Trolls, tribes and a B2B trap to avoid

This article was originally published by B2B Marketing Magazine in the build-up to B2B Ignite 2018 – the world’s biggest B2B growth marketing event and recommended by entrepreneur.com as one of the top 10 conferences to attend… 

There’s a nasty little trap that us B2B marketers can fall into if we’re not careful. A potentially perilous pitfall that can stop us from achieving what our companies pay us to achieve. Worse still, you and I might have fallen into the trap already, and not even know it.

I’ll reveal the potentially provocative trap – and the simple things we can do to avoid it – in just a jiffy. But first, unapologetic tease that I am, I thought it might be helpful to provide a little bit of context. I want to share an unpleasant moment I experienced recently…

Trolls and tribulations

Last year, I got trolled on social media for the first time. Not excessively, but enough to dent my smile for a good few hours. Let me give you the short back-story…

I went to a café for a cup of tea early one Sunday morning. While enjoying a nice tipple of assam, I noticed two teachers, working hard, marking school books. They were a couple of nice, kind-looking, older ladies, each wading through a deep stack of student workbooks. Grafting, at 9am, on their day off.

Alas, some young chap in a hoodie made a snide remark to them about how “lazy” teachers received way too many holidays, before laughing at them and leaving. I thought it was a bit of a cheap shot on his part. They were just minding their own business after all, trying to get their work done while having a cuppa. So I paid them a little bit of respect in the café and also on Twitter – sharing a quick positive message to respect how hard teachers work. No big deal. Or so I thought…

Wind the clock forward some weeks and, upon leaving a one-hour work meeting, I glanced at my phone to spot a sudden influx of twitter notifications. “Wow! Hollywood has finally found me,” I thought hopefully. Alas, that wasn’t it…

One gentleman, clearly an influencer among a very specific Twitter tribe, had somehow stumbled upon my five-week-old tweet about teachers. He made a comment along the lines of ‘if teachers don’t like marking books, they shouldn’t have taken the job’, or words to that effect. It escalated quickly from then on – mainly in the form of likes and retweets – but there was also some darker stuff. Stuff about teachers being moaners and subversive Marxists. Some bitching about teacher pensions. The odd bit of profanity and personal insult; that I too was a moaner and should get a proper job. Like I said, it was all a bit odd.

Thankfully it subsided within a few days and didn’t deteriorate into anything really nasty, but it wasn’t a particularly life-enhancing read. And the troll tribe certainly didn’t seem to want an intelligent conversation about teachers’ contribution to society. They seemed quite resolute about their view. In fact, the tribe (many of whose profile pictures involved pictures of bulldogs and Union Jack flags) seemed like a pretty angry, disenfranchised bunch. I confess to being somewhat pleased when it all calmed down.

But what has that all got to do with B2B marketing, I suspect you’re thinking? It has to do with tribes and echo chambers…

‘Facebook is broken’

Last year, long before the recent fuss about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and data privacy, TechCrunch posted a fabulous article about the other hidden peril of Facebook. It summarised how Facebook can unduly influence peoples’ behaviour. You can read the full article here but, in short, this is the basic gist of it…

Facebook’s algorithm exposes us to people with similar interests and opinions to us, based upon the content we engage with. This can create tribes that share similar points of view (the ‘in-group’). We can become surrounded by perspectives that substantiate the points of view we’re already partial to, creating an echo chamber where we repeatedly hear reinforcement of those points of view. That reinforcement creates and perpetuates beliefs, biases and behaviours, which can become entrenched.

The double whammy, of course, is that Facebook’s algorithm can also distance us from people that don’t think like us (the ‘out-group’). Which means that balancing, contrarian points of view (or even evidence) may not make it through to us – either at all, or at least not in sufficient volume to give us pause for thought.

