Will Big Data Kill Traditional Market Research?

Most of today’s research methods rely on a simple premise:  asking customers questions can yield insights that drive better decisions. This is traditionally called primary research because it involves gathering new data. It is often supplemented with secondary research, which involves looking at information that already exists, such as sales data, publicly available data, etc.  Primary and secondary research yield what I would call active data –individuals are providing data with their knowledge and consent.

We are moving to a passive data world. This involves analyzing data left behind as we live increasingly digital lives. When we breathe online we leave a trail of digital data crumbs everywhere – where we visit, what we post about, link to, the apps we use, etc. We also leave trails as to when and where we are when we do these things, what sequence we do them in, and even what those close to us do.

Our digital shadows are long. And these shadows provide an incredibly accurate version of ourselves. You may not remember what you had to eat a few days ago, but the Internet knows exactly what books you read, how fast you read them, and when you bought them. The Internet knows where you were when you looked up health information, your favorite places to travel, whether you lean liberal or conservative, and much more. Your digital shadow is alarmingly accurate.

Privacy issues aside, this creates exciting possibilities for market research.

The amount of information available is staggering.  It is estimated that the volume of digital information available is doubling about every 18 months. This means in the next year and a half we will create as much data as we have since the Internet was created. Clearly it is easy to drown in the noise of this data, and many certainly do. But, in some ways analyzing this data isn’t unlike what we have been doing for years. It is easy to drown in a data set if you don’t have clear hypotheses that you are pursuing.  Tapping into the power of Big Data is all about formulating the right questions before firing up the laptop.

So, how will Big Data change traditional, “active” research? Why would we need to ask people questions when we can track their actual behaviors more accurately?

Big Data will not obviate the need for traditional survey research. But, it will reposition it. Survey research will change and be reserved for marketing problems it is particularly well suited for.  Understanding underlying motivations of behavior will always require that we talk directly to consumers, if only to probe why their reported behavior differs from their actual behavior.

There are situations when Big Data techniques will triumph. We are noticing compelling examples of how Big Data analysis can save the world.  For instance, medical researchers are looking into diseases that are asymptomatic. Typically, an early doctor’s appointment for these diseases will consist of a patient struggling to remember symptoms and warning signs and when they might have had them.  An analysis of Google searches can look at people who can be inferred to have been diagnosed with the disease from their search behavior. Then, their previous search behavior can be analyzed to see if they were curious about symptoms and when.  In the hands of a skilled analyst, this can lead to new insights regarding the early warning signs of diseases that often are diagnosed too late.

There has been chatter that public health officials can track the early spread of the flu better each year by analyzing search trends than by using their traditional ways, which track doctor visits for the flu and prescriptions dispensed. The reason is that people Google for “flu symptoms” in advance of going to the doctor, and many who have symptoms don’t go to the doctor at all. A search trend analysis can help public health officials react faster to outbreaks.

This is all pretty cool. Marketers are all about delivering the right message to the right people at the right time, and understanding how prior online behavior predicts future decisions will be valued. Big Data is accurate in a way that surveys cannot be because memory is imperfect.

Let’s be clear. I don’t think that people lie on surveys, at least not purposefully. But there are memory errors that harm the ability of a survey to uncover the truth. For instance, I could ask on a survey what books you have read in the past month. But, sales data from the Kindle Store would probably be more accurate.

However, what proponents of “Big Data will take over the world” don’t realize is the errors that respondents make on surveys can be more valuable to marketers than the truth because their recollections are often more predictive of their future behavior than their actual past behavior. What you think you had for dinner two nights ago probably predicts what you will eat tonight better than what you actually may have eaten. Perceptions can be more important than reality and marketing is all about dealing with perceptions.

The key for skilled researchers is going to be to learn when Big Data techniques are superior and when traditional techniques will yield better insights. Big Data is a very big hammer, but isn’t suitable for every size nail.

It is an exciting time for our field. Data science and data analysis skills are going to become even more valuable in the labor market than they are today. While technical database and statistical skills will be important, in a Big Data era it will be even more important to have skills in developing the right questions to pursue in the first place and a solid understanding of the issues our clients face.

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