Often when I tell people the name of my blog, Servant of Chaos, they take a step back. It seems that the word “chaos” carries with it connotations of danger or disruption. And yet, this is not the case – the “chaos” of which I speak is not anarchy. It is more aligned to chaos theory which is, in reality,  about “finding the underlying order in apparently random data”.

Chaos Theory socks finished!By recognising the patterns within data – whether that data is demographic, technological, individual or corporate – we are able to bring sense to what we see. We can do so, because the interconnected patterns of data provide direction – allowing us to anticipate trends and potential outcomes. And this approach can be applied to understanding changes in individual or group behaviour, society or even global economies undergoing significant change or crisis.

In this fascinating article, How to Bring the Edge to the Core, John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, explain how this works:

We believe there is a sense-making pattern that can help us understand how change takes place in the economy. This pattern is "edge transforms the core."

Applying this thinking to marketing and social media, there are clear parallels. When we look across the marketing landscape, we can see disruption occurring on a number of levels:

  • Content production – user generated content is challenging the might of established publishers for relevance
  • Content filtering – with trust evaporating, populations are exercising social judgement, turning to networks of loosely connected individuals for trust-based decisionmaking (eg purchasing, recommendation, trial etc)
  • Distribution – peer-to-peer, digital and a plethora of user instigated distribution channels have invalidated the modes of distribution that have held sway over the last 50 years
  • Context – our view of the world is increasingly framed and reframed by the networks and communities in which we have invested trust and social capital.

These changes are occurring most profoundly in areas that can be loosely called “social media” – right on the edge of marketing practice. And what we understand instinctively, but are yet to adequately process, is that this social media edge offers a transformative opportunity for brands. Edges really are important:

They represent fertile seedbeds for innovation as unmet needs and unexploited capabilities tend to surface first on the edge. Edges also tend to be filled with people who are risk takers. Edge participants tend to connect more readily with each other because they all confront significant challenges in addressing the growth opportunities. Since there is so much growth potential for everyone, they are more willing to share insights and learning. Edges also have limited inertia since most of the large institutions, installed base and current sources of profitability are in the core.

The opportunity on the edge is, however, what attracts the core. Those established, core brands see the volatile and seemingly chaotic communities building via social networks as marketing’s holy grail. However, not ALL of these edges offer growth – they have uneven potential for growth. What is the difference between a “promising edge and a dead-end fringe” – and how do you tell? Apparently there are tell-tale characteristics:

… significant headroom for performance improvement and a large potential user base. Ideally, they also require modest investment for participation at the outset and offer the prospect of significant short-term returns …

In practical terms, this means that an INTEGRATED strategy is required. It means bringing “the core to the edge” – taking 10-20% of your MEDIA budget and investing it in “edge” activities. It means participating – not just with money, but with time, creativity and enthusiasm (or as Todd Defren suggests – holding an extended block party).

Social media will transform marketing, because we are seeing these shifts now (think of the recent announcements that advertising spend will drop in 2009, but digital/social related investments will rise). We are seeing new ways of producing, filtering, distributing and contextualising content. We are seeing real maturity in practices accelerating from the edge towards the core with the daily emergence of case studies, practical suggestions, innovation and leadership. (And if you are in any doubt, take a look at Todd Defren’s new eBook which goes a long way towards explaining exactly what is social media and how it can be used effectively – all in about 40 pages.)

The emerging patterns are no longer unclear. It is the edges that will deliver the innovation craved by markets – but perhaps most importantly – it may change the very nature of “marketing”. For the edge takes on new meaning:

Not only in their ability to help us recognize new ideas but, perhaps more importantly, in the power they give us to escape the old ones.