What is quantum marketing?
Well, it’s a theory. A grand, unified theory. A way of seeing the world (of marketing). And it’s a theory best explained through a story—a story about the history of the atom.
For centuries, scientists believed that atoms worked like this:
According to this model, the atom consists of a nucleus and a bunch of adorable little electrons, making neat, predictable circles around that nucleus. Scientists called this the planetary model of the atom because it mimicked the physics at work in outer space. Planets make neat, predictable circles around stars. That’s why the planetary model made so much sense.
With the planetary model in hand, scientists could now explain the entire universe top to bottom, and it was a very happy time in Scientist Land. But unfortunately, it came to a tragic ending in the 1920s. In the 1920s, a clique of clever new scientists began to argue that the planetary model of the atom was all wrong. According to their empirical observations, the electrons in the atom were not making neat, predictable circles around the nucleus.
Instead, the electron seemed to move around at random in a messy electron cloud. It was impossible to predict where the electron would be at any precise moment in time. Scientists could only speak in probabilities: “the electron has an X% chance of being here.” And then came the strangest finding of all: sometimes an electron behaved as though it were in two diﬀerent locations at the exact same time, in a so-called “quantum state.”
A new model of the atom was born: the quantum model.
Now it’s tough for us mere marketers to appreciate what a big deal this was. The quantum model was perhaps the most contrarian idea in the history of science. Einstein himself refused to believe in it and spent most of his life trying (and failing) to disprove the model. For Einstein, science meant precision, not probabilities. Scientists discovered certainties, not uncertainties. And most importantly, science made sense. “Quantum states” did not make sense.
But eventually, consensus opinion caught up with reality. The quantum model was right.
And now, my patient reader, you might be wondering what this elaborate history lesson has to do with B2B marketing. That’s a reasonable question, which I will now attempt to answer.
Well, when I talk to our clients here at LinkedIn, I find that many marketers seem to believe in what could be called a “planetary model” of B2B buying. According to this model, everything about B2B buying is totally predictable. There is a single buyer, a decision-maker. And that decision-maker travels through a “buying journey” or down a “funnel” in an orderly sequential path, never deviating from the course charted by the marketer. There is very little room for uncertainty in this planetary model of B2B buying. The marketer knows everything.
The problem is that the more I learn about B2B buying, the more I become convinced that it looks less like the planetary model and more like the quantum model. B2B buying doesn’t seem very predictable to me. It seems very unpredictable. Very chaotic. Very uncertain.
For starters, there is no decision-maker. There is a distributed network of decision-makers and it’s hard to say who is calling the shots at any particular time. And new decision-makers are dipping in and out of the buying process, oﬀering their opinions. Some of those opinions carry influence, some do not. And the needs of this network arise and disappear at random—sometimes it seems like a decision will be made tomorrow and then it’s pushed back a year.
These are two very diﬀerent models of B2B buying, the planetary model and the quantum model: the predictable model and the unpredictable model. And I’m afraid that you, the marketer, need to make a tough choice here. You need to choose the correct model.
Because at the end of the day, your marketing needs to reflect reality for it to work.
If you choose the planetary model, you are managing a predictable buying process. And how do you manage predictability? You manage it with precision. It’s like launching a satellite: the calculations need to be perfect or it will crash. And 99% of the marketing industry has chosen that path. We have gone all-in on “precision marketing.” The unoﬀicial mantra of the industry is “right person, right message, right time.”
And that mantra makes perfect sense in a predictable universe. If you know exactly who is going to buy, then you just need to reach that exact buyer. If you know exactly what message will be most persuasive, then you need to deliver that exact combination of words. If you know exactly when the buyer will buy, then you need to deliver your message at that exact moment.
But what if you choose the quantum model and decide that the buying process is unpredictable? Well, then you need a very diﬀerent approach. You manage predictability with precision. But you manage unpredictability with probabilities. You consider all potential scenarios and design for all eventualities. You adopt what we call quantum marketing.
Quantum marketing is all about broad, probabilistic thinking. In quantum marketing, you don’t reach exactly the right buyer. You reach anyone who could potentially buy, in either the short-term or in the long-term. You don’t design specific creative for specific buyers. You design creative that’s potentially relevant to a massive set of customers. And you don’t deliver that message at a specific moment in time. You deliver it all the time, so that you never miss a moment.
That’s quantum targeting, quantum creative, and quantum timing.
Let’s talk about what quantum marketing looks like in practice.
We’ll start with quantum targeting. Imagine, for just a second, that you don’t know exactly who is going to buy. What would you do? You would cast a broad net. You would reach all the people who might potentially be able to buy from you. For Colgate, that means anyone with teeth. For IBM, it means anyone who might potentially weigh in on an IT decision.
As an example, let’s pretend that you sell ad space to businesses.
Now in the short-term, maybe you do know exactly who is going to buy from you. If you don’t, you can go talk to one of your salespeople, who can probably tell you who the key decision-makers are for the ad buy. It’s that specific marketing director, IT manager, or CFO, who, as we all know, secretly runs the marketing department.
If you listen to the salesperson and target those specific buyers, yes, you might influence a deal in the short-term. But what about the long-term? What about the future buyers who will be signing deals in four years? Don’t you want to influence those deals, too? If so, you’re going to have to broaden your targeting, because future buyers don’t look like current buyers.
