Three lessons marketers can learn from the mission to Mars

Sandro Catanzaro, co-founder and senior vice president of analytics and innovation at DataXu, has worked at NASA and worked on the mission architecture for human exploration of Mars and the moon while at MIT.

What marketers can learn from the Mars mission
What marketers can learn from the Mars mission

Here, Catanzaro explains how real-time optimisation algorithms that were needed for the Mars mission can also benefit the marketing world - from big data analytics to the lessons of converting Mars soil into fuel for the return journey.

There are a number of surprising similarities between adopting a programmatic approach to marketing (one that uses real time data and analytics to make more informed decisions) and planning a mission to Mars.

How do I know? Because years ago, I worked as part of a team of MIT aeronautic scientists that helped design a possible NASA mission to Mars. While doing so, we learned that the technology we developed was able to select a handful of optimal solutions, from billions of options, to address a specific problem and then balance different priorities to create operational efficiencies.

So why is this relevant to marketers?

With a growing number of digital marketing channels, thousands of media buying options and the proliferation of smartphone devices, there are also billions of ways to reach an audience. With programmatic, brands can see the complete set of engagements that drove each conversion to provide a solid understanding of how customers make purchase decisions.  

The platform learns who responds the most and in which scenarios so that further efforts are focused on those channels, messages, users and scenarios that produce positive engagements. This helps marketers automate and optimise their digital media investments, ultimately leading to improved acquisition and better ROI.

Below I’ve outlined three key lessons learned from the Mars mission that can be applied to marketing.

1. Don’t let data analytics become an alien concept: combine it with automation to do the heavy lifting

In 2004, NASA was looking to determine which manned missions to Mars had the highest likelihood of success. We had the ability to develop technology for such a trip, yet, technology development is fraught with risks and constantly changing dynamics and priorities, both technological and political.

Marketers should use advanced data analytics and technology platforms in the same way we used them for the Mars mission - to automate thousands of decisions and do the heavy lifting

The criteria used to decide on priorities for mission architecture could range from research for scientific purposes, to technology development, to architectures with the lowest risk and cost.

In fact, we found that there were some 30bn possible ways to execute a human mission to Mars.

To narrow these down we used technology we developed at MIT to intelligently and quickly sort out unlikely options first, and then prioritise design decisions according to the main objectives and priorities for the mission. 

We ended up with a manageable number of options – in our case 1,162 - which could then be grouped into families and then analysed by hand to select the one to use.

Marketers are also faced with hundreds of small, tactical decisions. They have to juggle campaign questions such as how many ads should be placed on a certain channel, at a particular frequency and price so that their message reaches their target audience - while still remaining on budget.

Marketers need an in-depth understanding of which media to use and how each affects the budget, level of investment and expected ROI. And these small decisions are not made only once - they happen daily.

The explosion of data has turned even the smallest decision into a melting pot of complexity. A recent global IBM study of 1,734 senior marketing decision makers found that social media, the proliferation of smart devices and shifting consumer demographics have left CMOs feeling that their organisations are unprepared to take advantage of the opportunities that all this customer data can bring.

Why? Because they are unable to cut through the data noise and develop actionable insights, in time for decision-making.

Marketers should use advanced data analytics and technology platforms in the same way we used them for the Mars mission - to automate thousands of decisions, and do the heavy lifting. This can help marketing teams vastly improve their speed of time to market. In fact, they can launch a whole global campaign, in a day, if they should choose to.

Mapping missions: Using the tactical to feed the strategic

To map out the Mars mission according to priorities we did not only look at strategic decisions – we had to learn the interrelation between strategies and tactical considerations to create the optimal design. In the same way, marketers should create an upfront plan to use data and information from their campaigns to feed back into strategy and planning.

To map out the Mars mission according to priorities we did not only look at strategic decisions – we had to learn the interrelation between strategies and tactical considerations to create the optimal design

Strategic marketing goals such as selling more and improving brand perception are well understood, but how to achieve them requires real customer insight to know where to invest media budgets.

To develop this understanding, marketers have to answer questions such as: how will the audience respond to a marketing campaign? What channels are driving the most conversions? What is the effect of macro-economic trends in my product? It is now possible to answer these and many other marketing questions, by defining campaigns with those questions in mind.

Programmatic marketing platforms provide information the system has learned about different audiences’ reaction to messages and campaign goals.

For example, a car manufacturer may want to know what the advantage would be to creating a campaign that highlights safety, and they can measure it by showing adverts with safety themes, and compare consumer responsiveness against those presenting in-built entertainment systems or fuel consumption.

Campaign data can also help companies learn which customer segment cares for each features of a product. While this information provides important feedback for future campaign development strategy, it is also automatically fed directly into the marketing campaign as it is live and running.

Can fuel be made in Mars? Take advantage of evolving technology to optimise materials and drive future campaigns

In space exploration, nothing stays the same. New data and technologies can revolutionise the designs for each mission.

When astronauts went to the moon, all of the equipment they used had to be launched from earth. When we looked at the Mars mission we knew we needed to use technology to lower the cost of exploration.

The moon exploration programme of the 60’s consumed about 4.4% of the US GDP at its heyday; the planned exploration of Mars, which was even more complex and longer, was proposed at a budget of a fraction of percent of the US GDP.

We proposed to build a fuel manufacturing facility on Mars – one which could turn the planet’s soil into fuel for the return journey

To meet this budgetary objective, we needed to save take-off weight, so we proposed to build a fuel manufacturing facility on Mars – one which could turn the planet’s soil into fuel for the return journey.

In marketing, digital channels are rapidly changing the way marketers connect with their consumers, and will continue to do so. Digital permeates everything from marketing plans to R&D; and with it, new marketing capabilities surface.

For example, data analysis can provide justification on the return on media investments made, while simultaneously allowing real-time feedback on customer responses.

Technologies that were only applied to the most difficult problems, such as machine learning, and graph theory modeling, are now being applied daily to the science of marketing. Marketers must apply these technologies in their campaigns to achieve more successful and repeatable outcomes.

The beauty of Mars is in its detail

Famous astronomer Edward E. Barnard once said: "I have been watching and drawing the surface of Mars. It is wonderfully full of detail."

The detail amazed and inspired Edward, as it did us when we studied all of the options available to create the perfect Mars mission.

In the same way, marketers should not let the complexity and detail of data overwhelm them, and should employ the right tools to study the insights it reveals.

In this evolving digital media landscape, data should not be used in isolation or focused only on the present. Savvy marketers use today’s advertising as research and apply the learnings from current campaigns to the development of their future digital marketing strategies. 


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