Mine the gaps: why marketers need to escape their real-life echo chambers

Katy is a pragmatic (often sweary) marketer. Named 4th most influential social media marketing expert by the Drum, Katy Howell, is CEO at social media agency - immediate future.

She regularly appears on BBC news, Victoria Derbyshire, TV and Radio programmes (without the swearing) and is billed as an authority on social marketing. She speaks at conferences, runs masterclasses, and guest lectures at two universities. She’s co-authored 3 books on social and is a regular contributor to the press.

Her expertise lies in helping large brands squeeze the pips out of social media marketing. Now in its 15th year, her agency works with brands including; Fujitsu, lastminute.com, Thomson Reuters, Post Office, Bargain Booze, Selfridges, Mission Foods, Google, Diageo, JD Williams, Sony Music, and many more.

Much mention is made of online and social echo chambers. The filter bubbles and confirmation biases that keep us believing in our own opinions, our views driven by algorithms that prevent us from exploring the new. While there is much debate on the reality of its existence, it’s very much a subject that is discussed in digital terms. It is rarely considered by the mainstream in relation to the real world. But at SXSW this year, I spotted signs of how we’re allowing echo chambers to continue in our marketing world.

Watching a UK association drinks event in a hotel bar one night, I was struck by how alike everyone was. Sure they were all agency folk, but what was unexpected was the sameness of everyone gathered. Everyone was, pretty much, the same gender, same ethnicity and had the same look. The lack of diversity was in stark contrast to the American events I attended, where the joy was in the incredibly broad representations. To be frank, I was quite shocked. Maybe it’s a SXSW thing. But at an agency roundtable weeks later I saw the same – similar folk doing similar things.

I joined the UK WhatsApp group at the event – hoping to keep up with talks I would miss. It somewhat compounded my view that our industry was a wee bit frickin’ trapped in its own bubble. Not just in terms of diversity, but in thinking, ideas and opinions. A homogeneity of views and insider jokes that is close to the cronyism I remember from the 80s and 90s of agency life.

This was in stark contrast to the indie agencies I spoke with at Austin. Driven by passion for their craft, they slipped out of the echo chambers and into the gaps between them. They didn’t just attend mainstream events and the main event parties. They showed up in side rooms, alternative events and connected with people from all sorts of backgrounds. They talked about a different SXSW. One outside of the bubble. One that provoked quite heated discussions on right, wrong and downright weird ideas. Partnerships were struck, thinking shared and most importantly, they expanded their views and opinions.

Charles MacKay, in his book ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ writes, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”

Mining for the gems

It got me thinking about the spaces between the ‘herds’ and echos, and how often gems of insight, cultural shifts, and marketing ideas are lodged in these gaps. These gems can turn an industry on its head. 15 years ago, when I set up Immediate Future, I could see that blogs, MySpace and the early Twitter and Facebook thingamajigs were going to be big. It wasn’t a trend. It hadn’t had the media coverage we have today of AI and Blockchain and wasn’t discussed in agency watering holes. Bar a few, no one was really talking about it. It wasn’t called social, it was just a bunch of nascent ideas (and yes, social has evolved a lot since then). It was the jewel wedged in the corner of all the dotcom focus as we turned the century. Of course, social is now on everyone’s agenda, but that early advantage meant a great deal to the success for the agencies and clients that spotted it first.

A million ideas

It’s that same outside of the herd thinking I saw from indie leaders at SXSW. One that stretches thinking beyond the obvious, forces you outside of your comfort zone, makes you learn more and best of all, one that brings a collision of ideas. Ideas that can coalesce to something bigger.

And I love collecting ideas. Steve Johnson author of Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air and many more books and articles, calls them ‘hunches’. His talk at the RSA explains how increasing connectivity, borrowing hunches from others and incubating them creates something new.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to have a weather eye on the zeitgeist, such as with the current AI and blockchain trends. But that cannot be all you do. Innovation of ideas comes from opening your mind and allowing ideas to collide, that is when you make creative leaps into originality.

A side benefit to squeezing into gaps

Pushing yourself to step outside of the norm feeds ideas and innovation, but it also benefits you in other ways. You become fine-tuned to cultural signals. Notes you would miss if you just hang around with the same guys.

The different way people behave is enthralling to watch, the weird becomes insight and different becomes a trend in the making. You begin to understand the importance of empathy, and how inclusion plays a part in marketing that is more fundamental than the sodding quota and percentages we keep shouting about. If it is our job in social to change behaviours (and that is our job in marketing), then we need to understand all types of behaviours and motivations - not just those in our immediate circle.

So, next time you go to an industry event I urge you to go to a session that would never normally appeal (I went to a python programming one and I am no dev!), sit, listen and watch. You’ll walk away with a bunch of hunches (is that a thing?) and a little more instinct for human behaviour.

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