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Critical thinking for the modern marketer

By Gavin Llewellyn 06 Nov, 2019
Essential

Five approaches to develop your problem-solving and decision-making skills

As marketers, we’re confronted with different types of questions, data, and challenges on a regular basis. Whether it’s reacting to a negative PR story, reviewing the performance of a digital marketing campaign or weighing up different creative options, we need to make decisions that could impact our organization in both the short and long-term. 

Although it’s important for marketers to develop a strong set of technical skills, there is an equally important need for a rounded set of softer skills. One of the most crucial skills needed for effective decision-making is critical thinking.  

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At its core, critical thinking is about making clear, reasoned judgments. Whilst this in itself sounds straightforward, like many things it’s easier said than done as we’re all susceptible to a wide range of personal assumptions and cognitive biases. When we read, hear or see something, there’s a risk we’ll form a snap judgment based on what fits our existing world-view and act without questioning further. 

One of the keys to effective decision-making is the ability to take a step back and objectively evaluate all the available options. To do this, we need to have the capability to think critically. 

Recognizing the importance of critical thinking

To develop our critical thinking skills, we need to think of this as a mind-set. By doing so, we bake critical thinking into our daily lives and not something that’s exclusive to business or work. Some useful examples of critical thinking include: 

  • A triage nurse will analyze incoming cases to decide the order in which patients should be treated.
  • A mechanic will evaluate the different parts best suited to a particular job. 
  • A marketing manager will need to analyze and evaluate web analytics and use this information to formulate an optimization plan. 

But what are the different steps and techniques we can use to refine our critical thinking skills? Here are five approaches: 

Critical thinking for the modern marketer (1)

Challenge assumptions and received wisdom

Every company, group or team will have their own ways of working, some of which will be made up of assumptions and received wisdom. Whilst certain processes and ways of working will be based on empirical evidence, some will include assumptions that have built up over time without ever being questioned. 

When I was new to one of my previous roles as a digital marketing manager, I discovered that the company was measuring its digital sales performance based on last-click attribution. Although last-click measurement has its merits, for this company it didn’t accurately show where sales were being derived. By asking tough but respectful questions, the business reviewed its measurement principles and started to use a combination of methodologies, including incremental measurement. 

Ask the right questions

Building on from the previous approach, asking good, incisive questions will enable marketers to more thoroughly interrogate existing processes and ways of working. However, critical thinking isn’t about challenging everything. On the contrary, marketers with sound critical thinking capabilities will tend to take a questioning approach when the stakes are high.  

Helen Lee Bouygues in the Harvard Business Review gives an example: 

“If you are in a discussion about long-term company strategy upon which years of effort and expense will be based, be sure to ask basic questions about your beliefs: How do you know that business will increase? What does the research say about your expectations about the future of the market? Have you taken time to step into the figurative shoes of your customers as a “secret shopper”?”

Get outside your personal bubble

I’ve written before about the importance of cognitive diversity within teams but the same is true for individuals. If you only ever read the same things, listen to the same podcasts and converse with like-minded people, there’s a disproportionately high chance that you will have a narrower worldview that will prevent you from questioning the status quo and spotting new opportunities. 

It can be really uncomfortable confronting different opinions or ideas that go against your personal way of thinking. The political battle lines in the UK and many other countries are a testament to that! But if we only ever operate in our personal bubbles we’ll lack crucial critical thinking skills. Simon Kuper in the Financial Times recently listed the eight habits of people with ‘beautiful minds’: 

  1. They treat every situation as a learning opportunity.
  2. They can clear their mind to see the other person. 
  3. They often suffer anguished boredom in ordinary social life. 
  4. They are specialists, yet are always trying to master other fields 
  5. They gather insights from many different realms. 
  6. They do the work they want to do, not the work the work the world seeks to impose on them, even if there’s a cost to their career or income. 
  7. They have the imagination to come up with ideas, but also the humility and technique to test against data. 
  8. People with beautiful minds say what they think is true.

Reason through logic

Wherever you work, pay close attention to the ‘chain of logic’ that has been used to construct different arguments for why things are the way they are. Critical thinkers should take a data-centric view and ask themselves: “is the argument supported at every point by evidence”? And: “do all the pieces of evidence build on each other to produce a sound conclusion”? 

Helen Lee Bouygues explains that by being aware of common fallacies will enable us to think more logically. For instance, people often engage in what’s known as “post hoc” thinking. In this fallacy, people believe that “because event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.” 

For instance, a marketing manager may believe that sales of hot soup go up in the winter because of the cold weather, but until this assumption is tested it’s not possible to know if this belief is correct. 

Engage in active discussion

As alluded to in the third point above, critical thinkers look beyond their own personal bubbles. But in addition to this, they are also looking for ways to improve their own knowledge and understanding of the world when speaking to people by engaging in active discussion. 

Instead of trying to ‘win’ an encounter with clever jargon, titles or name-dropping, critical thinkers will look to absorb what anyone is saying, regardless of their status. For example, a senior marketing director can learn as much from a Gen Z intern (trends, interests, technology) as anyone operating at their own level. 

Conclusion

Critical thinking is a crucial mindset to adopt as a marketer if you’re looking to make a real difference within your organization. The ability to think outside of your own echo chamber, evaluate situations with genuine objectivity and ask challenging but respectful questions will improve your problem-solving skills and enable you to make good decisions.  

By Gavin Llewellyn

Gavin Llewellyn (LinkedIn) is an independent consultant. He is a Chartered Marketer who specialises in digital marketing, specifically in social media, SEO and online strategy. Gavin blogs at One Too Many Mornings where he offers advice, guidance and ideas on how individuals and companies can use digital marketing effectively to get found online, build engagement and generate conversion. You can Follow Gavin on Twitter and Google+.

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