Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What 300 Years of Science Teaches Us About WOM Metrics

In the early 18th century, scientists were fascinated with questions about the age of the earth. Geometry and experimentation had already provided clues into the size of the planet, and to the mass. But no one had yet figured out how old it was.

A few enterprising geologists began experimenting with ocean salinity. They measured the level of salt in the oceans as a benchmark, and then measured it every few months thereafter, believing that it might then be possible to work backwards to figure out how long it took to get to the present salinity level. Unfortunately, what they found was that the ocean salinity level fluctuates. So that approach didn’t work.

In the 19th century, another group of geologists working the problem hypothesized that if the earth was once in fact a ball of molten lava, then it must have cooled to its current temperature over time. So they designed some experiments to heat various spheres to proportionate temperatures and then measure the rate of cooling. From this, they imagined, they could tell how long it took the earth to cool to its present temperature. Again, interesting approach, but it led to estimates that were in the range of 75,000 thousands of years. Skeptics argued that a quick look at the countryside around them provided evidence that those estimates couldn’t possibly be correct. But the theory persisted for nearly 100 years!

Then in the early part of the 20th century, astronomers devised a new approach in estimating the age of the earth through radio spectroscopy – they studied the speed with which the stars were moving away from earth (by measuring shifts in light wave spectrum) and found there was a fairly uniform rate of speed. This allowed them to estimate that the earth was somewhere between 700 million and 1.2 billion years old. This seemed more plausible.

Not until 1956, shortly after the discovery of atomic half-lives, did physicists actually come up with the answer that we have today. When they studied various metals found in nature, they could measure the level of radiation in lead that had cooled from uranium, and then calculate backwards how long it had taken for radiation to achieve its present level. The estimated therefore that the earth was 4 to 5 billion years old.

Finally, in 1959, geologists discovered the Canyon Diablo meteorite and the physicists realized that the earth must be older than the meteorite that hit it (seems logical). So they took radiological readings from the meteorite and dated it at 4.53 – 4.58 billion years old.

Thus we presently believe our planet’s age is somewhere in this range. It took the collective learnings of geologists, astronomers, and physicists (and a few chemists along the way) and over 250 years to crack the code. Thousands of man-years of experimentation traced some smart and some not-so-smart theories, but we got to an answer that seems like a sound estimate based on all available data.

Why torture you with the science lecture? Because there are so many parallels to where we are today with marketing measurement. We’ve only really been studying it for about 50 years now, and only intensely so for the past 30 years. We have many theories of how it works, and a great many people collecting evidence to test those theories. Researchers, statisticians, ethnographers, and academics of all types are developing and testing theories.

Still, at best, we are somewhere between cooling spheres and radio spectroscopy in our understanding of things. We’re making best guesses based on our available science, and working hard to close the gaps and not get blinded by the easy answers.

I was reminded of this recently when I reviewed some of the excellent research done by Keller Fay Group in their TalkTrack® research which interviews thousands of people each week to find out what they’re talking about, and how that word-of-mouth (WOM) impacts brands. They have pretty clearly shown that only about 10% of total WOM activity occurs online. Further, they have established that in MOST categories (not all, but most), the online chatter is NOT representative of what is happening offline, at kitchen tables and office water coolers.

Yet many of the “marketing scientists” are still confusing measurability and large data sets of online chatter for accurate information. It’s a conclusion of convenience for many marketers. And one that is likely to be misleading and potentially career-threatening.

History is full of examples of how scientists were seduced by lots of data and wound up wandering down the wrong path for decades. Let’s be cautious that we’re not just playing with cooling spheres here. Scientific progress has always been built on triangulation of multiple methods. And while accelerating discoveries happen all the time though hard work, silver bullets are best left to the dreamers.

For the rest of us, it’s back to the grindstone, testing our best hypotheses every day.
Pat LaPointe is Managing Partner at MarketingNPV – specialty advisors on marketing metrics, ROI, and resource allocation, and publishers of MarketingNPV Journal available online free at

1 comment:

Amaresh said...


A very thoughtful article that helps keep all of us grounded. I loved the analogy about the age of the earth. I read about some of the stories in Bill Bryson's book but you have drawn a very interesting parallel.