SIZE MATTERS. REALLY.

Thinking of hiring a social media strategist or a sales representative/associate? We’d recommend having them undertake an fMRI scan slotted between the CV review and the interview stage. This may seem like a slightly drastic measure, but British psychologists and anthropologists from the Royal Society B have shown a direct linear correlation between the size of a person’s orbital prefrontal cortex and the size of a person’s social network. Earl Miller and Jonathan Cohen’s research further found that dysfunction in this area causes social defects. However, unfortunately this doesn’t mean that the more people that follow you on Twitter, the larger your brain will become, as, by your early twenties, your prefrontal cortex size has more or less reached maturity after the extensive neuronal pruning that takes place during adolescence. It basically means that if you happen to have been genetically granted a large prefrontal cortex, you should naturally be able to manage your social groups to a higher standard than your smaller prefrontal cortex carrier companions.

The study behind this observation invaded old territory for one of the researchers, anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Back in 1992, Dunbar showed that the size of the neo-cortex (in which the pre-frontal cortex is contained) relative to the rest of a primates brain, was larger as the size of the subject’s social group increased. In the same paper, Dunbar identified the “Dunbar Number” as the cognitive limit to the number of meaningful relationships a person can reasonably maintain. The Dunbar number ranges between 100-230 relationships but 150 is the widely accepted average value. Dunbar asserted that this number is the same throughout all cultures and has not altered through the course of history. Does this mean we should carefully shape and prune our facebook friends down to a select few before the cut-off point at that crucial 150th friend request? And could this mean that those of us not as well endowed in the prefrontal cortex area should make the friends cut at an even lower value than 150? The research is continuing, especially as social media is quickly becoming the largest form of communication both on a personal and business level.

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So Dunbar’s demonstration of neo cortex size relating to ease of social group maintenance seemingly lends credibility to the notion that our brains aren’t big to be smart in an academic sense, but to help us manage and maintain the relationships that will ultimately lead to our survival. After all, having a strong social base has been proven to reduce short term and long term stress. This stress dwells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is vulnerable to and becomes damaged under prolonged stress, eventually leading to atrophy and memory problems. As well as being less prone to these problems, those in possession of the ideal prefrontal cortices could possibly start being sought out by businesses looking for employees with strong social connections.

However, according to some research, a worthy prefrontal cortex alone might not land you in the running for being up there with the highest ranked natural social butterflies. Another key player needed on the brain team is a strong theory of mind. The theory of mind could be described as a kind of social radar, being able to relate to and empathise heavily with others. It also allows a person to attribute thoughts, intentions and desires to other people and to predict or explain the consequent actions of others. So, in addition to our earlier point, a strong theory of mind coupled with an above-average orbital prefrontal cortex would be a near-perfect predictor of a person’s ability to handle a hefty social network. And the science seems to suggest that some people are just more wired (quite literally in neuronal terms) for social encounters than others. What does this mean? Perhaps that you should take the nature over nurture option and seek out the naturals at forging social connections over the smaller pre-frontal cortex-harbouring individuals when looking for potential networkers for your organisation. Or invest in Human Resources and fund that MRI programme as part of the recruitment process.

Seriously, besides being interesting, there’s a point here. We think that over the next decade marketing and disciplines like psychology will increasingly collide. That’s because one has the power to improve the performance of the other. Multi-million pound MRI machines aren’t the short term future of marketing enablement, but an enhanced understanding of the human mind – something we refer to casually as”neuro-marketing” – is.

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What’s wrong and what’s right…

Some random thoughts about marketing topics that have become caught under our wheels in the past few months. This is an update of a blog published elsewhere, a few months ago. In marketing, views can change (and frequently do) but the underlying subject matter doesn’t.

1.       Trade shows, conferences, and events – rigor mortis sets in. For some time now I’ve questioned the continued validity of the conference/trade fair/exhibit hall as a lever of marketing. In my view, at least where high-cost enterprise applications are concerned, I’ve seen nothing in two years or more to persuade me to change my mind. Yes, I get that a single sale will justify the myriad time and expense involved in attending shows but that’s not a justification for exhibiting unless it’s the only way you can get that deal. And it’s not (or at least it shouldn’t be if you’re marketing properly). Great conferences are — arguably — great for learning and sharing ideas; far less so for generating measurable business. In the main, people drink with old friends and are afforded the opportunity to thus feel reasonably important. But someone has to continue to point out that the emperor is naked. The fear that your competitors don’t mind exposing themselves in public (by pointlessly attending such shows) shouldn’t lead you to disrobe yourself.

