Marketing Lessons from TED Talks: The Case for Curiosity-Driven Research

What’s in this article:

  • Another chapter in PostFunnel’s TED Talk lessons for marketers
  • Here we dig into the parallels between scientific discovery and serving your customers


Back in 2018, physicist Suzie Sheehy gave a TED Talk in which she discussed the importance of curiosity-driven research within the scientific community.


Specifically, she spoke about the discovery of the electron, and the implications this discovery had on the world as a whole from that moment on. From TV, to x-rays, to particle accelerators, a great many inventions can be traced back to this 19th-century discovery — and the curiosity that made the discovery possible.

Okay…so what does that have to do with marketing?

A whole lot, actually.

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As it turns out, there are a number of parallels between scientific discovery and marketing innovation.

Here, we’ll break down some of Sheehy’s main points, discussing the implications they have on your approach to audience and market research.

Let’s dive in.

Stay Driven by Data and Discovery

In her TED Talk, Sheehy gives a brief explanation of how JJ Thomson and his team came to discover the electron back in 1897.

Long story short, it wasn’t an accident.

Rather, Thomson combined his own knowledge and experiences with focused research and experimentation — resulting in a discovery that would fundamentally change the world forever.

He didn’t just “happen” upon this discovery by taking a haphazard approach to his research. Sure, the discovery process likely involved a ton of trial-and-error; but with each round of experimentation, Thomson came closer and closer to figuring out exactly what was going on within his electrified vacuum tube.

This is the exact approach your team should take when researching your audience and developing your products and services.

As we’ve discussed before, the goal is to become driven by data — and to use the data you collect to inform your research and development moving forward. This will allow you to continually build on what you know and what you’ve learned, ensuring that your team is always moving in the right direction.

(In contrast, a “spaghetti-against-the-wall” approach to market research will pull your team in way too many directions — without any clue as to which is the best way to go.)

Yes, you won’t always get it right, and your team is bound to make some mistakes.

But your efforts should always be backed by hard evidence in order to minimize uncertainty and maximize your chances of success.

And, whether your efforts prove successful or not, you should always be learning from your experiences to inform your future research and campaigns.

Realize the Importance of Digging Deeper

In both a literal and figurative sense, Thomson made his discovery because he took a closer look at something which scientists had been pondering for years.

More than just observing cathode rays in a vacuum tube, Thomson tested these beams of light under various conditions — ultimately discovering that they changed course when coming into contact with magnets.

It’s safe to say that Thomson’s discovery would never have occurred had he simply took things at face value. Rather, his discovery came about because of the various approaches he had seen numerous times before.

The same lesson applies to your marketing efforts.

Yes, your customer and market data should be the catalyst to your future efforts — but there’s more to the picture than the “on-paper” data you have in front of you. Boiling your customers and their relationship with your brand down to numbers will almost certainly cause you to miss out on valuable insight that could help you stand out from your competition.

To truly understand what your data is telling you, you need to consider context. As we’ve said before, data without context may be eye-catching — but it doesn’t lead to a useful conclusion of any kind.

In fact, it may lead your team to a conclusion that’s completely off-base.

For example, seeing that brick-and-mortar sales were way down over the course of a given year might make us think that physical stores are a thing of the past. Knowing that we’re talking about 2020 — a year dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and global shutdowns — proves that our conclusion might not be all that accurate.

You also want to consider your data (and the context it’s wrapped in) from various perspectives, too.

Again, thinking of the last year, there are any number of reasons a once-loyal customer may have stopped patronizing your brand:

  • They were no longer in need of your services due to the life changes brought about by the pandemic
  • They had to cut back on spending due to a loss of wages
  • They’d simply cut down entirely on their spending habits across the board

Each of these potential scenarios will mean something different in terms of how you approach the customer (and others like them) in the future.

Without taking context into consideration, though, you’ll end up taking a one-size-fits-all approach to your audience — causing you to miss the mark more often than not.

Curiosity Drives Innovation

This goes along with our last point:

If Thomson hadn’t taken a magnet to his cathode ray, he would have never figured out what was going on inside that vacuum tube.

