Making Big Data Deeper

Investment advisor Irene Adridge writes that, “Big Data is the new Big Bang.” Certainly, Big Data is the top news story in the marketing world these days, and deservedly so. Big Data is creating opportunities for increased efficiency and insight for its devotees.

These opportunities, however, have their limits. While Big Data has created a remarkable new space for market researchers to explore, another form of research remains relatively undeveloped and underutilized. Big Data is an excellent tool for descriptive research, answering the questions of who consumers are, and what, where, when and how consumers behave as they do. It is an insufficient tool, however, for explanative research that answers the questions of why consumers do what they do and how they can be moved to change their behavior.

deeper than big dataNo matter how immense our collections of statistics about consumer behavior may become, Big Data won’t be able to guide us in the creation of compelling consumer experiences unless we have a rich qualitative understanding of the cultural and psychological contexts in which its statistics operate.

“90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone,” says IBM. This explosion in the scale of information has been enabled by technological innovation. The tools required to deal with this surge in data are being developed at an amazing pace.

It cannot be said, however, that 90% of the meaning in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. For one thing, we can’t quantify how much meaning is related with an object or experience. One thing may be said to have more meaning than another, but such a judgment is qualitative and subjective. What’s deeply meaningful for one person in one context may have practically no meaning elsewhere.

Another difference between data and meaning is that meaning isn’t created so much as it is discovered and cultivated. Meaning isn’t something external to us. It’s a consequence of the way our minds interpret the world. For this reason, while we can develop ever more sophisticated computers and software to store and analyze more data, there’s little we can do with technology to enhance the depth of meaning we experience.

Practically all of the meaning that’s available for us to work with has been available for quite some time. However, even as we dedicate vast resources to establish vast new territories of data, we haven’t even begun to explore much of the territory of meaning that’s available to us. If this is true in our culture in general, it’s especially the case in the realm of marketing.

The reason for this is cultural as much as it is rational. Corporations are culturally prepared to engage in systematic quantitative projects to create and use Big Data because the conceptions of value upon which they are founded are themselves systematic and quantitative. Corporations are static machines of function which excel at the achievement of objective goals. Corporations aren’t so effective, however, at grasping the larger cultural context within which opportunities for change are to be found. They’re too invested in their current embodiments of purpose to perceive, much less accept, alternative routes of enterprise.

This limitation of the corporate perspective explains why, with all the human and material resources at their disposal, corporations continue to rely on outside consultants and agencies. While independent quantitative market researchers find themselves increasingly unable to compete with corporations’ in-house capabilities, external qualitative researchers and creative agencies continue to remain essential to their corporate process, no matter how big Big Data gets.

While technologies of data manipulation are providing unprecedented resolution in models of consumer behavior, the motivational dimensions within which this data grows will always need qualitative definition. As data gets bigger, our insight must also become deeper.

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