It’s quite possible (even likely) that the in-group and out-group phenomenon contributed to the Brexit and US Presidential Elections. And I also believe it’s the phenomenon that I recently experienced on Twitter. A group of pro-bulldog, anti-teacher enthusiasts had found their tribe. And within that tribe, anti-teacher sentiment was reinforced. In my case, once one member of the tribe moaned that teachers were all moaners (yep, I spotted that irony too), other members of the tribe quickly followed. The myth of teachers all being free-loading, moaning Marxists was perpetuated. And I didn’t get the sense that the tribe would easily be persuaded otherwise. Their in-group echo chamber was just too strong and well entrenched.

While I didn’t personally agree with the perspectives of the pro-bulldog, anti-teacher tribe (I personally think that kind-looking, older ladies should be able to mark school books on their day off without people slagging them off and people calling them subversive Marxists), I do respect that a cornerstone of democracy is that everyone is entitled to an opinion. And I love that social media helps us to all find our tribes. What does concern me, however, is when echo chambers form in the B2B marketing industry. And they do exist…

Getting trapped in a B2B marketing echo chamber

Here’s just one example of a B2B marketing echo chamber…

For some years in business marketing circles there was a narrative (and a tribe that perpetuated it) that advertising ‘is dead’ as a marketing tactic. There was an influential tribe that was happy to declare, both online and at B2B conferences, that advertising was a long-defunct, prehistoric tool of a bygone marketing era. You may have been one of the unlucky ones to hear that sentiment expressed.

Here’s my take on that. Advertising can certainly be costly and inefficient (particularly if it’s crap advertising). It’s very hard to measure. It’s rarely the first or best tool us B2B marketers should reach for to achieve our goals. And advertising can be desperately intrusive if we’re perpetually stalking customers around the internet using retargeting. Not to mention that, in the case of online advertising, the odds of anyone actually clicking on a banner ad are so low that they were famously once described as having less chance than completing Navy Seal training in the United States. So it’s clear that advertising in B2B certainly has its failings. But, and it’s a big but, saying that ‘advertising is dead’ is a bit of a stretch. To say it’s dead is to imply that it can’t work for any marketer, or any product, in any market, at any stage of the product’s lifecycle, which of course is sensationalist poppycock.

Advertising can be a valid tactic if you have to launch your brand in a completely new country, for example. It can help build brand familiarity. And what are Pay Per Click (PPC) or sponsored posts on LinkedIn if they’re not advertising? You’re just paying to put your brand and your content in front of people – and so are just advertising but masquerading under another name.

But, despite all of that, the anti-advertising tribe, entrenched in their own echo chamber, still insisted that advertising was, indeed, dead. (A tribe, it’s worth mentioning, that our consumer marketing cousins at John Lewis, Coca Cola, Apple, Unilever, Innocent etc. mostly just ignore).

OK, so B2B marketers disagree. So what?

What’s wrong with people having strongly held views on the efficacy of advertising? Why is an anti-advertising echo chamber a problem? It’s a problem because if you’re a B2B marketer that listens to that anti-advertising narrative, and then you repeatedly hear other influential people agreeing with that point of view, you might believe it to be true. This might stop you considering advertising as a tool to achieve your goals. Even in cases where advertising might have been the right tool all along. Which means the anti-advertising echo chamber can be a trap. A trap that closes thinking, closes doors and closes opportunities.

I want to stress that this blog post is NOT here to focus on the pros and cons of advertising in B2B. That debate is for another day. Rather, this blog post IS here to remind myself and my fellow B2B marketers of the perils of echo chambers – of which the anti-advertising echo chamber is just one example. There are many others. For example, if you listen to enough people repeatedly whooping and hollering about brand purpose, content marketing, that ‘the sales funnel is dead’, AI or other trending topics and tactics, you may become inadvertently biased towards those topics and tactics. You may inadvertently pay them undue attention and assign undue importance to them. And you may become inadvertently closed towards other topics and tactics.

Echo chambers harm B2B marketers

And so here’s the thing – the blatantly simple reason why echo chambers can be devastatingly bad for B2B marketers. In a world of fierce competition, us B2B marketers are paid to make our brands different – not the same. And being different requires fresh thinking, fresh ideas and fresh tactics. This in turn demands new sources of inspiration, which is hard to get if we’re continually consuming the same perspectives, on the same topics, from the same people.

