Nature programmes have maintained consistent popularity on television for over 50 years now (a movement due in large part to the brilliance of David Attenborough!). They will often explore the 'ecosystem' of a particular place, describing the often complex and evolving network of interactions that take place between living and non-living things.

Recently, the term 'ecosystem' has cropped up regularly but in a completely different context i.e. that of marketing, so I thought I would offer my own spin on the analogy.

Ecosystem Marketing

Looking first at the natural world, there are a number of things about ecosystems I've gleaned from 'nature/science for laypeople' programmes:

The scale of an ecosystem varies enormously. We regularly read about the latest thinking from scientists who are working at the level of global human activity and climate change – there is particular interest in this recently given the unusual weather in many parts of the world. To counterbalance this, other scientists work on a much smaller scale. I had a great day out last summer at the Wetlands Conservation Park in Barnes, where scientists study a 100 acre ecosystem of waterways, land, plants, insects, and birds. While ultimately these ecosystems are connected they are clearly operating at different levels.

Ecosystems are usually complicated and they evolve, so are not entirely predictable, despite rigorous study. It is clear that scientists apply a whole range of techniques to observe and analyse whatever ecosystem they're interested in. They can map out and explain in broad terms cause and effect and will offer a view on the likely implications of a change in one part of the system on another. However, most will avoid hard and fast predictions given how many variables exist, preferring to move forward with assumptions and hypothesis, which they'll monitor or test.

The smallest of things frequently have a disproportionately large role to play in the ecosystem. Some parts of the ecosystem may be virtually invisible or considered inconsequential by the uninformed but turn out to underpin the health of the entire network. A great example of this is plankton; tiny organisms that are crucial to oceanic ecosystems.

So how can these observations throw light on the world of marketing?

1. It's important to have clarity about what level we are going to look at when thinking about marketing challenges. Are we a) trying to do the equivalent of understanding global climate ecosystems, or b) looking at a 'Barnes Wetlands' task? In other words, are we looking at a brand through a wide lens, trying to understand the connections between long term business growth and all marketing activities OR looking at a specific area of marketing e.g. the use of social media and its impact on this year's revenues? These levels are connected, but giving consideration to the level we want (or have the remit) to explore will help keep things manageable.

2. 'Customer Ecosystems' are increasingly complex and constantly evolving. Rigorous observation and research is needed to truly understand them (assumptions are not good enough) but there can never be 100% predictability. Scientists don't assume they know what's going on when looking at ecosystems in the natural world; they study, observe and analyse then create and test hypothesis. Marketers should approach customer insight work with equal rigour, increasing the focus from what people say they do in the often artificial context of some types of research, to real-time observation and dialogue within the real world. Once we've done this with enough customers, we will be better able to map the ecosystem and use this to explore where issues are, and develop marketing ideas and the case for investment. Being flexible and dynamic in our approach will keep us connected to our customers in a continuously changing world. Keep in mind, however, that it's unlikely that we'll ever be able to predict behaviour change and ROI with 100% accuracy. Instead, we'll need to rely on clearer logic, and put 'test and learn' approaches into place to ensure the business is prepared to invest in marketing.

3. Do we know what our equivalent of 'plankton' is? Just as the ocean's ecosystem is dependent on billions of plankton, so the customer ecosystem for any market may well be dependent on something that we don't regard as particularly noticeable or obvious. People build up views of a brand by a plethora of tiny comments from those around us, glimpses of communications, and direct little-and-often everyday experiences over time. It's this multitude of tiny connections that are critical so making sure they are present and healthy, and managing the detail at every brand touch-point, is essential to the larger ecosystem.

Perhaps it's time we started thinking in the same way that nature scientists do i.e. recognising that our brands, categories and businesses are part of complex and evolving customer ecosystems that we need to fully understand in order to help them thrive.

We would love to know your thoughts.

This post is by Linda Miller, Marketing Excellence Director at Brand Learning.