And, while he did have a clear hypothesis in mind, it was his curiosity that brought him to pick up a magnet and see what happened. In doing something that nobody else had thought of doing, Thomson had the breakthrough that would put his name in the history books for good.

As service providers, it’s our duty to stay curious, and to always be looking for new ways to deliver value to our customers. Without this curiosity driving our efforts, we’ll merely end up following the leaders of our industry — instead of becoming the leaders, ourselves.

Simply put: Curiosity drives innovation.

The most curious teams are the ones that:

  • Stay up-to-date with the customer’s evolving needs and expectations
  • Know what the latest global trends mean for their industry
  • Continually develop new tools and technology to better serve their audience

Those that aren’t driven by a curious need for innovation will only meet the status quo of their industry (if that). To be sure, this is no way to stay competitive in our ever-evolving world.

That being said, it’s crucial that your team is driven by authentic curiosity — not as a means of brand positioning.

In other words, your curiosity should always be motivated by a yearning to better serve your audience. Yes, you also want to ensure your business’ financial success — but it shouldn’t be the focus of your efforts.

Keep your customer’s success and satisfaction top-of-mind at all times, and your curiosity will always lead you in the right direction.

Innovation is One Part Discovery, One Part Practicality

Oddly enough, though Thomson knew he had discovered something new, he wasn’t exactly sure how his discovery would be useful.

Explains Sheehy:

“At the time, this seemed to be a completely impractical discovery…Thompson didn’t think there were any applications of electrons. Around his lab in Cambridge, he used to like to propose a toast: ‘To the electron. May it never be of use to anybody.’”

Obviously, this exclamation was a bit tongue-in-cheek. While Thomson was driven by sheer curiosity, he surely knew that his discovery would be of some use to the world in the near future.

For our purposes, you should always have some idea of what you intend to do with the information you collect. After all, knowing what your customers want doesn’t mean all that much if you don’t work to give it to them.

Now, you might not know exactly what actions you’ll be taking once you uncover the data you’re looking for until you find it.

(That just makes sense: If you knew what you were going to do before collecting the data in the first place, there’d be no need to collect it at all. Of course, this would likely cause you to drift way off course at some point down the line.)

But that doesn’t mean you should be going in completely blind.

And you definitely shouldn’t be unprepared to take action of some kind.

While the nitty-gritty aspects of your plan will become clearer once you have the appropriate data in hand, you should at least be prepared to dedicate sufficient resources (e.g., time, tools, and laborforce) to the upcoming initiative. The last thing you want is to recognize what needs to be done — but be unable to make it happen.

Check out Optimove’s report, Going from Insight to Action, to create an efficient, data-driven plan of attack.

“Vision is the Art of Seeing the Invisible”

As Sheehy begins to wrap up her TED Talk, she refers to a quote by satirist Jonathan Swift:

“Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.”

In Thomson’s case, his curious, science-driven vision allowed him to “see” beyond the atom and begin understanding the world of subatomic particles. Though it would be decades before we could actually see electrons via high-powered microscopes and cameras, Thomson’s vision led him to prove their existence way back in 1897.

When it comes to marketing customer relations, there are a ton of intangibles to consider. This goes beyond even the contextual data and info you’ve collected, requiring you to also use your knowledge, expertise, and intuition to drive your efforts moving forward.

It’s those who are able to see and understand these intangibles — and take action based on what they find — who will end up leading the charge in their industry.

The fact is any team can tweak their approach based on the existing data to meet their customers’ expectations.

But it takes a team of true visionaries to be innovative enough to exceed these expectations — and to do something their industry has never seen before.

This is where true curiosity is vital.

It’s not about being “curious enough” to measure up to the bar.

It’s about staying curious even after you’ve reached your initial goals — knowing that you’ve now opened up an entirely new world of discovery for your team.

By staying curious, you’ll always be looking to the “next big thing” — for your customers, your company, and your industry. In turn, you’ll all but guarantee future growth and success for your business.


The post Marketing Lessons from TED Talks: The Case for Curiosity-Driven Research appeared first on Post Funnel.


Online enterprenuer. Lean leadership consultant.

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