The Science of Big Data: The Art of Interpretation

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Click here to learn more about Jeff Hirsch.

Still think marketing research is more science than art?

Allow me to introduce exhibit one, the 2016 presidential election. Lamenting this epic fail in research in The Hollywood Reporter, Michael Wolff went so far to say it was the “day the data died.”

That’s not quite right. Big Data is here to stay and has obvious benefits.

A personal note: I never believed in the polls, though the partisan in me desperately wanted to, and I was not at all surprised by the outcome.

Human nature does doesn’t do well with ambiguity or uncertainty. Seeking resonance in our lives, we look to outside, “objective” validation of our beliefs. Similarly, business people and politicians have developed an addiction to quantitative research and Big Data for the illusion of control, to justify their decisions and attempt to minimize risk.

With the ascent of Big Data, the digital age and the ever-growing complexity of the marketing world, more and more executives seem to be completely dismissive of qualitative research. Feeling is not the same as “fact” in their minds. Only decisions based on “hard data” can be justified. They could not possibly be more misguided.

There are lots of ways quantitative research can go wrong. New Coke is a prime example of incompetent data interpretation, or perhaps management seeing just what they wanted to see and ignoring everything else.

People lie in qualitative research as well. My very first experience watching a focus group included the moderator asking a group of moms what kinds of snacks they served their children. I never knew that fresh fruits and vegetables were so popular! However, after some not so relentless probing, there turned out to be a lot of chips and cookies in those households as well.

That’s the power of great qualitative research. When you put people at ease, get them talking, involve them in creative exercises, have some patience and the truth will emerge.

First, it’s a different age. As The Hollywood Reporter’s Wolff puts it, “Ads don’t work, polls don’t work, celebrities don’t work, media endorsements don’t work and ground games don’t work.” Traditional marketers feel the sting of this observation all too well in the digital era, where authenticity, word of mouth and online buzz can be far more powerful than big budgets and traditional media plans.

Passion is a hard thing to measure. You just can’t put a number to it. So continue to do your quantitative measuring and data massaging. It would be foolish not to. But the only way to make real sense of the numbers, or understand whether you can trust them completely, is to talk to people face to face.

Listen to their tone of voice. Watch their body language. Challenge their assumptions and get them to think metaphorically. Find out what they are truly passionate about. At the end of the day, claims like “whiter teeth in two days” (speed) vs. “twice as white in 30 days” (efficacy) hardly matter. What your toothpaste company stands for is far more important.

Qualitative work, well done, will reveal what is in people’s hearts. I’ll take that over what’s in their minds any day.

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