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The Physics of Marketing – Brownian Motion

In 1827 Robert Brown was trying to observe the fertilization process of flowers under a microscope when he noticed slight movements in the grains of pollen, which were suspended in water.  “Were the particles alive?”  “No, so how did they move?”  The answer is Brownian Motion.  The pollen on the microscope’s slide was suspended in water.  Thus the movement of the pollen was not due to the pollen being alive, but was actually caused by the constant and random movement of the water molecules which were bumping into the pollen.  These collisions created the illusion of the pollen being alive.  In actuality the movement was a by-product of the movement of the water.

This phenomenon can be observed in the way that air pollution spreads, or how dust particles seem to dance about in a sunbeam gleaming through a window.  Brownian motion can be influenced by things like the type and temperature of the particular gas or liquid in which something is suspended.  For example molecules in warm water are more active than in cold water, and thus would result in more movement.

How does the concept of Brownian Motion pertain to marketing?

For me this is very similar to the concept of signal versus noise, discussed by Don Wheeler in his book Understanding Variation.  The central premise is that a data without context is basically meaningless, and that changes in numerical values are not necessarily representative of real change.  Wheeler asserts that “the first mistake in interpreting data is to interpret noise as if it were a signal.”  The second is to “fail to detect a signal when it is present.”

Much like Brown’s initial reaction to the moving pollen, business leaders can mistakenly attach value to motion.  So the 5% increase in sales that made everyone feel so great, could actually be the act of random motion.  The increase in the response rate on that piece of direct mail – might just be noise.  Conversely, the decrease in hits to your web site might just be the result of random movement.  There is a certain amount of variation inherent to everything.  Thus, making the numbers or beating the numbers can be misleading.

Just as happens in suspensions, every environment is different.  And just as temperature and chemical composition influence the amount of variation, so do things like competition, market saturation, market awareness, and other factors.  Some industries may have little fluction, some may have substantial changes.  As Wheeler states, The Voice of the Customer decides what you want from the system, the Voice of the Process decides what you will get.  “It’s Management’s job to bring the voice of the process into alignment with the voice of the customer.”  That is how real motion, not random motion, takes place.

As a marketer it is important not to attach too much importance to individual data points, (the numbers are up today, the numbers are down today) but rather to view the data as a whole.   Variation, or random movement, is inherent to nature.  One must take the time to separate the signals from the noise, and then to act accordingly.

How would you apply Brownian Motion to Marketing or Business?  Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.