2.       Creativity and the job market – I am always bemused how a small coterie of individuals in any given niche (within a vertical market) seem to play musical jobs. You know the guys; usually high profile with an eye for an opportunity to self-promote; show me an industry committee and they’ll be on it. And they’ll have worked at some point for all the leading players in their niche, even though each of these companies has diametrically opposed beliefs, product roadmaps, and modus operandi. That these individuals must spend large chunks of their professional lives on the road to Damascus is axiomatic. But the question I want to ask is directed to their employers: “why (hire them)”? How will marketing ever flourish; how will creative horizons be broadened, if all you ever retain is someone who’s done exactly the same thing before, but for a competitor? Great marketing usually comes from getting outside your comfort zone. Maybe that’s why not much B2B marketing today is great.

3.       Social Media – the more I become aware of, and exposed to it, the more I come to believe that the length of the copy it requires (short) exists in inverse proportion to the amount of time it takes to generate it. What I mean by that is, now that the dust on the initial topic frenzy has settled, two things are clear. First, there’s nothing particularly complex about social media or the strategies you might adopt to successfully exploit it, and second, just like anything else, you do need strategies, plans, and the time and effort it takes to conceive and implement them in order to succeed. There’s a lot more to it than 140 characters. When you only have 140 characters, ya better make each one of ’em count! Put another way, maybe ditch the job description for the person running trade shows and put him or her to work running (full-time) the social media programme. How modern would that be?

4.       Silence – is, your mother was right, golden (no, I never listened to my mother, either). I believe it was the great British explorer and mountaineer Mallory who justified his motivation to climb Everest with “because it’s there” (if it wasn’t Mallory, I’m sure one of you will correct me in no time). It may be there, but the justification works less well for media and analyst relations. In my experience, when an opportunity for exposure arises, the first question we ask ourselves — most of the time — is “how can we respond in a manner that makes us look as good (or better) than our competitor because all visibility has to be good visibility”. The right first question though is much simpler: “do we want to say anything at all?” For a myriad of reasons, the answer is not always “yes”.

5.       Websites – given the number of self-proclaimed design and positioning experts out there, in my view there are far, far more bad websites than good ones. If the litmus test of every home page is being able to divine “what you do” within moments of landing, then far more sites fail the test than pass it. Like silence (above), less is almost always more. Branding continues to be an area where the relationship between noise and real insight is incongruous. Furthermore — and we speak from experience — it’s liable to create a flies-flocking-to-shit effect across the company being re-branded. No process creates instant-experts like the branding one. Must senior executives favour talking over listening at the best of times; re-branding exposes this bias like little else.

6.       Direct (e)-mailers – maybe it’s just me, but great marketing copy isn’t working very often any more. Or maybe I should say slick, professional, marketing copy is leaving me numb. I am bombarded daily (just like you) with enticements and entreaties from companies and individuals alike, to buy products and retain services. Among the most interesting are the solicitations I get from professional copywriters and marketing freelancers; those who should really know how to put an e-mailer together. I find most write clever, slick, carefully-thought-out pitches none of which, for me, are persuasive at all. How you market marketing is a different challenge altogether from marketing almost anything else, and I’m not sure I’ve seen someone do it really well for quite a while. Probably including this blog.

7.       Steve Jobs – has to be part of any marketing conversation, doesn’t he. No matter that he’s no longer with us. When I think about it, his approach was consistent with most of the observations here; quality, not quantity, in a nutshell. He was a great marketer. (Whether he was a truly great guy is, however, less clear. And the megalomaniacal behaviour of his company is unsavoury to be sure. I think those who try to eat the world will, sooner or later, get eaten by it. But it’ll be a while yet before that happens to Apple.)

8.       Learning – my first boss in marketing, back when direct mail involved things like offset presses and mailing houses and spending Saturdays tracking down lost deliveries at a GMF (that’s General Mail Facility to you), was fond of hammering into his charges the maxim “test, test, test”. His point was that marketers don’t have to know anything, save that tomorrow brings the opportunity for another trial. This mentality seems to me to have been lost. Today, instinctively, we spend less time challenging our assumptions and more time believing our own publicity and conclusions than ever before – perhaps a by-product of the age of celebrity we live in. A marketing expert is someone who does something today that will result in improved performance tomorrow. He’s a detective (of what works)…not a show pony.

9.       Volume – it is not clear to me whether cream rises to the top any more. Great writing, of copy, bylined articles, journalism, or otherwise could potentially stand out in the sea of dross that the blogosphere has created. Or it could simply be buried in the insufferable tsunami of white noise. Sadly, I am not sure which is the case. The Internet may have made information more accessible than ever before, but it’s main use seems to be to prove Andy Warhol right and wrong at the same time. Everyone’s getting their 15 minutes of exposure, for sure. But they’re just mistaking that exposure for fame. If you make a prat of yourself before the world, you may be famous but you’re still a prat.

10.   Marketing advice for those who take the 5th – use your ears.

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