OPINION26 October 2016

It’s good to talk

Data analytics Opinion Retail

There’s no denying the power of big data, says Shoppercentric’s Danielle Pinnington, but don't underestimate the power of spending time talking to consumers. 

It never ceases to amaze us how ready various industry commentators and practitioners are to put down their fellow human beings’ ability to communicate with each other meaningfully. One speaker, while leading the charge for big data dominance at a recent conference we attended, even went as far as to describe surveys as ‘the bizarre idea you can ask shoppers what they want’!

Our position here at Shoppercentric is perhaps a little more consolatory: whilst we very much agree that big data (of various kinds) brings a whole plethora of new opportunities for understanding human behaviour and motivations, we don’t think it’s a panacea. It can of course offer invaluable insights if used correctly but, we’d argue, its contribution would be even more invaluable if used in conjunction with the context that spending time with consumers and shoppers can bring.

For example, a purchase decision hierarchy derived from purchasing patterns can deliver a view of market structure based on the associations between products bought by individual shoppers over a period of time. It won’t, however, tell you why people choose one product over another, nor the processes they go through as they make their decisions; neither will it tell you how a shopper’s decisions are shaped by their goals and beliefs, or the environmental influences they encounter along the way. So, if you want to create a shopper marketing campaign to change behaviour, or a planogram to improve ease of find, we would suggest you need a fully rounded picture on which to base your plans.

So, let’s not be afraid to put it out there – it’s good to talk. There is tremendous value in spending time conversing with consumers and shoppers – exploring the contexts, the belief systems and the goals that drive behaviour. It’s one thing to know what, but quite another to appreciate why – yet it takes an understanding of ‘why’ to make positive steps toward changing consumer / shopper behaviour in your favour.

But, as the old adage says ‘we have one mouth, and two ears’ and should use them proportionately… and the same could be said for eyes! Of course it isn’t just about talking and making simplistic links between what our respondents say and what they are likely to do – bespoke research involves us, as researchers, using all our senses and cognitive powers when we encounter our respondents:

  • listening to what is being said, and what ISN’T being said… and interpreting this in the context of who is saying it, and where, when and how it is being said (or not)
  • watching behaviour
  • noting body language & expressions (it’s estimated that only 7% of communication is verbal, and it’s always been thus, so we’re all fairly adept at reading the non-verbal stuff by now as we wouldn’t operate as effective humans otherwise!)

It also requires us to use our skills:

  • to know when (and when not) to expect the verbal response to reflect the truth e.g. shoppers can tell you whether or not their purchase was planned and to what degree, but they can’t necessarily accurately report what it was that caused them to divert from their plan and buy something else
  • to know what type of interactions and conversations we need to have with respondents in order to get to the insights we need e.g. quantitative surveys, focus groups, ethnographic studies, observational tools etc.
  • to infer and interpret based on sound analytical principles and a deep understanding of consumer psychology

The list could go on, but the point I want to make is that bespoke research, when done well, is not a poor cousin to big data. Just as there are great opportunities opening up to derive new insights from big data so there are also potential pitfalls. Colin Strong (global head of behavioural science, Ipsos) recently wrote:

“… the sheer scale of data available means that some of the usual tools used for analysis no longer work. We all know that given enough data points – it is always possible to find a statistically significant correlation, but that does not always mean the relationship has ‘real world significance'.”

He goes on to very eloquently explain that it is the two disciplines working together that brings real value, and I’ll end with his comment:

“… contextual expertise – the intimate understanding of consumers’ everyday lives – which market researchers are so familiar with, is the way forward here to separate the ‘signal from the noise’. It is simply not enough to leave the process of winkling out consumer insights to mathematicians, technologists and econometricians, as those disciplines lack an understanding of everyday life – an often neglected but critically important point.”

… I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Danielle Pinnington is founder and owner of Shoppercentric