‘Our Collective Id’

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I underlined the sentence three times in two different colors of pen. I’ve gone back and read it over and over again. Google data is the repository of our collective id, or something like that. Christian Rudder, OK Cupid founder and author of “Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking,” was talking about the humanity revealed in big data, particularly behavioral data.

It’s the classic marketing focus group problem: gather a small group of individuals representative of a target demographic, ask them some questions with multiple choice or verbatim answers and develop insights based on that. But the small group/focus group approach to understanding how people work, what they need, how they feel is inherently flawed. It’s unnatural, for one. Very few people actually experience life in a focus group and even fewer approach life as a multiple choice scenario. Secondly, the mere fact that a person has chosen or been selected to be a part of a study automatically taints their responses by selection.

Rudder argues that the Google search bar is the only place we reveal who we are, what we care about, how we feel. There is no question, just an implied promise that whatever your heart desires is only  a few key strokes away. Google data can reveal how we feel about anything from race to ‘The Bachelor,’ astrophysics to holiday gifts.

A lot has been made lately about social media and how data is being collected for research purposes. Just listen to this episode of the Radiolab podcast and you’ll probably be stunned to learn that, at any given time, each of the 1.5 Billion users of Facebook are unknowingly a part of up to 10 studies, experiments or research projects. But even social media has it’s flaws. For one, the person we are on social media is, at best, only a version of who we are in the rest of our lives. Even the most earnest social media user is only capturing a part of who they are.

So what’s a marketer to do?

I’ve been a part of research and planning efforts that have been based on all of these sources. And the work that has resulted has always seemed to miss the mark. Work based too much on panel research tends to be small. Content projects that begin with search tend to lead to distraction. Social listening to inform a brief tends to skew perception.

A better approach is to begin with a theory, a brand story or a vision of a desired relationship with your audience or customers. Then test the theory with research. Design the story, then use Google data to understand how search can best ensure it is heard. Design the relationship, then use social listening to understand how to invite users to it.

Big data tools are incredible and can be very helpful, but that data is only valuable if you decide first what you’re looking for. Google may indeed be the repository of our collective id, but that doesn’t mean it should dictate what we do.


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