During the course of a normal business week I’m usually asked how someone with a background in high-energy physics and engineering ended up in the field of marketing and public relations. Whenever the question comes up I inevitably think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Alice is at the tea party with the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and the March Hare, when out of the blue the Hatter asks: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” Before Alice can answer, the conversation abruptly shifts direction. Finally, after more tomfoolery the Hatter asks:
“Have you guessed the riddle yet?“
“No, I give it up,“ Alice replies. “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” says the Hatter.
Alice sighs wearily. “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.”
When I first made the transition from physics to marketing, I felt a lot like Alice – continually encountering a series of puzzles and riddles that seemed to have no clear solutions. I fully expected the marketing situations I encountered would make a certain kind of sense, but I was repeatedly frustrated by my inability to quickly chart this new landscape. At my tea party, the Mad Hatter’s riddle would have been: “Why is marketing like a particle accelerator?”
Over time, I came to realize the two actually have more in common than one might initially suspect. They both involve positioning ‘entities’ to interact at exactly the right place and at exactly the right time in order to produce something new.
Particle accelerators (like the recently decommissioned Tevatron at Fermilab), work by accelerating elementary particles confined inside a beam pipe to very high kinetic energy. As the particles whirl around the pipe at nearly the speed of light, they are positioned to collide with each other at key predefined locations.
Collisions between particles create showers of new particles. At the colliding point, massive detectors record the flight path, energy, momentum and electric charge of these newly created particles. By analyzing these parameters, scientists gain insight into the evolution and nature of matter.
Like a particle accelerator, marketing involves bringing together producers and consumers at exactly the right time and exactly the right place to produce a slightly different set of collisions. A successful marketing collision involves the creation of value in the form of a transaction. The byproducts of a successful transaction include profit (for the producer) and a satisfied need (for the consumer).
To further the analogy, consider the massive detectors used to track newly created particles. Now think about applications like Facebook, Foursquare and Pinterest. Like the elementary particles illustrated above, as we whirl around the beam pipe we affectionately call the Internet, we leave own distinct trails. Instead of energy, momentum and electric charge, the information we leave behind typically includes age, gender, interests, location, occupation and even friends’ interests. Like scientists in a physics laboratory, marketers study these trails hoping to glean new insight into our behavior.
Why is marketing like a particle accelerator? In the realm of high-energy physics, an accelerator creates opportunities for exchange in the form of particle collisions. In the realm of business, marketing creates opportunities for exchange in the form of transactions. In both cases, the outcome of a successful exchange event is the creation of something new.