Marketing In A Complex World – A 21st Century View

Marketing evolved mostly in the second half of the 20th Century as an outgrowth of the efforts of large corporations to increase their sales in an organized manner. Although the Internet has had a profound effect on the practice of marketing, it is still as much art as it is science in actual practice. There is no always reliable method for any given business or organization to increase sales, in part because there are so many variables in the dynamic marketplace that cannot be controlled, such as competition, the economy, mass media and other complex systems.

In recent years a new paradigm for understanding complex systems and their dynamics has emerged known as Complexity science, or just complexity for short. I created a simple introduction to “Complexity Made Simple” at

In this framework, an organization is a complex adaptive system (CAS) seeking to survive and thrive like a living organism in an ecosystem (marketplace). Its ability to survive and thrive depends largely on its abilities to adapt to the constantly changing environment. Thus the role of marketing is to enable the organization to monitor, understand and adapt to the changing environment most effectively. That rarely happens.

For most organizations, marketing is the production of outbound promotional communications. Feedback from customers is rarely sought, and formal market research is rarely undertaken. Many people practicing marketing have had no formal training in it – never read a book or took a course in marketing. They just promote the best they can or do what their supervisors direct.

There is indeed great power in good market research. If you consistently ask customers what they want, need and perceive, they will tell you, and in almost every case this creates opportunity for improving the organization’s abilities to create more customer value and sales. However, good market research can be expensive. To get statistically accurate results with a 95% confidence level, the industry standard is to conduct 400 random interviews. Including preparing the survey, making the calls, entering the data, and creating a summary report with recommendations, generally costs at least $12,000 and easily more. We have conducted many market research suveys over the years and always found them to be valuable.

So how can an organization adapt to the constantly changing environment?  Here are a few inexpensive ways:

  1. Create a model (diagram) of the organization and the key components of the external environment. Define the variables that do or might impact your success in significant ways.
  2. Set up Google Alerts (free) to send you email notices anytime new information is gathered by Google concerning those variables (translate the variables into key words). For example I have Google Alerts to track “Lawrimore” (fortunately an unusual last name) and “Charlotte marketing,” a term for which my company website ranks high in Google (by design and hard work).
  3. Read newspapers, magazines, and watch TV news on a daily basis.
  4. Use free online services like Hootsuite to follow what people are saying in real time about your company or keywords on Twitter and other social media.
  5. Participate in the on-going conversation online with your own blog, Twitter page, Facebook, Google Plus and many other social media available on the web. This is the cutting edge of Internet evolution today, and you need to be on that edge to understand the fast-changing market environment, even if you are not normally so inclined.
  6. Periodically check your competitors’ websites to see what they are doing that’s new and different.
  7. Talk with customers on a regular basis. You can do this informally or create a little one-page survey and call them by phone, or have someone else do that. Even 10 or 12 customer interviews can create very useful insights. Don’t bother with simple rating cards like some restaurants or car dealers use, where all they care about is the numeric rating. You need conversations to understand customers’ needs, wants, perceptions and satisfaction levels. Of course if you know these customers personally, they are not likely to give you truly candid answers, so using an independent research firm or consultant to help with this can be more accurate and still affordable.

Well that’s enough for one post. We’ll write more about this later. Meanwhile we invite your comments.

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