Thick Data. What is it?
In recent years, there has been a lot of hype around “big” data in the marketing world. Big data is extremely helpful with gathering quantitative information about new trends, behaviors and preferences, so it’s no wonder companies invest a lot of time and money sifting through and analyzing massive sets of data. However, what big data fails to do is explain why we do what we do.
“Thick” data fills the gap. Thick data is qualitative information that provides insights into the everyday emotional lives of consumers. It goes beyond big data to explain why consumers have certain preferences, the reasons they behave the way they do, why certain trends stick and so on. Companies gather this data by conducting primary and secondary research in the form of surveys, focus groups, interviews, questionnaires, videos and other various methods. Ultimately, to understand people’s actions and what drives them to your business (or not), you need to understand the humanistic context in which they pursue these actions.
It’s crucial for successful companies to analyze the emotional way in which people use their products or services to develop a better understanding of their customers. By using thick data, companies can develop a positive relationship with their customers and it becomes easier for those companies to maintain happy customers and attract new ones.
Big data will tell you that in 2013, Samsung was able to sell 35 million more smartphones than Apple. But what can these companies really do with this data? Pat themselves on the back or hang their heads in shame? If you are in the market for a smartphone, you’re not going to buy a Samsung because they sold 35 million more than Apple. As a customer, you probably don’t even know this information.
You may, however, buy a Samsung because they offer a multitude of models that you can customize to your preferences, and Apple’s product line is less diverse. Or perhaps you won’t buy an Apple smartphone because it’s not quite as durable, or they don’t have as wide a selection of phone colors as Samsung. Using thick data to figure out why more people are buying from Samsung is key for both companies to move forward and either keep dominating the market, or reinvent to gain dominance. At its core, business is about making bets on human behavior, and those bets backed by thick data are what business models should be based around.
Take for example Lego, a successful company that was near collapse in the early 2000’s because they lost touch with their customers. After failed attempts to reposition the company with action figures and other concepts, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO of the Danish Lego firm, decided to engage in a major qualitative research project. Children in five major global cities were studied to help Lego better understand the emotional needs of children in relation to legos. After evaluating hours of video recordings of children playing with legos, a pattern emerged. Children were passionate about the “play experience” and the process of playing. Rather than the instant gratification of toys like action figures, children valued the experience of imagining and creating. The results were clear; Lego needed to go back to marketing its traditional building blocks and focus less on action figures and toys. Today, Lego is once again a successful company, and thick data proved to be its savior.
While it’s impossible to read the minds of customers, thick data allows us to be closer than ever to predicting the quirks of human behavior. The problem with big data is that companies can get too caught up in numbers and charts and forget the humanistic reality of their customers’ lives. As this Wall Street Journal article puts it, “By outsourcing our thinking to Big Data, our ability to make sense of the world by careful observation begins to wither, just as you miss the feel and texture of a new city by navigating it only with the help of a GPS”.
This is not to say big data is useless. It is a powerful and helpful tool companies should invest in. However, companies should also invest in gathering and analyzing thick data to uncover the deeper, more human meaning of big data. Together, thick data and big data give you an incredibly insightful advantage.