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What it means to be a critical thinker
and why marketers need to embrace the


Columnist Matt Umbro calls on marketers to use their intellectual abilities to question, scrutinize and analyze and make informed decisions.

No matter your political views, this election reinforced an extremely important notion for us as marketers: We need to be willing and able to think critically about what we encounter. 

Everything from data review to the initiatives we take needs to be analyzed and scrutinized. We need to use our intellectual abilities. We can’t take what we see at face value.

At its core, critical thinking comes down to questioning the source. For example, if I look at a performance report, I immediately want to know:

  • What are the primary metrics being looked at?
  • How is success defined?
  • How is the data being collected?
  • Does the data give me enough information to make decisions?

You are trying to better educate yourself and understand all angles before making decisions. I realize that the process of critical thinking sounds burdensome, but if you view it as a mindset, it isn’t. You are using your intellectual abilities to assess and make informed decisions.

So how do you get into this mindset? First, you lay the groundwork.


In my report example, one of the questions I asked had to do with the definition of success. If I view a report that says my ROI (return on investment) is 400 percent, I want to know exactly how we are defining ROI. Is the formula simply revenue minus ad spend divided by ad spend, or are more variables involved?

Perhaps the formula takes into account profit margin and marketing management fees. I can’t determine if the 400-percent figure is meeting the client’s goal until I first know how we are calculating ROI.

Another example is for lead gen clients who set a strict cost-per-lead goal. Before dissecting what that goal is, you need to define what counts as a lead. Does a newsletter signup count as a lead, or does the user need to fill out a “contact us” form?

Based upon the definition, other variables and assumptions may then need to be adjusted. The cost-per-lead goal could change, or the CRO (conversion rate optimization) process may be revisited.

It sounds so simple, but the process of defining account aspects is crucial. Give yourself a better chance to succeed by taking the guesswork and confusion out of your work.

Setting definitions also removes assumptions, which can differ greatly from client to manager. The concept of setting definitions flows nicely into the next theme.

Determine the problem before looking for the solution

We are often so ready to find a solution that we don’t accurately diagnose the problem. Maybe a client comes to you to increase revenue or to lower cost per lead. That’s great, but you first need to determine why clients are looking for these solutions.

You may say that the problem is an inverse of the solution. In other words, the problem is that revenue isn’t increasing or cost per lead is too high. This rationale is too simplistic. Just as with setting definitions, you need to detail the problem before working toward a solution.

Let’s go back to our cost-per-lead example. After we’ve defined what constitutes a lead, we need to determine why we aren’t hitting the goal. It could be for a variety of reasons, including:

  • cost per clicks are expensive because we are in a competitive industry;
  • the landing page is hindering conversions; or
  • our ad copy doesn’t accurately speak to the type of lead we want.

The problem then needs to be communicated to the client so it is understood and expectations are set. The danger of not determining and communicating the problem at the outset of the engagement is that problems can arise later on.

Using our example, let’s say that we do hit the cost-per-lead goal. What happens when the client wants to take on a new initiative and is under the assumption that you will hit the same goal?

You can share your concerns that the goal may not be realistic anymore and needs to be adjusted. The client could very well be fine with the rationale, but the point is that you never determined the actual problem at the beginning of the engagement, potentially leading to unrealistic expectations.

Engage in active discussion

There is a difference between being a part of a discussion and actively engaging in one. The latter entails being an active participant who listens and provides valuable insight.

When you are listening, you should actually be listening and not solely formulating your response. I wrote about this concept in greater detail on my company’s blog. The overview is that you interpret what the other person is saying and provide feedback based on what is said. It sounds simple, but often one person doesn’t actively listen to the other, causing a potential disconnect.

Actively listening to your client should allow you to ask more pertinent questions. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, critical thinking comes down to questioning the source. You will be able to glean more information from your client by listening, and then asking relevant follow-up questions.


Critical thinking isn’t a difficult concept, but it does take effort. Try to understand the larger arena you are working in and ask the necessary questions.

Few things in life are black and white. The more you can question, scrutinize and analyze, the more information you will have to do your job effectively. As marketers, we need to make the effort in order to produce better results for our clients.

by Matt Umbro
source: Marketing Land