Kylie Jenner and the scope to persuade

In a rapid-fire, year-end review of key financial trends, the German journalist and stock market expert Frank Bethmann flashed a picture of model, socialite, and entrepreneur Kylie Jenner on the screen. He reminded us of Snapchat's 1.3-billion-dollar loss in market value last year following a tweet by Jenner expressing her disappointment with the platform.

One can debate whether Jenner’s offhand remark caused the knee jerk in the market, but the influence of her digitally propagated opinions exemplifies the Pavlovian nature of our attention in an era of constant information overload.

Whether we intend to or not, we all consume information within echo chambers. News filters into our chamber biased by our own information-searching behavior. We then magnify that partiality by repeatedly returning to voices that validate our own opinions, mirror our own experiences, or trigger an emotional response. As we tap into this echoed content, we make those voices louder. Kylie Jenner holds a megaphone in the echo chamber of her followers (or of the shareholders who panicked).

For marketers, this means that persuading potential customers requires penetrating their echo chamber and successfully competing with other voices for thoughtful attention. Yet, unless you've already established rapport with your audience, your voice will be but a whisper among the louder voices they already gravitate towards. Boosting your message from a faint call to a roaring broadcast takes telling a story that complements (or successfully refutes) those other voices.

Information that resonates in our echo chamber draws a perspective – new or old – that we want to pursue. It might solve a problem (a perspective that puts us at ease), cast new light on experiences (a perspective that intrigues), or turn everything we’ve known on its head (a perspective that provokes). Thus, the key to persuasion is information that aligns with the conversations and thoughts that we already wrestle with every day. Arguments must have the right scope.

And what exactly is scope? My colleague Ute found a perfect definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: the space or opportunity for unhampered motion, activity or thought. That is, the range and scale in which arguments exert their persuasive effect.

Let's consider an example.

At a scientific workshop I attended last year, academic researchers discussed the pushback and dismissals they experience among their colleagues for accepting corporate funding. One participant described the troubled beginning of his research project. A company had offered to finance the project, yet success hinged upon working with NGOs and associations who were aggressively antagonistic toward industry. Predictably, the initial reaction of his collaborators was to reject the idea of corporate funding. In a last-ditch attempt to persuade them, the researcher invited all stakeholders to meet face-to-face. He summarized the goals of the project, highlighted the resources needed to reach each goal, and laid open the funding offer, plus its terms and conditions. By the end of the meeting, all collaborators had agreed to launch the project with the company’s support.

In the example, two attempts were made to persuade the indispensable stakeholders of the project. The message in both attempts remained the same: we need this funding. What accounted for the different outcome the second time around was a change in scope.

The first attempt tells a story that disintegrates against the backdrop of large-scale, abstract and heatedly debated thoughts about the incompatibility of independent research and business interests. With this broad scope, the protagonists in the story are faceless organizations and the needs are lifeless numbers, making it is easy to be self-righteous about your particular stance on the controversy.

But the second, successful attempt zooms in on and acknowledges the concrete day-to-day ideas, thoughts and struggles of the audience. This conversation sounds familiar to them. Talking in person about putting ideas and plans into action resonates with the other voices of their echo chamber in thunderous harmony. Move over Kylie!

Scope matters. Use it wisely.


Epilogue: Allow me to return to my assertion above that refuting other voices in an echo chamber is also a means of getting attention. In fact, this can be an extremely powerful, albeit risky approach. One way to err on the side of “powerful” instead of “risky” is to present information with an unprecedented scope. More on that in an upcoming post.