'Thick Data' Helps Marketers Humanize Big Data

Mandy Rassi
Marketing News Weekly
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Key Takeaways

​What? Big Data helps marketers answer well-defined questions and see phenomena, but it falls short of explaining why consumers behave as they do.

So what? "Thick data" provides the granular detail to humanize Big Data.

Now what? To acquire thick data, marketers need to reignite personal connections with consumers and strive to understand the context of their decisions.

​March 24, 2017

With more data than ever before, what is getting lost in understanding consumer behavior?

I’ve spent my career on a mission to put people at the center of business. My career prior to 84.51° was at a large, established consumer packaged goods company, so naturally I was intrigued by what it would be like to be on “the other side.” As a long-term “data geek,” I was giddy at the prospect of having so much data at my fingertips along with capabilities like geo-fencing and a cutting-edge team of data scientists to work with and learn from every day.

As many insight strategists and business leaders know, all that data can make it diificult to know where to begin or even what it all means. A senior leader at one of our clients described his biggest challenge to me, gesturing to piles of papers all over his desk: “All this data. Everyone brings me data. There’s so much of it that it’s getting harder to know what matters; what it might mean for the future or what should I do now based on all this.”

This is one of the challenges facing leaders in an era of bigger and bigger data. We have more information than ever before, but amid all the data, some important things can get lost. Clarity can become fleeting as more data points pile up and the people behind that data get lost.

Behind the data are people. People with complicated lives, existing in rich cultural ecosystems. People who happened to stop in the grocery store that day for some reason—perhaps for a quick dinner for the family on the way home from soccer practice, maybe to pick up medicine for an elderly parent, for fresh ingredients for a special dinner celebrating a big life moment or possibly trying to get the groceries for the week with the little bit of money left in the bank account before payday.

People are the reason our brands exist. Most brands say we have our consumers or customers at the center of what we do, but do we really see them in all that data we have? Do we know what makes them tick, what they need and where our brands fit in the greater landscape of their lives (or where they could)?

To do this, we need to go back to basics and reignite human connection. We need to experience life with our customers, getting to know them as people and understand the contexts they live within and how that context impacts what they do every day. We need to know what happened before and after that trip to the grocery store to create clarity and depth of understanding.

We call this type of information “thick data.” It’s the stuff of human existence and connection, which can be like rocket fuel for a brand when harnessed effectively. Thick data is messy, low base size and hard to scale. It has to be processed by a human brain and requires skills like empathy and creativity to make it useful. But it answers questions that our Big Data alone cannot. And, if we succeed in putting these two types of data together, we can understand the people we serve more completely, illuminating new possibilities for how we can make a real difference for them.

Big Data is extremely useful in answering well-defined questions and addressing phenomena that are well-understood. Models are built on assumptions, which are typically well-informed by historical data, but they are only as useful as those assumptions are accurate and as good as the modeler is at choosing the right types of data to feed into the system.

The recent presidential election is a now over-told story of this problem. All the traditional polls missed predicting Trump’s win because they missed some important cultural shifts that had happened diminishing the accuracy of the old models. So rather than looking at how certain counties had voted across a long history of prior elections, questions about the level frustration with established institutions may have had more predictive power. Thick data can help us understand these phenomena that are not yet well-defined or neatly measured.

We can find new ideas or models that are just emerging but are still too small to impact our existing Big Data frameworks. The understanding provided can help us look at our models differently and ask “what if” so we might see the opportunities and threats that are coming and what the implications could be on our businesses and brands. And, through thick data work, we’ll find the people behind those numbers again and understand why they do what they do, reigniting our connection with them to light a clear path forward.

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Author Bio:

Mandy Rassi
Mandy Rassi is vice president of primary research at 84.51°. She previously worked at Procter & Gamble in varying consumer insight roles.
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