Blog post

Modern Marketing is About Sense and Respond, Not Command and Control

By Jake Sorofman | September 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

digital marketing

In the somewhat arcane world of control theory, there’s the concept of sense and respond, which refers to how complex systems adapt and evolve based on continuous, often minute adjustments to the signals they detect in their environments.

These autonomous, often autonomic systems take many forms. People sense and respond through a combination of rules, reflex and reason. Animals and insects rely on reflex. Machines, on the other hand, sense and respond based on rules—and, in the case of smart machines, some degree of reason.

What’s common to each of these examples is that action is taken organically, often in the moment, as circumstances dictate the need for change.

It’s no surprise, then, that these concepts have been applied to management theory, where for decades, we’ve grappled with the models to inform high performance organizations. Here, sense and respond envisions organization as organism, where change happens as a matter of course—not by edict, but by habit—at the edges, in the moments that count. The adaptive enterprise.

Which brings me to my point for marketers: Moving from a command and control authority to a sense and response system of change is precisely what modern marketing is all about.

For example:

  • It’s about thinking beyond campaigns–which are artifacts of command and control thinking—perhaps necessary, but wholly insufficient to satisfy audience expectations for personal and personalized engagement.
  • It’s about agile teams–that continuously test and learn, measure and adapt. Agile marketers iterate through the clouds of the unknown, discovering the highest performing patterns through continuous experimentation.
  • It’s about audience-attuned content and social marketers–who think like journalists and act like publishers, listening to their audiences and finding opportunities to engage in the most relevant ways.
  • It’s about decentralizing voice of customer–from ivory tower listening posts to frontlines intelligence, where action can be taken in the moment by machines and by human beings.


In each of these examples, rules, reflex and reason are pushed out to the edges, where decisions are made and actions are taken in the moment.

But this isn’t meant to be some anarchic overreaction to crufty old command and control thinking. Sense and respond is, indeed, all about control. But unlike traditional command structures that create the illusion of control, sense and respond builds it into the organism itself.

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