What Data-Mining Will Never Tell You

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  • by Justin Masterson

One morning this Spring, I decided to scroll through my Facebook friends and do some social network housekeeping. (Yes, at nearly 40, I am one of those FB devotees who refuses to port to Insta/Snap/WhatsApp/Whatever’s big right now… I know, intentionally uncool).  

As I scrolled through the hundreds of names and faces I know and have known, I was struck by how few of them I’ve had a meaningful exchange within the past decade.  Sure, I could tell you their birthday, I could tell you how beautiful their children or dogs or maple-bacon cupcakes are and how perfect the sunset was on their last vacation… but I couldn’t tell you what they struggle with. Or where the burns on the living room carpet came from. Or how their pantry tells you stories that their perfect picture of avocado toast cannot.  It’s not that their feed lacks truth… it’s that it lacks context. And without context, I can’t really know the whole person anymore.

Fast-forward to this week.  I spent the last two days in living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms all over greater London, talking to complete strangers on one of our empathic immersions, on a category whose products will never be in most of those rooms.  While the product lives in purses and pockets, seeing the light of day a mere 0.0001% of the time, its purchase and usage context is much, much greater.  It occupies space in the mind where it elbows next to health care choices. It casts shadows near food choices. It spars with entertainment choices. It cozies up with mattress choices and light bulb choices.  And, more importantly, it interplays with their centers of social acceptance and romantic attraction. And every once in a while, even co-mingles with their frameworks for survival and thriving.

I know this because I got to see it all. And because I got to have a real exchange with a real person in their own home.  We talked about the category, of course - but the truth is that the category is rarely a conscious thought for the folks I was meeting with.  It wasn’t until we talked about their upcoming marathon, stepfather, dreams to finally quit that job and move abroad - the things that excite them - that the category suddenly became enthralling.  And it did so because the category was one tiny lever they could pull to get closer to everything they wanted.   Sure, they might not have seen it that way. And they likely left feeling unheard and wondering how we spent two hours talking about *enter boring category here.*  But for those of us whose job it is to do good, human-centered positioning and design work walked away with something. We came alive with connections and meaningful ideas to help them get a little closer to the category using the one tiny tool we have:  the brand.

The moral of the story? Social media, machine learning, AI, big data, secondary work - these are all invaluable tools that have pushed the worlds of research and brand-building light years ahead from where we were just a few years ago  As a strategist, I am more excited than ever to have these tools in my arsenal. BUT let’s not mistake them for human-to-human connection, and the context and empathic drive that it creates.  Immersions can be expensive, messy and time-consuming, and should be used for the right applications. But let me encourage you to ask yourself, do I have the human context? Can I feel the mindspace my brand/category takes up?

If not, it may be time to close your laptop, get into somebody’s living room and have a real exchange.  Don’t send your market research team alone - you should go, you should get the context.  You don’t have to do it often, you just have to do it right. And be willing to have your imagination of the category changed as a result.  I promise the ROI is worth the investment a hundred times over. And when you invest in understanding the humans your brand serves, your brand-to-consumer connection will transform into a richer human-to-human one.

Interested in learning more about our empathic immersion offerings? Let’s chat. Contact zak@seekcompany.com.