How Thick Data Gives Your Business a Competitive Edge

The year was 2009 and Nokia ethnographer, Tricia Wang, began to see a new trend emerge after years of conducting observational fieldwork in China.

In her research, she discovered that low-income consumers were ready to pay for more expensive smartphones, and promptly reported her findings back to Nokia.

But instead of heeding her advice and beginning to produce affordable smartphones for low-income users, they did what many companies often do when faced with similar situation: they looked at their measurable datasets.

And the data wasn’t buying it.

In writing about her experience for Ethnography Matters, Wang attempted to explain that Nokia’s “notion of demand was a fixed quantitative model that didn’t map to how demand worked as a cultural model in China.”

In other words, they focused on what the numbers told them, and failed to see the larger picture in how consumer behavior was shifting. “What is measurable isn’t the same as what is valuable,” Wang concluded.

While relying on quantitative data wasn’t the only reason for the company’s eventual downfall — it ended up being just another nail in the coffin. Nokia went from being a dominant leader as a mobile phone maker to having only three percent of the global smartphone market in 2013.

Had they taken “Thick Data” into account, this probably would have been an entirely different story.

Why your business can’t rely on big data alone

By now, you’ve probably heard of the hype surrounding “Big” data in the marketing world — which is an incredibly useful way to gather a large volume of quantitative information.

But what you likely aren’t aware of, is that it has its limitations.

Think of it this way: Big data was able to tell Nokia the number of mobile phones being sold compared to their competitors. But it didn’t tell them about the reasons why consumers behaved the way they did.

“Thick” data, on the other hand, is essential for filling in these gaps. It analyzes the way people use your products or services — relying on human insights to help big data analytics.

It’s not surprising if you’ve never heard of the term before. “Thick data has been handled by companies grounded in the social sciences,” write co-authors Mikkel B. Rasmussen and Andreas W. Hansen for Harvard Business Review.

Meanwhile, “Big data has been promoted by people with analytics degrees, often sitting in corporate IT functions,” they write. “There has been very little dialogue between the two.”

This is unfortunate, the authors point out, as combining both approaches can lead to valuable customer insight.

Why it’s important to find out what people care about

I’d like to talk a little about my own experience at my company, Jotform. Similarly to other businesses, we rely on big data to provide information about our entire consumer population; we analyze numbers and pay attention to patterns.

But we don’t leave it at that.

It’s also vital for us to focus on developing a positive relationship with our customers by using thick data to complete the picture that the numbers don’t normally paint.

We then use both approaches to arrive at real solutions. For example, when it comes to customer requests, we don’t expect to reach a certain number before taking that request seriously. By listening closely and finding out what people care about, we’ve managed to create stronger customer support services, and build a more successful business as a result.

The value in creating a company of empathy

Many leaders might scoff at the field of human sciences — finding these insights hard to understand and believing them to have little relevance to their own organizations. Many continue to rely on big data alone, but this is shortsighted, according to experts.

In her later research working with corporations, Wang describes running into the same belittling attitude among entrepreneurs: “I started to hear echoes of what Nokia leadership said about my small dataset, that ethnographic data is ‘small’ ‘petite’ ‘puny.’”

Wang’s experience is an excellent example of companies favoring quantity over quality, and not seeing how both can complement each other.

As researchers Rasmussen and Christian Madsbjerg wisely note “In the rush to reduce consumers to strings of ones and zeros, marketers and strategists are losing sight of the human element.”

Empathy may sound like some fluff word thrown around in motivational seminars, but it’s precisely what will give businesses a competitive advantage.

According to a Deloitte article written by authors Benjamin Finzi, Kathy Lu, Mark Lipton, and Vincent Firth “It’s customers, not technologies or startups that drive marketplace disruption.”

“By striving for a deep, human understanding of the customer experience, CEOs can lead their organizations toward a culture of empathy that can translate insights about people’s lives, values, and emotions into greater organizational value.”

Below, I’d like to offer a few ways you can cultivate an empathetic mindset across your business.

1. Keep asking what is most important to your customer

Because of the current crisis, at Jotform we’re more interested than ever in listening to our customer’s needs. We make it a point to find out how they are relating to our products and where they may need additional support.

By regularly engaging with them through our social media channels and support forums, for instance, we’re able to glean what they value most. These insights then allow us to analyze how to create a better customer experience.

2. Lean into an empathy-driven mindset

“The CEO could arguably be seen as the person in the organization furthest removed from the experiences of its end-users,” write the Deloitte co-authors.

“But CEOs who embrace being the caretaker of their customers’ human experiences — and who bring their organizations along with them — can give their businesses a hard-to-replicate competitive edge.”

To put it simply, when leaders strive to understand their customers on a human level, they transmit this mindset across their entire organization, and it ends up altering every interaction and decision they make going forward.

In learning from Nokia’s past mistakes, we shouldn’t waste time debating which data is ultimately best. As the Deloitte authors put it: “The aim is to develop a culture of empathy that allows all workers to continuously learn from both the “big” and “thick” data they gather from the field.”

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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