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The Physics of Marketing – Huygens’ Principle

Christiaan Huygens

You would think that if you did something like discover the rings of Saturn, discover Saturn’s largest moon – Titan – and then go on to invent and patent the first pendulum clock, that you would be a household name.  Now assume you not only did all those things, AND also collaborated with Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, and Rene Descartes during your career.  Pretty impressive resume to say the least.

The person I am describing is 17th century Dutch Physicist Christiaan Huygens.  To say this guy was smart and influential is like saying Jimmy Hendrix was a pretty good guitar player who had a few good songs.   Huygens was a thought leader of his time, with a very impressive body of work.  One of his primary discoveries was that of Huygens’ Principle which predicts the progression of waves.

Huygens stated that “every point on a wavefront acts like a new source of wave energy, with matching frequency and phase.”  Thus when you drop a pebble in water, the wave front each of the ripples that spreads out in a circular expanding fashion represents a new set of waves.  Another example of this is observed when you hear someone in an adjacent room shouting, the sound actually enters the room you are in through the doorway.  So to you the sound, the vibration of air via soundwaves, originates at the doorway.

In Marketing terms this seem to equate nicely to the concept of word of mouth marketing.  Suppose you were to have an awful service encounter with a business, the initial wave would then be created.  If for example, this were in a restaurant where the food was bad, the service poor, and the experience was very disappointing, the initial wave might begin with those seated at your table and others within the restaurant.  If the experience were bad enough, this wave would quickly spread as you left the restaurant and told your friends “Don’t Eat At That Place!  Listen is what happened to us!”

Now all of those friends you told about your experience represent a new source of wave energy, spreading the message outward yet again. God forbid this is not an isolated incident.  In this case, as waves continue to spread and touch consumers, the results to a business are devistating.  Imagine when you told your friends about the bad experience if they responded “you are the 10th person I have heard from who had a bad experience at that restaurant.”   Now think about what happens when you get on the web and voice your complaint to the world.  Your experience is viewed by others, Google picks up on a new trend, and the wave continues onward…

Pete Blackshaw articulates this scenario brilliantly in his book, Satisfied Customers Tell 3 Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000.  He brilliantly describes the importance of word of mouth in a digital age, how to monitor and participate in what is being said, and ultimately why companies need to realize the fact that angry customers can make Tsunami sized waves that can literally destroy a business.

Returning to Huygens, it is imperative to realize that the transaction transcends the immediate and present set of circumstances.  It radiates outward.  No, losing one sale due to poor service might not cripple a business, but the resulting wave that this dissatisfaction generates might – especially if the event is systemic as opposed to an isolated incident.  The interconnected world in which we live makes it nearly impossible to do people wrong and live very long.

Conversely, the little extras that make a customer experience great might not immediately translate into huge profits, but over time, as the waves spread, these differences can create a ripple effect that builds deep customer loyalty and lasting success.

How would you apply Huygens’ Principle to Marketing?  Please share your thougths by leaving a comment.