Using mobile qualitative to answer big data’s little questions.

As the designer and developer of a qualitative smartphone platform, the prospect of big data seemed really scary to us at first.

We imagined big data’s immense potential to capture actual behavioral data, pure and uninfluenced by the effects of observation. Massive numbers that we could manipulate and cut down to tiny subgroups without fear they’d disappear below the threshold of projectability and confidence. Getting insight into actual consumer behavior and motivation at a fundamental level (like qualitative is meant to do), and doing it on a massive, projectable scale. In short, we imagined big data rendering the qualitative we help our clients do less necessary.

But the more we’ve worked with clients who have big data at their disposal, the more we’ve come to understand big data’s ability to make qualitative better, and for qualitative to help fill the insight gaps that big data points to but can’t answer. Big data is amazing at answering “what’s happening.” But it almost always leaves you wondering “why?” And when brands go out to innovate and communicate, the “what” without the “why” isn’t enough.

So, as it turns out, big data has been a huge boon to the smartphone-based qualitative work we enable our clients to execute. Big data lets them see mass-scale behavior and lets them pinpoint crucial moments and points of influence that used to be invisible. It guides smartphone qualitative to focus on exactly the right moments where consumer motivations, perception and attitudes need to be better understood.

Here’s an example. One of our clients is an industry leader in collecting, managing and mining big data, then helping their clients build communication platforms based on the insight it provides. One of their data strategists shared a story with us about a retailer who actually used big data analysis techniques to reliably identify consumers who were pregnant based on other behavioral data they collected. Though the tactic proved problematic, the power to identify a target is impressive.

Now, imagine you’re a marketer for a company that manufactures baby furniture. Big data would let you know know exactly who is about to need baby furniture, what brands and retailers they’re likely to favor to buy it, and what media they consume so you can communicate with them about it. Goldmine.

But if you want to do anything more meaningful than send them a coupon, you’ll need to understand more. If you want to if you want to innovate and communicate effectively with people who are about to bring a child into the world, you need to understand things like: “what kind of an environment they’re hoping to create in their child’s nursery, and why.” You’ll need to understand how they perceive the different brands of furniture you’ll be competing with as they shop and what’s driving those perceptions. You’ll want to understand what’s special and different about your products, and how you can talk about your furniture as something that actually brings greater value to its users. You’ll still need to find insight into the consumer need your brand and product can satisfy better than anyone else.

Would you like qual with that? And now, with smartphone qualitative, you can get that insight easily. A simple, week-long smartphone qualitative project with 50 of the consumers your big data identified can let you complete the picture, You can ride along on their smartphones and have them show you the room they’ll be turning into a nursery, and share their plans, wants and dreams. And you can bring that richness right back to your team in photo collages, audio confessions and HD video. You can ride in their pockets and purses and have them journal the pathway they take as they decide what furniture they’ll buy, and document every in-store, online and other influence along the way. You can send them out to shop your product (and your competitors) and tell you exactly what your designs are doing that’s right, and how you’re faring at retail.

And it’s not just us wondering how to add the “why” to the “what” that big data identifies. We saw a panel discussion called “Qual VS Big Data.” at Qual 360 in Washington last week where insight leaders from Cirque du Soleil, Merck, Travelocity/Orbitz and Gallup weighed in. One of the key themes that emerged? It’s not “Qual vs Big Data” at all. It’s more like “Big Data lets me see what’s happening, and Qual let’s me understand it and make it meaningful to my internal audiences.”

Suddenly, big data and qualitative are more like Batman and Robin, and less like Lex Luther and Superman. Rather than fighting for space in the insight world, our experience has taught us that big data and qualitative are more of a dynamic duo helping to raise the bar for effective innovation, brand development and communication by working together to present the whole picture. And now instead of feeling threatening, big data starts to feel exciting.

Got a Big Data "what" and want to understand "why"? We'd love to hear from you. www.overtheshoulder.com/contact