It’s doubtful that William Rankine spent much time thinking about marketing. Thermodynamics tends to take a lot of your time.
And while we may not in turn spend much of our day with calculus and control groups, that doesn’t mean that his scientific principles don’t apply to us. The laws of nature apply to all things after all, including marketing.
What’s Rankine got to do with this?
Rankine developed the term “potential energy”. Give a touch of credit for that to Aristotle as well, but Rankine explored the term in a paper in 1853. Potential energy – the thought that an object possesses energy because of its position relative to other objects and stresses within itself – is an applicable marketing concept, even if it didn’t set out to be one.
This is partly because there is a second rule associated with potential energy, which is a bit less explored. This rule says that potential energy is associated with acting forces in that total work only depends on the initial and final positions of the object.
The final position of your marketing, and the total work done on the way, is totally dependent on the initial position of your plan.
Unlock marketing potential with the right questions
Loading your marketing plan with potential energy begins with your customers. The insight and knowledge that they have fuels the strategies that you’ll execute. Those customer insights don’t normally flow freely to your door however, so you’ll need to make sure to ask the right questions first.
Asking the wrong questions leads you to a faster horse. Asking the right questions leads you to a Got Milk? campaign. The wrong questions focus on an exact, yes/no, or formulaic answer. They’re too easy to shrug off, providing you with data of no significance. The right questions get the customer to imagine, to stretch, to dig into the why, or why not.
A perfect example of this comes from Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb. On the first episode of the Masters of Scale podcast, Brian talks about how in the early days of Airbnb they showed up at early users’ doorsteps to inquire how to make the service better. But instead of asking a series of anticipated questions, which would derive normal answers, they switched up the approach.
“We'd ask these questions like, “What can we do to surprise you? What can we do, not to make this better, but to make you tell everyone about it?” And that answer is different. If I say, “What can I do to make this better?” They'll say something small. If I were to say, “Reid, what would it take for me to design something that you would literally tell every single person you've ever encountered?” You start to ask these questions and it really helps you think through this problem.” - Brian Chesky
The entire experience of the early days of Airbnb is a lesson in customer-centric marketing. Brian and co-founder Joe Gabbai spent the time and energy to get to know why Airbnb worked and how to unlock the potential energy in the platform. But one of the keys was asking that right question. Not just asking what could be better, but what does a seven-star experience look like? Or a ten. Or even an eleven.
These types of open-ended questions, which allow the customer to escape the current day, bring potential to your marketing. Another great example is the idea of exploring what you would do if your marketing budget had no requirement for a return. At the end of his 2015 MozCon presentation, Wil Reynolds briefly mentions an idea that Moz integrated which takes 20% of their entire marketing budget and does not tie it to any specific ROI.
We often get caught up in making sure everything that we do has impact. With the power to track everything these days, we want to track, record, measure and analyze everything. This runs opposite of just creating an amazing experience for a customer that would delight them to a point where they’d talk about it to others. It often leads to not trying anything new and keeping to the tried and true. But the tried and true is expected. It’s not talked about. It just is tried (and quite possibly tired).
Marketing can’t wait
Reaching out to customers builds the strength you need to build potential energy. When your marketing plan is driven with customer insights, it creates an internal stress – you know that it’s good and there is an eagerness to let it loose. But an external force always exists that builds upon, or reduces, your potential marketing energy. And that force is budget.
It’s hard to have a conversation without talking about budget. It’s the external force that controls many aspects of your business. It’s unavoidable. When times are tough, marketing tends to get cut. When times are good, there might also be a tendency to keep the scale back. Not because of financial reasons, but to make sure that incoming orders stay in line with production abilities.
But marketing can’t wait. When budget is pulled back - or even remains constant while being spread over more media, more territory, or more product – you lose potential energy in your marketing. To achieve the same results, to end up at the same final position, requires that energy to be made up in some other spot – creativity, sweat equity, or planning.
Even though marketing is instantaneously changeable – most budgets can be cut or added onto within the matter of weeks – the impact of that change is felt long after. Decreasing the potential energy of a marketing plan via budget shortens the end result, but also requires more energy to build the potential back to where it was. Just like a compound bow, the strength required to pull the last 20% is a lot less than the strength required to pull the first 80%.
Marketing can’t wait until everything is perfect, or worse, when it’s not perfect at all. At its most effective, it’s constant and building. Marketing budgets should not act like rockets, releasing tons of energy all at once, only to flame out and leave the rocket to fall back to earth. They should act more like mid-air refueling, constantly providing the necessary fuel to keep the business flying.
Now let it go
Potential energy is just that. Potential. An object at rest will stay at rest, after all. Which means that all the planning in the world won’t help you get to your final destination. It’s only when the plan is executed that the potential energy is released and the end destination gets closer.
Too often it’s easy to get caught up with getting everyone on board. A meeting to cover this or that. The timing isn’t quite right. Too busy. There’s always a reason. But potential energy in marketing has a shelf life. It releases slowly when not launched, leaking out into the world without any impact.
Act. Release the potential energy of your marketing plan. Make a post on Facebook. Update that website. Shoot the TV spot, buy the media, send the mailer, create the email. Perfect potential energy is perfect, but still just potential.
Potential energy creates results
It’s too easy to see the how far you’ve come as the result of the spent energy. After all, that’s probably where all the work was. It’s what you notice, what you feel. But kinetic energy is only possessed when in motion. The amount of potential energy that a marketing plan has when it is released determines how far it will eventually go.
Even at rest a marketing plan carries energy. Customer insights multiply that potential. Budget multiples it even further. The right creative. The right media. These are multipliers. They build upon each other to load your marketing plan with enough energy to carry it to success.
Rankine didn’t work in marketing. But he understood that energy doesn’t disappear, only transforms. Build enough potential energy and when released – when transformed into work – the end goal is reached.