How Operant Marketing May Be Hindering Your Growth

If we want to know what a business is, we have to start with its purpose. And the purpose must lie outside the business itself. In fact, it must lie in society, since a business enterprise is an organ of society. There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer.
Peter Drucker, The Practice of Management

At some point in the past, you developed a marketing strategy to create customers and your marketing tactics worked well and they became a standard practice. The purpose of business hasn’t changed since then, but the environment has.

But, when was the last time you changed your marketing strategy? When was the last time you even considered changing your marketing strategy?

I don’t mean incremental, year-to-year changes; I mean changing your whole approach.

Chances are you probably haven’t and it’s likely because our brains aren’t wired to make that type of change: since your marketing strategy consistently worked at some point, it became a learned behavior. You unknowingly became conditioned.

Operant conditioning is a type of learning wherein you learn voluntary behavior based on the presentation or removal of positive or aversive stimuli. If your marketing tactics, your voluntary behavior, worked continually in the past, you consistently received a positive stimulus—profits, increased awareness, etc. Through this positive reinforcement, you learned to engage in the same behavior and expect the same results. And, that probably happened for years if not decades.

You’re tactics are probably still getting some “results,” but they’re not as effective as they were. But, since you have been conditioned to engage in the same behavior, knowing that you’ll get some results is better than not knowing if you’ll get any: In operant conditioning studies, if an animal learns to push a lever and get food every time, but suddenly it only gets food every other time it pushes the lever, it’s still going to push the lever even though the positive nature of the response has been halved.

Change is hard; it’s scary. It’s the path less trodden. But, eventually when the effectiveness of your strategy gets too low—if the animal only gets food every 100 times it pushes the lever—you’re going to be forced to change. And realistically, is this day that far in the future?

So maybe now is the time to play the “If” game: if you had to change everything about your marketing strategy, what would you do?

While you’re playing, it may be helpful to keep some other sagacious words from Drucker in mind to guide your new marketing strategy: “The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous. The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy.”1

Stand up, take a deep breath, say goodbye to your lever, and go play.


  1. Peter Drucker, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, 1973.
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