How do we break out of our marketing echo chambers?

Steve O'Farrell

  • Managing Partner, The Royals
Steve O’Farrell is Managing Partner at The Royals

In a recent client meeting, I mentioned how much The Royals were looking forward to getting out of our ‘marketing echo chamber’ and hearing what other people thought.  

It was a throwaway line so I was surprised when the client laughed and said she’d never heard the term before. So, at the risk of telling myself more of what I want to hear, this piece is an attempt to break down the metaphor and explore ways of escaping from our proverbial echo chambers in the process.     

Over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about the pitfalls of the echo chambers that exist online – the theory being algorithms favour content that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, limiting thoughtful disagreement in the process. Thankfully, more and more people are realising while content designed to self-affirm may feel good, it stimulates little growth and development.  

To combat this, subreddits such as Change My View have emerged, teaching us how to challenge our pre-conceived points-of-view. Or perhaps you’d like to subscribe to the Echo Chamber Club to receive newsletters with an assortment of viewpoints on trending topics?   

So, how do we take some of the lessons provided by these services and apply them to the world of marketing? Here I propose five principles marketers and their agencies can employ to help break out of their proverbial echo chambers:  

1. Spend more time in listener mode and less in maker mode.

Brian Eno has a theory about making music: “As a maker, you tend to put in twice as much as you need as a listener... You’re always looking for that charge, so you put more and more in to get it. But as a listener you’re much less demanding and can take things that are much simpler, much more open.”  

So too in branding, communications and service design, the temptation is always to add one more ‘compelling’ proof point or poofteenth of a feature, convinced that it might improve brand consideration. The result, however, can so often be the opposite. Too much information is hard to absorb and impossible to remember at best; irritating and repulsive at worst. 

2. Critique work with a mindset for conversation, not debate. 

It still amazes me how often meetings can rapidly spiral into egoistic battles of one-upmanship. In my experience, this happens most frequently when there’s a large number of senior stakeholders – particularly blokes – in the room. To avoid verbal swordplay, always be clear on your role and try to find a balanced viewpoint through careful questioning, interp­­­­retation and evaluation of what’s being said.   

And, if you’re in a position of ‘authority’, try and leave space for others to come to their own conclusions, and be wary not to overwhelm people with facts and focus on teaching people how to make decisions instead. 

3. Spend less time on internal strategies and more time validating ideas in the outside world.   

It can be tempting to spend inordinate amounts of time on the next brand model, narrative or value proposition. Why? It may be because this type of work generally represents a smaller target for criticism than work supported by hard-earned media dollars. Ironically, thanks to considerable improvements in campaign development through digital, our ability to experiment and learn by efficiently putting ideas out to the universe has never been greater.  

Simple adherence to the 70/20/10 rule of media investment is a good litmus test here. But clients and their agencies have to be willing to embrace the risk of failure to realise the benefits in the long term. 

4. Work with a diverse team for multiple inputs and opinions.   

In the past several years, much evidence has emerged about the link between diversity and company performance. In their book, Rebels at Work, Carmen Medina and Lois Kelly demonstrate that encouraging dissonance (by breaking self-affirming echo chambers) is fundamental to having an adequate variation in thinking styles to best solve problems. In a 2018 report, Delivering Through Diversity, McKinsey highlights the substantial correlation between ethnic and cultural diversity and profitability.  

The point in all of this? Dissenting opinions help free us from conformity, stimulate creativity and ultimately deliver better business outcomes.  

5. Get help from a machine 

For some time now, artificial intelligence (AI) has been used to optimise existing practices across everything from UI design and media buying to fraud detection and supply chain management. However, the use of AI in more complex or new creative endeavours is still considered a bit of a moonshot.  

Earlier this year, The Royals co-founder and board member, Dave King, transitioned into a non-executive role to establish his new venture, Move 37, a company working to develop an augmented creativity engine to help people brainstorm in new and interesting ways. It works in part because machines aren’t attached to any particular culture or worldview; they can avoid the echo chamber pitfalls to which us humans are prone. In doing so, it behoves us to remember that mind or machine shouldn’t be an ‘either-or’ when it comes to creativity. You can use both to push past human biases and amplify the value of your creative output.  

Our marketing echo chambers can unsuspectingly lock us into a particular way of behaving and viewing the world, designing products, services and communication. But in the process, we can become inured in agreement and trapped in ignorance that compromises our effectiveness in the long run. All too rarely do marketers and their agencies deliberately challenge their preconceived notions, pressing against the walls of their echo chambers.

For those that do – encouraging others to articulate their views by cultivating an environment of openness and reciprocity – the rewards will be boundless.

Tags: marketing strategy, marketing leadership, The Royals

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