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Goodbye Big Data, Hello Thick Data

Thick arrow pointing to the left and up, made from plenty of colorful jigsaw puzzle pieces separated on white background.

 

By Stephen Cribbett

I hate to start this article talking about Big Data because it’s been well-covered, some might even say exhausted, but in doing so you’ll get a better sense of where I’m going.

So let me start by just saying that Big Data has been around the block and on-stage more than most hot topics over the last five years. What I see Big Data as is data that is delivered with a velocity and veracity hitherto unseen. It comprises data sets large and small, from all areas of a business such as customer loyalty programs, customer service centers, online transactions, social etc. The promise of Big Data was that it offered the potential to better understand and anticipate consumers’ behavior and turn that into competitive advantage. You get the idea right?

From all the conversations I have with brands and from the many talks I attend, few brands have capitalized on this promise because they simply ended up drowning in the immense volume of data and it’s various formats, but also didn’t do the job of turning data into action insight the business could work with. (Note: I plan to share my ideas of a new role ad activity called Data Scouting in a later post, so keep watching!).

There are brands and organisations out there that are getting it and doing some spectacular work using Big Data and real-time mission rooms that help them join the dots and act on the learnings fast, Unilever being one such example.

From the outside looking in, one might think that all brands, like Unilever, have impressive Big Data dashboards and mission control rooms where things happen in an instant, managed centrally, gracefully and with great agility. Not true. The Head of Customer Insight at BT herself confessed that this just wasn’t what it looks like on the inside, and that in reality it was paddling hard to stay afloat on the see of data.

So here what this gets interesting. Big Data is what it is, and the majority of brands and organisations find it to be a bit of a Damocles Sword. And due to the sheer size and volume of these data sets they are largely structured and quantitative. It can, I believe, still help understand new trends, behaviors and preferences, but like most other quant data, it still leaves the organisation bereft of any knowledge of why its customers are doing what they do.

Thick Data plugs the gap between what organisations have, and what they need to be more instinctive and truly understand how people feel and their emotions that underpin the customer experience. For as long as I can remember, designers have been working with Thick Data in the creation of human-centered products and services. Now is the time for marketers to take advice from these practices and be more people-shaped, more emotional and empathetic in their approach. Engaging with Thick Data enables organisations to develop real, positive relationships with people (their targets) and stop thinking about them as numbers, or respondents. It brings in the context of their complex lives also, which as you well know plays a significant role in what they do and why. Take for example the act of buying a new car. Its a long process that involves research and interaction across many channels, online and offline. But there are many actors influencing decisions, like friends, family, and of course the female head of the family. Without this insight, car brands and showrooms would be missing the target and continue to focus on the male of the species.

By harnessing qualitative research techniques and tools, you can build a organisational empathy and instinct towards your customer. You’ll start to think like them, sympathize with them and be able to turn this into valuable use cases that lead to game-changing products and services that they want and that solves their problems for them. Thick data thinking must be embedded within the organisation, not just handled by an external agency since your employees are the conduits, the activators and the front-line. This is important and must be considered carefully, perhaps using customer closeness programs where your teams get to meet people regularly to share and understand the issues they face first-hand.

Big Data is here to stay, and we’re getting better at making use and sense of it. But it’s only half the job – Thick Data fills the gaps and enables truly people-shaped or human-centered development and visceral business.

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