Are People Like Fish? And, What Does That Have To Do With Lawyer Marketing?

Have you ever watched a school of fish swim?  They always turn in the same direction at the same time. There was recently a study about this and it was determined that the fish are persuaded to move in one direction by certain “influencing” fish.  However, counterintuitively, the “influencing” fish was not one that was (friendly?) with a large, disparate bunch of other fish, and thereby itself influenced.  Instead, it turned out that if one fish (i.e., the “influencing” fish) was (friendly?) with a small group of other fish, then that small group would follow the “influencing” fish and once that happened, the whole school would follow along as well.

Anyway, assuming a group of people are like a school of fish — which is tongue in cheek, of course — all of this got me thinking about how the behavior of these fish might apply to marketing.  How would “influencing fish” create desired results?

If a large group of people were like fish, then the answer would be that instead of marketing to a wide group, your strategy should be to market to a very small group of people, and try to get that group in favor of whatever it is that you are trying to market or sell.  If you can achieve that, then you will likely achieve a larger dispersion in the end, i.e., once the small group accepts your marketing thesis, then the bigger group should as well.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, if you are trying to market something new, it seems like it is “very” hard to get anywhere if you have zero clients; however, if you have even a few influential and respected clients, it is dramatically easier to get more.

But are people like fish?

Without insulting my species, I think we are to some extent.  The reason is not that we are dumb like fish.  It is that we just don’t have time to evaluate every decision.  For example, there are probably 100 brands of toothpaste on the market, and from time to time I see them all there at CVS covering an entire aisle.  I don’t know about you, but I didn’t buy one of each and test them all out to find the “optimal toothpaste.”  Instead, I saw [insert favorite movie star] on TV brushing and smiling with white teeth and making clear he/she would get the girl/guy if that toothpaste were used.  That was probably enough for me 30 years ago and I haven’t switched brands or even thought about it since.

As another example, when an attorney retains local counsel for a first matter in a new jurisdiction or in a new industry, the first instinct is to look at what kinds of clients the proposed counsel has, and then to assume that these clients made a good choice in selecting counsel.  If the law firm in question has multiple “cool” clients that are similar to the clients the attorney already represents, that likely pushes the attorney — a lot — towards the decision in favor of that law firm.  Attorneys can hardly go visit each possible law firm — interview the lawyers, read the papers they have written, analyze their skill sets — and make a deep-dive determination, can they?

In both of these metaphors — toothpaste or counsel retention — the most critical issue is that the most effective result would be reliance on “multiple” sources, i.e., two or more movie stars pushing the toothpaste — or two or more “cool” clients that are similar to the clients an attorney already represents.  That would cement it most likely for the buyer as the optimal decision.

Having said all of this, if my life depended on the decision of which counsel to retain or which toothpaste to use, I probably would go through at least part of the deep dive described a couple of paragraphs above.

So, to conclude, of course we aren’t really like fish when we have a real decision of importance to make, but I suspect we aren’t that different when we don’t have time to really think things through and analyze the subtleties.  This means that if one is trying to achieve marketing success in a particular initiative, it is best to start with several “influencing fish” and work forward from that beginning place.

By the way, giving credit where credit is due, my daughter, who works for DeepMind (owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc.) in London, and who studies artificial intelligence, wrote to me about this and gave me the idea for this story.

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