We see this quite clearly in our data. At LinkedIn, we probably have the best career pathing data on the planet. And what we see in our data is that every four years, around 40% of our members change their industry, seniority, function, company size, and company.
So those marketing directors you want to reach? Well, the marketing directors of tomorrow work somewhere else today—at an agency or in an ad sales role. That IT manager? Right now, he’s just a junior IT specialist. That CFO? She hasn’t gone in-house yet; she works at a bank. People change jobs over time. That’s a simple truth that matters in B2B. It’s why hyper-targeted B2B tactics, including some forms of account-based marketing, are, by definition, not capable of driving long-term growth. Hyper-targeting is short-term because it excludes future buyers.
To be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t use any targeting. You need targeting. Not everyone is going to become a marketing director (surgeons, for example, rarely become marketers). But you need to target anyone who has a decent probability of becoming a buyer. So don’t use LinkedIn to hyper-target CMOs. Use LinkedIn to identify and reach future CMOs. In short, target current buyers and future buyers at the same exact time. That’s quantum targeting.
Now let’s move on to quantum creative. We’ve just broadened your targeting. Now you’re targeting everyone in the marketing industry, not just marketing directors. So what should your creative look like? Should you design specific creative for specific segments of the marketing industry? That’s what most marketers will tell you to do, develop “personalized creative.”
But personalized creative only makes sense if you understand people’s tastes on a personal level—if you know precisely what creative will resonate with a specific person. The problem is that you don’t know that. In fact, nobody knows that! Here, I find it instructive to take a look at Disney, a company that knows a thing or two about monetizing creativity...
Is Disney making personalized creative? Are movies like Wall-E designed to resonate with 8-year-old boys in San Diego? No. Movies like Wall-E are designed to resonate with all children. Kids in San Diego and Singapore and Santiago. And not just kids, but grown-ups, too. Disney only knows what works at the broadest level—angsty superheroes, lost animals, etc.
Despite all the hype around creative personalization, it’s worth remembering that there’s never been a successful piece of personalized creative in all of human history. The biggest movies, books, and songs all speak to universal experiences that resonate with everyone.
Similarly, your creative needs to resonate with all potential buyers. Like this “State of Marketing Report” from Salesforce. You’ll notice it’s not called “The State of Marketing at IT Companies with More Than 5,000 Employees in Cincinnati.” The content is not designed for a specific marketing director. It’s designed for everyone who works in marketing.
And that means that if the report accidentally reaches the wrong person, either because it gets shared or due to a targeting snafu, it will still be eﬀective. A marketing manager at a bank can share it with an account director at an agency. The account director can share it with a diﬀerent marketer manager at a telecom company. It can go viral. Personalized creative can never go viral. You can’t share tailored clothes or tailored content.
Creative that will work for all potential buyers—that’s quantum creative.
And finally, we come to quantum timing. Imagine for a second that you don’t know exactly when the buyer is going to buy. You don’t know when the IO will come in from that marketing director. You’re unsure about the right time. What would you do in that scenario?
Well, you would hedge your bets by being present all the time, by being always on.
Financial advisors will tell you not to try to time the market; just buy lots of stocks all the time and wait a long time for compound interest to make you rich. Particle physicists will tell you not to try to time the atom; just assume the electron is in all of those locations at once.
If the bankers can’t time the market and the physicists can’t time the atom, then I would say there’s a 0% chance the marketer can time the customer. “Buying funnels” and “buying journeys” are useful mental models, but keep in mind that the funnel is actually a thought process taking place in another human’s brain. And mind-reading ain’t easy…
At the top of the funnel, buyers’ minds are unpredictable. Sometimes the buyer is aware of your brand, and then a week later he has forgotten the brand. Sometimes the buyer is about to buy, and then her budget gets cut or she finds another solution and she exits the funnel for years.
But what about intent data, you ask me? Can’t we use that to time the customer?
Well, intent is not always a signal of timing—I’ve been about to buy new headphones for five years. Also, intent data is often garbage. And even if it’s not, remember that just like 95% of the universe is dark matter, the vast majority of what buyers do is dark behavior that’s not trackable. So intent signals will never capture the full market opportunity.
Instead of timing your marketing to coincide with specific phases of the funnel, I think you’re better oﬀ just being “always on” with top-funnel brand and bottom-funnel demand. You can run both brand and demand at the same time without much synchronization and still get stellar results. In fact, we have a FinServ who got 10X higher conversion rates from doing exactly that: running brand and demand ads at the same time to the same audience.
And there you have it, our grand, unified theory, quantum marketing.
As we see it, the marketing industry faces a choice. We can choose to put our trust in predictions and invest in ever more precise marketing strategies. Like the scientists who refused to accept the quantum model, we can tell ourselves that any uncertainty in marketing will eventually be squeezed out by better data or better technology.
Or we can admit that uncertainty is hard-coded into the universe and that human behavior will never be predictable. Like the scientists who built quantum computers, we can learn how to manage uncertainty with flexible, probabilistic thinking. We can succeed, despite uncertainty, by developing impersonalized creative relevant to all potential buyers at all potential times.
I can’t predict what choice you’ll make, but I certainly hope you’ll make the right one.