southern Montana, who may have more direct connections.

Is this really always the case, however? Two of a potentially infinite number of hypotheticals demonstrate that the situation is not black and white:

  • Because the administrative assistant is always personally responsible for booking her boss’ travel arrangements, other employees might trust (and seek out) her travel recommendations while they would be far less likely to seek out recommendations originating from the CEO. An executive himself may actually be influenced by his administrative assistant in many areas.
  • Because the administrative assistant, due to her position, is probably privy to a wide range of information about the company’s activities (information of which a top executive might not be aware), others may consider her to be a better source of information about “what’s going on” (thus influencing their perceptions and decisions more than the CEO).

I’ve seen just how nuanced, subtle and downright unpredictable influence is in my own business dealings.

When I was getting my start in the business world, I assumed that to make things happen, I needed to get to a top executive with decision-making capabilities.

What I quickly learned, however, is that the decision-making process is often a lot more complex when you look beneath the surface.

That is, assuming that the CEO is the most influential person in the company because he signed a deal belies the fact that the deal really occurred because of a chain of events led by other people who, to the unobservant, would seem to have far less influence.

More often than not, the “spark” that leads to a decision comes from unexpected sources.

When I try to put deals together today, it’s rare that I go straight to the top; I instead often look for an “advocate” who is in a position to advance my cause and has the motivation to do so because some of his interests can be aligned with my own.

Quite honestly, however, as much as I do my best to try to identify who is going to be my advocate, sometimes the advocate appears quite randomly because of some intangible that I never would have thought to be of importance (i.e. the person liked me because of some common background trait).

Thus, I try to target less and cast a wide net when necessary.

The point of this discussion is that influence is a complicated phenomenon with lots of subtleties that cannot be formulaically predicted.

Obviously, Jesse’s post deals with only one facet of online marketing, but I think it does highlight the danger that exists when marketers take a purely “scientific” approach to marketing. A lot gets lost.

The consumer decision-making process is comprised of quantitative considerations (price etc.) and qualitative considerations (perceived quality etc.).

Is it then not unreasonable to recognise that marketing too is comprised of quantitative factors as well as qualitative factors?

Marketers that focus solely on the aspects of marketing that can be quantified and neglect the aspects that are qualitative are essentially ignoring half the “equation.”

I believe that in most endeavours in life, a holistic approach is almost always more conducive to success than a narrow-minded approach and smart marketers won’t lose sight of that.

If they do, I think they’ll find the returns from their science-based efforts to be just as disappointing as their past art-based efforts.