The New Marketing Paradigms: Social Networks, Chaos and Memes
New ages require new rules. It should be obvious to even casual observers that there is a tectonic shift in marketing taking place and we all have to adapt to a rapidly changing context. What’s not so obvious is what that means. What do we actually have to do to bridge the divide?
Many say that adapting means that we have to abandon old rules and the substrates out of which they grew. In this view, we need to embrace Google, Twitter and Facebook and abandon the old ways of broadcast and print.
However, a more serious approach is to endeavor to understand the forces underlying the change. New paradigms arise when old frameworks prove inadequate to solve modern problems. Yet, for new paradigms to be successful, they need to apply to old ones as well.
What is a Paradigm?
Pre-Paradigm Phase: When something new comes along, nobody is quite sure what to make of it. There are a lot of ideas and opinions, but no clear consensus. It could be argued that many aspects of digital technology, digital media especially, are pre-paradigm.
Normal Phase: At some point, a new framework evolves, problems start getting solved and things start happening. A consensus builds about the “right way of doing things.” It’s not perfect, of course, there are some anomalies that don’t quite fit, but generally speaking, everyone is happy.
Revolutionary Science: Eventually, the anomalies add up or the context changes in a way that makes the earlier paradigm inadequate. A new generation of ideas comes along with novel approaches that make significant progress in solving the important problems of the day.
And on it goes…
New Paradigms Build on Old Ones
Many people confuse Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shifts with Joseph Schumpeter’s ideas about creative destruction, but paradigms are conceptual entities while creative destruction applies to economic entities. That’s an important difference. Individual organizations can live and die, but good ideas live on.
Physicist Leon Lederman illustrates this point well in his acclaimed book, The God Particle, by comparing Newton, Einstein and quantum physics. Einstein, quite famously, replaced Newton’s view of the universe with his own and then was himself supplanted by quantum mechanics, which he never accepted.
However, and this is a crucial but often overlooked point, the new ideas were inclusive of the old ones. Einstein’s physics and quantum mechanics, when applied to Newtonian problems, yield the same results. Moreover, we still use Newtonian physics in industries like engineering, where medium sized objects move nowhere close to the speed of light.
The new marketing paradigms are very similar in this way. Social networks, chaos and memetics are, in most cases, perfectly compatible with what we already do well, but will also help us with plenty of issues where our current performance is less than stellar. As digital technology continues to change the context in which we operate, these three frameworks will only become more central to what we do.
Social Network theory, in it’s current form, has only been around for about a decade. Even so, it has become incredibly important in fields ranging from crime prevention to ecology. It’s ability to describe connections between entities has shed light on so many important topics it would be impossible to list them here.
Unfortunately, much of the talk about social networks has focused on social media and that has created a lot of confusion. More importantly, the focus on social media has inhibited the adoption of social network concepts into conventional marketing, where they can do the most good.
The true value for social network theory for marketers is how well it explains how ideas spread. Moreover, because the theory is essentially a mathematical framework, it will go a long way toward replacing myth and conjecture with logic and testable hypothesis.
This is still a very new area and we still have a long way to go before we truly understand the implications. Nonetheless, there are already some promising approaches. Among the most prominent is Big Seed Marketing, championed by Duncan Watts.
Ever since the time of Gauss, in the early 19th century, we’ve been trained to think in terms of bell curves like this one:
The bell curve assumes that things will “average out” because values tend to be evenly and predictably distributed around an average. It’s important because it forms the basis for modern statistics which is used in financial models, forecasting, risk analysis and other essential business functions.
Therefore, most of the tools we currently use to analyze our businesses are based on the notion that the world is random, but predictably random.
More recently, Benoit Mandelbrot and others started noticing that Gaussian bell curves didn’t explain the world as well as standard statistical methods assume. In fact, most things like income distributions, product sales, language patters and, yes, social networks follow a 80/20 rule or power law that looks like this.
This is what chaos looks like. Notice how the mean (represented by the vertical line) is no longer in the center, but skewed outwards. This is because in a chaotic world there are far more extreme values then in the random world of Gauss.
Randomness is like a child, haphazardly filling in the lines of the bell curve. It’s not systematic, but it is fairly predictable. Chaos is like a felon robbing a few banks and then retreating to the relative tranquility of his hideout only to return, get drunk and break some windows.
In the past, the difference between randomness and chaos went mostly unnoticed. However, as the latest financial crises showed, our world is governed by extreme values. Therefore we need to change our assumptions when we analyze data and make business decisions to take chaos into account.
I touched on some ideas about how to do this in an earlier post about social network analysis.
While the paradigms of social networks and chaos give us new mathematical and conceptual structures about how ideas travel, memetics helps us understand the ideas themselves.
The idea of memes has its roots in evolutionary genetics. The term was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. He invented the term to describe the way ideas, much like genetic traits, need to be replicated in order to prosper. A successful meme is one that is widely shared.
Like genes, memes spread when they are well suited to their environment and their adaptations can be very sophisticated, even counter intuitive. For instance a political meme having to do with economics might combine with an altruism meme and result in a meme about politicians kissing babies.
Like social networks and chaos, the meme paradigm isn’t a single concept, but an entire framework of concepts that help us understand ideas as entities themselves rather than just a linguistic way of describing other things.
An Expanding Marketing Universe
The conceptual universe, like the physical one, is constantly expanding. In a similar vein, just as sometimes stars collapse into black holes, some seemingly sound concepts prove to specious and must be discarded.
However, those are rare events. Order increases with entropy over time. The new order does not wash away the old, it augments it and, in many cases, strengthens it. While we need new ideas like quantum theory and relativity to make things like GPS satellites and iPods, we still use Newtonian principles to build bridges.
So we can adopt the new paradigms without forgetting what we already know. More importantly, we must do so. For most of the interesting and important problems we need to solve in marketing today, social networks, chaos and memes will play an indispensable role.
Note: On October 14th, only three days before I posted this, Benoit Mandelbrot finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 85. It’s an enormous loss and his impact on how we see the world can’t be overstated. I’ll try to get a post out later this week, but for now here’s a TED talk he gave in February, 2010 outlining his life’s work.