Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Science of Marketing?

Reading recent headlines and watching the gyrations of the stock market it’s easy to see why economics earned the epithet “the dismal science.” But is marketing any better? Indeed, is there any science to marketing at all?

Usually not.

Take social media as an example. Normally, marketing treats social media data in the same way that air traffic controllers treat blips on a radar screen – as signals that require careful help in landing, or emergencies demanding evasion on interception. The only difference is we marketeers attempt to land customers and intercept naysayers, rather than planes. Don’t get me wrong – marketing needs radar – but this hardly qualifies as science.

Data by itself isn’t science: Marketing pros usually have an excess of the former and very little of the latter. A scientific approach would require proposing a hypothesis to explain observations or ideas, then devising an experiment to test the hypothesis. It requires the rigorous definition of terms and ways of quantifying things. It demands objectivity.

Tom Webster gets at this distinction is his recent blog post, and argues that we’ll always need a mix of qualitative and quantitative information. It’s tempting to agree with Seth Godin and others and say marketing is both art and science, but this feels like a cope-out to me.

What we can say is that marketing is getting much more quantitative. This is a good thing. I can remember from my teaching days that marketing undergrads hated even the most rudimentary classes on quantitative analysis and statistics – today, they’d be well-advised to take these courses very seriously indeed. Science or not, the future of marketing will clearly move toward a more disciplined and measured approach. But the real gains will be with those organizations that go the next step, and apply more scientific rigor to their marketing investments.

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