Why I have become a Trekkie, at least temporarily…

A bit of my background might help, I was trained as a physicist, studying the behaviour of complicated fluids, like clothes softener and axle fluid.

Ever since I began analysing people rather than particles, I have felt that liquids are a better analogy of group behaviour rather than gases.

So why is this important? Lots of models of behaviour, especially within marketing and economics, assume that individual’s behave independently, responding to the choices in front of us by “rationally” identifying what is best for ourselves. However, the current mix of psychology and behavioural economics, has provided compelling evidence that this isn’t how we individually really behave.  As we each negotiate our way through many different complicated and complex choices and decisions, we take mental shortcuts, rather than being overwhelmed by too much activity. One of the most prevalent shortcuts we use seems to be an almost hard-wired instinct to copy others, both knowingly and subconsciously.  Often this is disparaged as “irrational”, but I am firmly of the opinion that the “irrational” only applies when a decision is looked at in isolation, once we acknowledge the many decisions required, copying is just a sensible way of utilising other people’s thinking and cooperating together.

Now to make the connection with liquids. This rational “copying” strategy for the navigation of complex environments immediately generates interactions between local individuals. It is the significant influence of local interactions that distinguishes gases from liquids. So what are the implications of thinking about liquids.  The distinctive property of a liquid is that they are wet. What does this wetness mean? How is this relevant to marketing analysis of markets, consumers and prospects? How does this relate to Star Trek and beyond?

For a while, I have focused this analogy as gases begin to cool down and condense on cool surfaces. Think of an early morning mist, or the bathroom window in winter as hot air contacts the cool surface.  What forms are droplets of water, small local regions of “wetness”, and I have studied the locations and characteristics of “hotspots” of consumers and supporters. I accept that I am guilty of a mixed metaphor, as the droplets of water occur when the gas is cooling. The application of this analogy, particularly identifying “droplet” size distributions, has proved useful in demonstrating the significant presence of interactions, counteracting the traditional focus on detailed targeting based upon individual attributes and suggesting alternative successful marketing strategies. However some of my recent analysis has severely challenged this use of the analogy. The challenge has pushed me in a direction that is conceptually much harder to visualise and can really challenge our intuitions, in the middle of watching the latest Star Trek I realised it might help with some of this novel thinking.

So what was the challenge to the condensation analogy. Simply that I hadn’t gone far enough. I have recently been able to introduce some consumer behaviour into old physics models of liquids and gases, and it through up some fascinating challenges. In short, it showed that we have to accepted into our analogy the high levels of complexity in our interactions. We each interact with people in many different locations, including home, work, retail, leisure and the many journeys in between, each of these present opportunities to imitate, copy and discuss ideas. These high levels of displaced interconnectivity present the opportunity to establish a wide ranging swarm of coordinated behaviour, and the recent analysis suggests that this begins to kick in at very low levels of penetration.

And here is where the new film, “Star Trek: Beyond” might help a little, in the re-orientation of our thinking. The latest evil villain, out to thwart the hegemony of the Federation, has found a way to create a fighting force that consists of thousands of small craft, rather than a handful of space ships. Previous villians have stuck to large space ships, Khan, had to steel one, the Klingons and Romulsns used cloaking devices to protect theirs. This time the Enterprise is surprised and overwhelmed by a swarm of thousands of little ships under the indirect influence of Krall.  The Enterprise has nowhere central to destroy as the swarm just absorbs in-effective hits, as it self regulates and adjusts itself without the need for a central control mechanism but rather multiple interactions between all the small scale individuals’ neighbours. The jeopardy is setup, with the Enterprise crashing to ground on a strange planet and Kirk has to get the team back in the air, to save another Federation outpost at risk of being overwhelmed by the avenging Krall. So as not to create too many plot spoilers I will leave you to guess the outcome, apart from referencing the key scene that helps with network, continuum thinking.

