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The Emergence of “Emergence Marketing”

Over the last year I have become an increasingly radical convert to the school of “Emergence” theory. For those new to the term, “Emergence theory” refers to the way that complex systems and patterns arise out of the culmination of relatively simple interactions.

Emergence occurs when an interconnected system of relatively simple elements self-organizes to form more intelligent, more adaptive, higher-level behaviour. It’s a bottom-up model rather than a model engineered by a general or a master planner. The most common examples used to illustrate emergent systems are ant hills and the Internet. Both are built not by a supreme architect calling the shots but instead by the activity of many independent actors behaving individually.

There are hundreds if not thousands of academics, authors and modern day philosophers who are exploring the ways that Emergence can better explain and even reshape the world that we live in today, from economic theory to organizational development. For those of you familiar with the work of Steven Johnson, author of Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Eric Beinhocker, author of The Origins of Wealth or Brafman and Beckstrom, authors of The Starfish and The Spider, you will likely already be familiar with “Emergence theory” in relationship to community and software development, organizational analysis and economic theory.

One issue all of these authors skirt around but never address directly in their books is what will the implications of Emergence mean for the evolution of marketing?

I think it’s a topic worthy of a lot of thought and one which could never be properly served in a brief blog post. It is also a current obsession of mine as I lead a team to build a business based on the power of peer relationships, which is the essence of an Emergence system.

My objective here is to open the topic of Emergence Marketing at One Degree and to note a few of my own observations on what it could look like. In that regard, here is an initial list of what I would suggest Emergence Marketing looks like (and, in the inverse, what it doesn’t look like):

Emergence Marketing:

  • Is based on the power of peer relationships. Think of examples here like Bill Sweetman’s recent Coach House experiment on Facebook. Peers take on the role of market maker and use peer to peer platforms like Facebook which facilitate this communication to deliver marketing or promotional messages to their peer group and their peer’s peers.
  • Is when your product is being defined from the ground up. Think here about open source code and the power of building a product on the combined energies of those who have come before. Or think of the Facebook F8 platform where companies like Tripadvisor, Flixster or iLike have built out revenue-generating and traffic-driving extensions to the Facebook core system.
  • Is when marketing communication is voluntary and not forced: Think here about models where people speak and you listen. Better yet, think about models where people speak to people and you take notes on the interactions. An example of this is eBay’s “Ask an Expert” community where 90% of their customers’ inquiries about the eBay service are answered without a dime of expenditure to eBay.
  • Is the recognition that your Brand is not defined by you but is defined by the people who use (or would never use) your product or service. Your brand is the collection of thoughts, actions, reactions and emotions associated with the thing that you are offering – not your logo, your font or your tag line.
  • Is based on observed customer activity and behavior. The power of being able to see what your customers are doing, or not doing, in your store or at your site is essential for being able to adjust your service or product or key messages to them in a relevant and targeted fashion. Effective organizational structure which empowers your key resources at the customer interaction level and effective observation skills and tools are key elements of Emergence Marketing.

For examples of the companies engaged in effective Emergence Marketing, I think of companies that also have relatively small (if any) marketing budgets for promotion and market growth and yet are experiencing market leading growth in their services. This includes companies like Facebook, Wikipedia, Craigslist and Skype, just to name a few from my own experience. Studying the marketing functions of these companies will lead to even deeper insight into Emergence Marketing.

This is by no means a definitive list and likely is not even scratching the surface of a marketing trend which I see as marketing’s the next evolutionary wave, Emergence Marketing. Consistent with the theory though, I am but one voice in this regard. Others interested should build or deconstruct these ideas and possibly, over time, something more complex and comprehensive than any of us individually can provide will emerge from these musings.


  1. miro slodki
    miro slodki August 23, 2007

    Interesting notion that merits a deeper read before making any cogent contributions – but the immediate question.
    Isn’t emergence – marketing 2.0, share of life, social marketing, Web 2.0 etc…in that it recognizes that the power of the marketing relationship resides with the users – not the sellers?
    A great definition of brand that I have come across is that it is a “promise kept” which captures the bottom-up power pyramid emergence seems to be describing.
    Cool post

  2. Michael Garrity
    Michael Garrity August 23, 2007

    Miro – I think you are right in the sense that many of those descriptions touch on the same themes. My problem with many of those descriptions though are that they still often describe marketing approaches where the driver of the message and the product is still the company itself and too often the user is just the pawn. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard marketing folks say “how can we use this new social networking thing to advance our product”. This is missing the point in my opinion. The premise for Emergence has to be – how do I align my company design, my product design and my marketing approach with a customer centric model. How do I make them my marketing department, my contact centre, my employees, not because I tricked them, but because my company is built on them, by them. There are lots of sites that sell stuff but ebay is ebay because it is owned and operated by passionate users who are making a living on it and designing it’s product direction. It’s a subtle distinction but I believe a crucial one.

  3. Le Quan Truong
    Le Quan Truong August 23, 2007

    Hi Michael,
    Great Post and definitely an area that is gaining momentum in the online marketing & e-tailing world.
    I wanted to add that one thing about “Emergence Marketing” that makes it slightly different from the “Web 2.0” concept is the overt recognition of human psychology & socialogy in our behaviours online, specifically surrounding how we interact and respond to different marketing messages and the influence of a community on our behaviour.
    For example, by understanding that humans are emotional, social and act in context to their environment can help marketers better focus their online messages. This now takes a look at segmentation beyond grouping people into groups based on their common characteristics or geography but looks more specifically at what Context they are interacting in.
    As you mentioned, there is lots to discuss around this topic, Thank you for starting the conversation!
    Le Quan

  4. James
    James August 23, 2007

    Hey Michael,
    None of us has never called it Emergence before, but I believe you’re describing a project we’re working on called
    So come and over and let us know if we’re wandering parallel paths.

  5. Morriss Partee
    Morriss Partee August 24, 2007

    Hi Michael,
    Nice job with this post and comment. I think your comment about the distinction between old school thinking (how can WE use THEM) and new school thinking (how can THEY use US) is spot-on. I don’t think this is a subtle distinction at all! This is a HUGE difference in mind-set, and important for all marketers, strategists, and organizations to understand.

  6. Colin
    Colin August 24, 2007

    I would add the elements of reputation, and customer advocacy.
    1. Reputation will enhance and validate features such as ‘ask an expert’
    2. Customer advocacy: this is a central element in new marketing. The quality of the product, service, and brand must be so pervasive that people feel they must defend it, promote it, talk about it.
    The combination of reputation, and advocacy are core drivers of that 90% result that ebay achieves … it cannot happen by accident, and many other factors need to be in play for the emergence to work.

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