Susan Fournier in HBR: Making Meaning out of Big Data

in Emerging Research, Faculty, Faculty in the News, Marketing, News
November 25th, 2013

To Understand Consumer Data, Think Like an Anthropologist

Susan-Fournier

Harvard Business Review featured a piece from Questrom Professor in Management Susan Fournier and Bob Rietveld, managing director and cofounder of Netherlands-based marketing analytics firm Oxyme, in which the two write that the meaning within consumer data lies with social media, such as pictures and comments on products, not with percentages. Focusing on social-media chatter can have a profound impact on a firm’s consumer knowledge and, consequently, its profitability. Unfortunately, the piece notes, many people in business don’t appreciate the value of that chatter. Rather than treat consumer comments as noise, use social media as a glimpse into the consumer’s life and discover how he or she is really living. In other words, think like an anthropologist.

“Sure, sure,” the numbers-oriented marketing executives may say. Social listening is great for “exploratory” research, but only as a precursor to “real” research that will determine the truth of what’s being said online. What’s needed, they’ll tell you, is broad-based consumer research using representative samples and adequate sample sizes.

Querying a representative sample is great for testing a hypothesis or finding a statistical relationship between known concepts. But often, in marketing, you’re dealing with multiple unknowns. Social listening doesn’t presuppose anything. It has no constraints. Although qualitative information won’t give you a simple equation or statistic that you can show the CEO, it can provide answers to questions you didn’t even know you had.

And comments from a non-representative sample can be highly illuminating. For example, in tech markets, think of the users who regularly post to discussion groups focused on tech products. These knowledgeable netizens provide critical knowledge about product uptake and issues around quality or perception. The same can be said of fan groups and user groups in a variety of fields.

An important player in the electric-shaver category discovered this. Before the launch of a high-end shaver that was to be priced at more than $500 and was encased in brushed aluminum, an Australian retailer posted pictures and specifications of the product online. Almost immediately, consumers began commenting about the product’s “plastic aesthetic” and “cheap look and feel.” The manufacturer took prompt action, posting a new photo series highlighting the quality manufacturing process and construction, neutralizing the negative sentiment spreading online.

Successfully disseminating the results of social listening requires skill at seeing stories and developing insights from messy data. It also requires a penchant for simplicity.

Read the full piece here.