With Kirk, and squad, back in the air on route to being heroic, they ambush the enemy force about as it is about to pounce on the unsuspecting outpost. To their surprise, they find that their initial shots are completely ineffective, Spook, of course, comes up with the correct diagnosis. The enemy are operating as a swarm, propagating short range interactions between each other. Rather than taking pot-shots at individual components, the network communications need to be disrupted.  Along comes some previously referenced, Beastie Boys analogue music that can be blasted across space to generate a noisy disruption across the radio spectrum. Leave aside technicalities, for example how is analogue “noise” transmitted across the vacuum of space, and notice that when the mini-craft’s local interactions are disrupted, the swarm effectively self-destructs, the individual vehicles collide with each other and a destructive chain reaction propagates through the cloud.

So back to terra-firma, if our customers and supporters are beginning to behaviour like swarms how should this change our thinking? Firstly, it is probably a good idea to find a better word than swarm. Our recent Prime Minister got his fingers rightly burned when he use that word. It would be good to think of customers in a more positive light. So rather than a swarm I suggest thinking of a flock, perhaps visualise a flock of birds. Secondly, we need to begin to challenge our natural tendency to think about individuals in isolation. This is extremely difficult as we all naturally see the world from our own perspective as an individual. This leads to us thinking about single, one to one, direct transactions and communications, much like the Star Trek team, initially taking shots, be it lasers, pulsars or missiles. Instead we need to find ways to cooperate with the flock collectively, seeking to enhance the autonomy of our customers and encourage interaction and cooperation. This is where the analogy with Star Trek begins to fail. For them, it was necessary to destroy the swarm, to protect the outpost, and this was acheived by disrupting the interactions. I suggest that in a marketing context the benefits arise if the basis of the swarm or flock is strengthened and nudged into supporting the brand.

There are some potential big upsides if this changed perspective really does reflect reality. It can also help explain some of the difficulties currently encountered by maintaining an individual perspective.

First the potential consequence of not making a change. If the focus remains on investing more and more into direct communications that seek to pick off individuals, even if the message is delivered at the right time and in the right place, costs will continue to rise, and if the communications fragment, then the network and flock of customers might well fracture and cease to positively reinforce behaviour. So in future costs might well continue to rise, whilst effectiveness goes down. Without a change of perspective, we could begin to look like the definition of foolishness, expecting to continue behaviouring in the same way but with different outcomes. In-advertently we might effectively introduce so much noise that the network self-destructs, just like the latest Star Trek.

Alternatively, we can step back and consider how to enhance network behaviour and encourage different communications between customers. By implication, we have to accept some loss of direct control and potentially allow less detailed targeting, in the current climate of privacy and permissioning this may turn necessity into an opportunity. Loss of control is ok as long as there is the potential to strengthen the collective network. The second positive change is to begin to think in terms of thresholds rather than dials. To strengthen a network, interactions are counted it they exist above a certain level. Once that level is achieved little is gained by increasing it strength. The focus needs to be on new opportunities for additional interaction. Marketing focus should be on additional interactions, rather than stronger interactions. Sadly, for more traditional thinking, these network theories also indicate that these detailed interactions between local participants matter very little, even though we our perceived value increases. If we can begin to accept these changes to thinking and focus on these large scale wet regions, we can enter the tantalising world of low energy non-linear responses that can deliver wide ranging changes in behaviour.

At the risk of leaving you with a mixed metaphor. We can move beyond thinking about our contiguous pool of customers and begin to think further about birds. Initially they might be wondering around the field, individually searching for seeds each in a world of their own. A slight change in surroundings can cause a handful to begin to fly, and the rest of their neighbours cannot resist copying the injection of energy. Before your eyes the whole flock rises into the air coordinated, engaged and moving rapidly, that is the opportunity that becomes available once a network is ignited. Perhaps this is what is happening underneath a campaign that goes viral.

Back to Star Trek, after the situation seemed hopeless, with no response and increasing desperation, the Beastie Boys were turned on, the network took over and the Federation was saved. So perhaps we too should step back, forget the individuals and think of the collective possibilities, to boldy go where few marketeers have gone before.

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