Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends

20 Apr 2016|bakerf

Our industry, indeed our world, could accurately be described as obsessed with Big Data. It’s an oft cited solution to many problems, be they ones of branding, advertising, customer understanding or even healthcare, city planning and finding love.

Martin Lindstrom argues that we need to step back from this, and look at Small Data. His new book, ‘Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends’ is all about the 300 days a year he spends living alongside people in an attempt to really understand them. Not really ethnography, or anthropology, he describes himself as a ‘compulsive collector of clues’ and spends his life observing the little things, those that we ordinarily miss. He reads into the position of a painting on the wall, the first thing a teenager does on waking, how young boys play with Lego, and the contents of a drawer. Some of the conclusions he reaches and recounts at London’s How To Academy in a talk entitled ‘Spot The Next Huge Trend (through tiny clues in daily life)’ seem rather unbelievable – having a cup on display makes you a deep person, American’s preference for round cakes indicates that they are adverse to conflict, more books indicates a low level of education – but there are still plenty of relevant lessons to be found.

For a start people are more complex than what they eat, what they click on, or where they walk. People can be irrational and messy, and not always easily analysed. Rituals, ideas, moods, likes and dislikes will all reveal some of the deeper parts of what being a person means. He doesn’t argue that everyone is unique, far from it, and suggests that there are only a few hundred different types of people. We know that we often see similar typologies across markets and categories, but the nuances between them are what makes them significant. Small data can help dig into those nuances.

And so the relationship with a brand is also pretty complex. Brand love is an emotional thing. The most powerful brands in the world are not necessarily functionally any superior to their rivals. What they do well is elicit emotion. Emotion is not easily measured, and certainly not by technology or algorithms. Our work uniting the emotional and functional is crucial to understanding the 360 picture of consumers, digging into the subtext that can help form relationships. Understanding not only who, what, where, and when but why delves that extra layer. The more progress that is made with quantitative and qualitative research working in partnership, adding the cultural insight and lens and data integration with external partners, the greater this impact will be.

The value we’ve placed on big data as a solution has in some ways blinded us. Believing we’ve found THE answer means that we can stop looking, and as a result lose touch with creativity. New ideas and innovation comes from taking seemingly unconnected things and putting them together, or looking at something in a new way. In many ways Big Data, by its nature, is about the big trends and mass behaviour. Big data analyses the past, which can mean it ignores the present and fails to predict the future. Niche and new is lost – but this can be where change happens.
Having a lot of data does not equate to having a lot of information or insight, and a human lens will always be necessary to truly understand the meaning behind this data. Ultimately of course it’s not about one or the other. Small data and big data are ‘partners in a dance’ as Martin says.

Written by: Francesca Baker, Insight Project Director, UK

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