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The Modern Marketing Paradox

In 1900, a German physicist named Max Planck published research that changed the world.

Up until that time, forms of energy, like light, were thought to flow like continuous streams. But according to Britannica, Planck blew the world’s collective mind when he proved that energy “… is emitted … in discrete energy packets, or quanta.”

Quantum physics was born.

Planck proved that energy emanates in specific bitesize pieces. A world that was formerly thought to be immeasurable was now open wide to discovery.

Similarly, the rise of the internet and digital marketing enabled measurement in ways never thought possible. In fact, one of the fundamental promises of the digital future was the measurability of marketing. Business leaders everywhere rejoiced that they were on the cusp of knowing exactly which half of their marketing dollars were wasted.

So why haven’t we achieved the marketing nirvana promised so many years ago?

The truth is we might be going in the opposite direction. The surprise presidential election, Google’s recent admission of ad fraud, the faulty Brexit predictions, Facebook’s ongoing data inaccuracies, the flailing world of research and polling and more all point to a disturbing paradox.

We can measure marketing more precisely than ever in history, yet consumer behavior is only getting more uncertain.

In a twist of irony, the very technology that was supposed to help us measure marketing ROI might be undermining it.

Quantum Technology

You probably don’t realize it, but most of the technology that defines your life and modern business is enabled by quantum physics.

The screen you’re looking at right now? Quantum physics. The fiber optic cables you’re relying on to connect you to the internet? Quantum physics. GPS, MRI technology, lasers, atomic clocks — the list goes on.

Chad Orzel, associate professor at Union College, explained, “Desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, even small household appliances and kids’ toys are driven by computer chips that simply would not be possible to make without our modern understanding of quantum physics.”

Technology built from quantum physics has changed the world and fundamentally altered how businesses and consumers interact. But new technology isn’t just affecting the way we conduct commerce; it’s changing the culture itself, requiring an entirely new perspective on marketing.

Quantum Culture

As consumers adopt technology built from quantum physics, their expectations and perceptions of time and space are changing right along with their tech habits.

According to Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock, consumers are losing their sense of time. Thanks to a near-addiction to smartphones and social media, consumers are eschewing concepts of the past and future for an all-consuming now. The result is a culture that feels like it is floating in space, untethered to a shared past or common future.

This new timeless culture is fundamentally changing expectations of business. Google research showed that online searches for terms such as “same-day shipping,” “open now” and “tonight” or “today” have increased as much as 150% since 2015. As Lisa Gevelber, Google’s VP of Marketing for the Americas, wrote: “People are searching at the exact moment they need something and are looking for places that can meet their immediate need. In other words, when making these on-the-spot decisions, they are more loyal to their need than to any particular place.”

Quantum technology is creating a “quantum culture” that plays by entirely different rules. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more and more headlines questioning the accuracy of Facebook and Twitter consumer data and bemoaning rising confusion about marketing attribution models.

If physicists want to understand quantum physics, they must look at time and space differently. If marketers want to understand modern consumers, they must do the same.

Quantum Paradox

Just when you think you have a handle on things, quantum physics gets weirder. According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, we cannot know both the velocity and the position of a particle at the same time.

Wait, what?

That’s right. At the smallest scale, the more precisely we measure a particle’s velocity, the less precisely we can measure its position — and vice versa. Writing on the topic, Alok Jha said the Uncertainty Principle shows that there is “a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behavior of quantum particles … the most we can hope for is to calculate probabilities for where things are and how they will behave.”

In other words, as opposed to the clockwork world of cause and effect and precise measurability described by Newton and Einstein, the Uncertainty Principle proves that there is a fundamental “fuzziness” beneath our physical reality.

And there we have it: the modern marketing paradox. As technology makes consumer behavior look more and more like the quantum physics that enables it, business itself is experiencing a sort of Marketing Uncertainty Principle: The more precisely we can measure marketing, the more uncertainty surrounds consumer behavior.

This paradox explains why our increasingly sophisticated marketing tools fail to predict or fully explain consumer behavior. To quote Alok Jha again, just like particles at the smallest scale, the best we can hope for in marketing “is to calculate probabilities for where things are and how they will behave.”

Alas, the great digital promise of measurability in marketing is being exposed as wishful thinking. Just as quantum physics exposed Einstein’s conception of a clockwork world as incomplete.

The closer you look, the fuzzier things get.

Business may be more “quantized” than ever, but the uncertainties of the human heart are still confounding the world’s scientists, marketing and otherwise.

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Published on November 20th, 2017

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