The stark reality of modern B2B marketing is that, in order to stand out from the crowd, we each need to break the mould – and that means breaking free from echo chambers. Because listening to the same points of view and the same topics over and over again may lead us all to do the same things as each other, over and over again. And that constrains new possibilities – which is simply wrong.

Again, I want to stress that listening to modern thinking and best practice advice on content marketing, ABM, AI, brand purpose and the like is important. It’s just that it’s equally important to listen to people that don’t agree with those topics – and to also listen to completely different topics. When was the last time you attended a seminar on brand positioning or price elasticity, for example? I know I haven’t for a while, to my eternal shame.

Some things to consider

I mentioned at the start of this post that there are simple measures that we can each take to prevent ourselves from unwittingly falling into an echo chamber trap. I hope that at least one of these resonates with you. (The third one is a little bit provocative – sorry if it offends you).

  • If you hear a tribe of people pronouncing that something in marketing is dead, don’t automatically believe them. They may be narrowing your possibilities.
  • Hire people from outside your sector. The fresh perspective they bring can be gold dust.
  • Be wary of believing every piece of rhetoric from influencers within tech vendors or specialist agencies. It’s not that they’re consciously misleading us, and it’s undoubted that the technology and services they provide are often vital to our success – I happily work with heaps of tech vendors and specialist agencies – but it’s important to remember that they’re trying to sell us marketers a vision of the world where their services are essential. An SEO agency is hardly going to tell us to focus more on direct mail, for example, even if direct mail was the right tool for a particular job. All I’m saying is to consider inputs from multiple sources – not just rely on one source, particularly if it’s the charismatic CEO of a marketing technology vendor.
  • Find contrarians and listen to them. Take Bob Hoffman, who’s single-handedly trying to dismantle the online advertising echo chamber. His book ‘Marketers are from Mars. Consumers are from New Jersey’ is a rip-roaring hoot of a read if you don’t mind your content both B2C-focused and somewhat blunt.
  • Consciously force yourself to widen your sources of input. For example, if you’re into ABM, go on a pricing course. If you’re into marketing automation, read a book about psychology. If you’re into design, read a book about how the financial merry-go-round works. If you’re into blockchain, try and write an advertising campaign. If you’re into pitching, join a webinar about SEO optimisation. There’s still no substitute for education to widen each of our horizons.
  • Ongoing refreshment of the basic foundations of our profession can never be a bad thing. Education can be costly – both in terms of money and time – but if you can afford it, do it. Talking entirely personally, as soon as I’ve paid off my car loan, I for one am going to enrol in Professor Mark Ritson’s mini Marketing MBA.
  • If formal training courses are beyond our respective purses and diaries, industry events are a great stopgap. The trick, however, is to pick industry events that provide the most scope to expose us to topics beyond those we would normally gravitate towards, and to be exposed to ideas from industry sectors beyond our own. Two industry gatherings that I’ve found to be useful are B2B Marketing Ignite and the events run by the Business Marketing Club. (Disclaimer, I am actively involved in each on an entirely voluntary basis – but that involvement has stemmed solely from the point of view that fresh inputs will help me to succeed). Both of those events have lots of speakers on lots of topics from lots of different backgrounds, and I heartily recommend both. BUT, if you choose to go, pick sessions that you know the least about and may not even seem directly related to your current role. That may sound counter-intuitive, even balmy, but you know you’ll get a fresh perspective.

If we each acted on just one of those ideas, I think we’d all be better for it – and we’d be less likely to avoid a hidden trap. Because like US Navy Seals, us B2B marketers should never leave a fellow B2B marketer behind. (Even if they’re pro-bulldog, anti-teacher B2B marketers).

Thanks for reading and avoid those traps, fellow marketers 🙂

For further reading, try out this quick introduction to a related psychological phenomenon – the false consensus effect >

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