Big Data Is Not Enough

One of the literary world’s original data scientists knew a thing or two about the limits of analytics.

Needling the editors of high-brow “East Coast magazines,” the late writer David Foster Wallace once remarked that these ivory tower types dispatched writers to do some “pith-helmeted anthropological reporting on something rural and heart-landish” whenever they happened to remember that most of the U.S. population lives between the coasts.

Wallace’s wonderful analyses of “heart-landish culture”—which includes gut-bustlingly funny and brilliantly insightful pieces on state fairs and cruise ships (collected in this book)—derives from his ability to manually collect large amounts of qualitative data and then synthesize it into cohesive narratives.

Leading CMOs and marketing functions are placing greater emphasis on a similar capability, despite all of the brouhaha surrounding Big Data and analytics.

“Companies that rely too much on the numbers, graphs, and factoids of Big Data risk insulating themselves from the rich, qualitative reality of their customers’ everyday lives,” ReD Associates consultants Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

In the article, Madsbjerg and Rasmussen describe this qualitative reality as “thick data,” and point to their own pith-helmeted field research for Lego as a key component of the toymaker’s successful business turnaround. “We were sent to play with kids—not in focus groups but in the context of their real lives,” they wrote.  

All of the marketing executives whom I’ve been interviewing each month for our “CMO Confidential” series promote the importance and value of data analytics; however, these leaders also endorse the importance and value of thicker data. “It is crucial for us to use a lot of digital tools, which we do on a daily basis,” says Braden Hoeppner, CMO of online eye glasses retailer Coastal Contacts Inc. “However, it’s just as important for us to talk to people on the street.”

Hoeppner has dispatched dozens of his marketers to shopping malls to interview anyone with glasses about his or her best and worst eyewear shopping experiences. Like Hoeppner, when Simon Fleming-Wood joined Pandora as the Internet radio company’s first CMO, he and his team conducted what he describes as “cultural anthropology”: dozens of in-depth, face-to-face interviews to unearth the key pillars of Pandora’s brand narrative.

These experiences suggest that Big Data has its limits. Combined with analytics, Big Data is a must-have marketing capability; however, it should be complemented by the collection and analysis of thicker data. Collecting qualitative data can be a time-consuming process, but it can yield game-changing results (see Lego) and add welcomed doses of humanity and excitement to marketing activities.

Just ask Dan Wald, a partner at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and a core member of the firm’s consumer packaged goods (CPG) group. Wald reports that consumer analytics are driving a lot of consulting projects in the CPG industry right now, but he quickly adds that his work with CPG marketing teams isn’t limited to Big Data.

Instead, his work “runs the gamut from sophisticated data analytics to qualitative ethnographic work,” Wald tells Consulting magazine. “I’ve flown to China, and visited the slums of Hangzhou to crawl under people’s sinks and find out what cleaners and pest-control products they use.”


Freelance journalist Eric Krell works with Mitel CMO Martyn Ethrington to produce DMN’s Diary of a CMO.

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