Marketing: Probabilistic, not deterministic

In college, one of the courses I enjoyed the most was Operations Research.  There were two versions of this course, a deterministic one and a probabilistic one.  I always regret only having taken the former.

The deterministic course taught you to solve problems like this, “If it costs $X to make metal widgets over 3 weeks with a profit of $A, and $Y to make wooden widgets over 5 weeks with a profit of $B, what is the optimal mix of metal and wooden widgets to make to maximize profit?”

The probabilistic course taught you to solve problems like this, “If 75% of widgets with a Flaw X fail, and only 2% of those without Flaw X fail, and 15% of widgets have Flaw X, what is the chance of any new widget failing?”

This all came to mind because a few days ago a colleague and I were discussing how marketing is totally probabilistic.  There’s no set of events, materials, and interactions that will guarantee a certain outcome.  Everything we’re doing in marketing is to increase probabilities.

Marketing (I’m talking about demand generation / marketing communications marketing, not product marketing) is all about reaching a large audience and successively focusing in on the people in that audience who are most open to learning more, then have the specific pain we’re solving, then are making a decision about how to solve the problem in the near-term.

(If you need a crash course on this, Atlassian did a series of blog posts on it a few years back.)

Optimizing marketing is about (a) increasing the size of the total audience, and (b) increasing the conversion rate for each phase of the funnel.  That is, how can we go to the right events/write the write whitepapers/invite people to the right webinars so that more of the people looking for a solution know about us, and more of the ones who know about us see us as a solution for their shortlist.

But that’s what’s kind of crazy about marketing: It’s always “how can we find more” but there’s no concept of “how can we find all.”  Sure, there are industry benchmarks (things like X% of visitors to your website should visit at least Y pages, and Y% of people who attend a webinar are likely to buy in Z months), but those are merely goals, not guarantees.

In short, there’s no formula that says “Go to VMworld, send these two whitepapers, have these three conversations, and then invite the customer to this private event, then they will buy your product.”

Marketing gets a bad rap – but it shouldn’t.  It’s a key function in a company, and is a lot harder than just writing some press releases and choosing booth graphics for an event.  But thinking through this leads me to wonder if its lack of respect is rooted in its probabilistic – rather than deterministic – nature.

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