What Nuclear Science Can Teach You About Marketing

October 11, 2016

3:30 pm

You probably hear the term “critical mass” in conversation without thinking too hard. The term refers to the inertia needed to get a business moving, but the original definition comes from nuclear science. And that original definition, as this article’s title and your reading comprehension skills will tell you, applies to marketing. Here’s how.

The Science

Nuclear reactors function by creating a chain reaction of nuclear events. When an atom of a specially prepared isotope of uranium (or plutonium, in some cases) is split, it releases a particle that can then go on to create the exact same event in another atom of the same isotope of uranium. The trick is to get the right amount of uranium isotopes so that each reaction causes one — and just one — more reaction. If one event creates, on average, just a little bit under one more event, the reactions will eventually end and the power plant will stop running. If one event averages just a little more than one more event, then the reactor will increase power exponentially and overheat. Like Goldilock’s porridge, the 1:1 ratio of nuclear events needs to be juuuust right.

The terms for each of these three scenarios? An unsustainable chain reaction is called subcritical, a self-sustaining 1:1 chain reaction is called critical, and an exponentially increasing one is called supercritical. Whenever a nuclear power plant has “gone critical,” it’s running the way it is supposed to.

The term “critical mass” refers to the exact amount of uranium needed to hit the 1:1 ratio. Once you pass that, it’s easy to generate energy forever with a minuscule amount of fuel.

The Marketing

I was reminded of this definition while reading a recent Reddit post in which one entrepreneur gave a rule of thumb for knowing when sales of one’s product will thrive:

“The litmus test is this: what can I say to one person about my t-shirts that would get them excited enough to tell somebody else about it?”

Look familiar? That’s the exact definition of what “critical mass” really means. Marketing: It’s not rocket science, but it’s similar.

Image: Flickr / Bjoern Schwarz

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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