The importance of critical thinking in digital marketing

Recently I returned from the Midwest Direct Marketing Conference in St. Louis, where I participated in several panel discussions and sat in on some very enlightening presentations. For one of the panel discussions, I had dusted off and updated a presentation I had given many years ago to members of the Direct Marketing Association. The topic: The importance of digital marketing critical thinking skills. For me, this is a timely subject. It almost dominated a recent discussion I had with a new client looking for a senior operations leader. Now, you might think that actual skills and experience would dominate his list of “must-haves.” After all, that’s pretty much what you see at the top of all job descriptions. But to him, it all starts with the ability to think in a self-directed, self-disciplined and self-corrective manner. Without that, he pointed out, all of the skills and experience in the world won’t matter because the candidate’s thought process would clash with every other key decision maker in his company. This is actually the second chief executive to tell me in as many months that with their particular search, strong digital marketing critical thinking skills was priority one to ensure a good cultural fit (and to me, nothing matters more than fit). No surprise, when you think of the potentially disruptive role that digital marketing and ecommerce often plays within more traditional businesses.

I’ve actually been a student of digital marketing critical thinking skills for years. Maybe that’s because I’m always striving to become a better critical thinker myself, something that is especially propitious as a solo operator whose every decision directly impacts the business. It’s interesting: People just don’t talk about it very often. Few candidates ever bring it up, and I see it on resumes about as often as I speak with candidates who’ve received gold watches for 30 years of service. And yet, I can tell you that one of the reasons many of my best candidates reach the level of success they do is because of their excellence in thought.

The intellectual roots of critical thinking actually go back to the teachings of Socrates some 2,500 years ago. Essentially, Socrates questioned the practice of accepting ideas at face value, establishing the importance of thinking for clarity and logical consistency (my apologies to the Philosophy majors out there for this oversimplification). Referring back to my new client, these principles help define the very culture of his company, where this particular CEO encourages problem solving based on open-mindedness and mutual respect rather than vested interest and power. Indeed, it’s a corporate philosophy that looks attractive to candidates on paper, but as any business owner or leader knows, it’s not always easy to actualize.

For those who haven’t done much thinking lately about critical thinking, here is something to think critically about the next time you interview for any senior role. Great interviewers probe for critical thinking skills by looking for examples of your ability to:

-Formulate questions and problems, clearly, completely and precisely
-Gather relevant information and reach well-thought out conclusions that are based on  evidence and facts.
-Think with an open mind and with alternative thought processes.
-Communicate effectively to figure out solutions to complex problems.

Think it’s too late in your career to become a better critical thinker? Think again. Believe it or not there are books and videos out there that teach this stuff to pre-Kindergartners. You’ll find thousands of resources on the web. One of my favorites is Want your child to develop better critical thinking skills? Check out

When it comes to digital marketing critical thinking skills, there is no finish line- there are only degrees of critical thinking ability, so that means with practice, you can get really good at it. I told this to an audience of students and recent grads at the MDMC conference, and I tell the same thing to 25-year veterans: It doesn’t matter where you are on the career curve. Improving your digital marketing critical thinking skills is a sure fire way to boost your career.