Why Exploring Thick Data Helps to Understand Human Motivation

Use thick data to understand human motivation

Digital marketers and the businesses that employ them are always looking for the next big thing. They want the newest, best way to communicate with current or prospective customers to drive engagement, brand awareness, loyalty, and, ultimately, sales. Digital marketers want to display relevant, timely ads on all types of consumer media, whether that’s on news, social or shopping websites or mobile platforms.

The next big thing is already here, but it’s not Big. It’s Thick.

Using Big Data, for example, we may learn that 99% of people purchase a certain type of widget, but we won’t understand Why. Big Data is the quantitative approach that may demonstrate how much of something is being used or consumed, literally providing the big picture using hundreds of millions of data points.

Unfortunately, Big Data can’t tell businesses Why. To do that, we need to take a view from the qualitative side using Thick Data.

Ethnographer Dr. Tricia Wang concisely describes the differences between Thick Data and Big Data: “Thick Data analysis primarily relies on human brain power to process a small “N” while big data analysis requires computational power to process a large “N”. Big Data reveals insights with a particular range of data points, while Thick Data reveals the social context of and connections between data points.” (Emphasis added.)

Thick Data can tell businesses exactly why a widget is so popular. Is it because the widget is:

  • The best?
  • The cheapest?
  • Convenient to purchase?
  • Easiest to use?
  • Satisfies an emotional need?

By exploring Thick Data, companies can better understand why customers act the way they do during the purchasing experience based on the events that impact them every day of the week.

Thick Data—like the overarching concept of Entangled Marketing, which I’ve discussed before—makes everything personal and personalized.

We’re Only Human

To use Thick Data effectively, humans must interpret the information, and make the decisions and psychological leaps necessary to use the information in a marketing campaign. Often those tasked with diving into these data streams are researchers from different areas of a company. Big Data is typically owned by data scientists and others who are part of IT. This is a noteworthy difference between Big Data and Thick Data: “(t)hick data is generated by ethnographers, anthropologists, and others adept at observing human behavior and its underlying motivations,” write Mikkel B. Rasmussen and Andreas W. Hansen.

To understand Thick Data, we must bring ourselves—our desires and aspirations, what makes us happy or sad—into the equation to sort through the emotional, aspirational and motivational information provided by others to arrive at answers that can be used to understand consumer behavior.

“Once you predict something about human behavior, new factors emerge, because conditions are constantly changing,” Wang said during TEDxCambridge. “That’s why it’s a never-ending cycle. You think you know something, and then something unknown enters the picture. And that’s why just relying on big data alone increases the chance that we’ll miss something, while giving us this illusion that we already know everything.”

For digital marketers, Thick Data is a super-powered, high-octane focus group that provides an understanding of how products or services matter (or don’t) in everyday life. Thick Data uses a smaller, though a still healthy sample size, and more importantly offers the ability to capture thoughts, feelings and reasons. This allows marketers to observe human behavior and parse the details of our everyday lives to understand how emotions and feelings may impact any number of buying decisions.

An ingenious take on Thick Data and implementation of its findings is the Adidas pop-up lab that custom fits running shoes to everyone and anyone. This isn’t the tech that allowed customers to dictate fabric colors and different types of soles for sneakers, but a fully immersive, customized experience for everyone. The shoemaker makes personalized adjustments based on how fast you run, where you run and why you run. It also takes into account your exact shoe size as measured by a computer in the facility. Then, naturally, the shoe is 3D printed on site, while you wait.

This example of Thick Data implementation explores how and why runners run and is an excellent example of how to operationalize that data into a product consumers want.

Thick is the Next Big

Thick Data is the next big thing and businesses need to act on the information by bringing customized advertising experiences to consumers.

The Thick Data digital strategy should be based on:

  1. Customer’s emotional state
  2. Advertiser empathy

We need to experience life with our customers, getting to know them as people and understand the contexts they live within and how that context impacts what they do every day. We need to know what happened before and after that trip to the grocery store to create clarity and depth of understanding,” according to Marketing News Weekly.

So, too, is understanding the data consumers generate and what it might say about needs they haven’t yet revealed—the kinds of products, services and experiences they value enough to pay for. And the types of business they prefer to frequent. Both are predicated on an emotional attachment.

The wonderful thing about Thick Data is that it pushes businesses to create an interactive, compassionate, customized advertising experience for every current and prospective customer as defined by their lives, desires and aspirations.