The ups and downs of data

The ups and downs of data

Angela Jones is a 30-something Australian communications planner based in Los Angeles. She works with an international media agency and in this post she shares her methods for keeping the human in the data. —

In my work, everything we do is essentially about understanding the customer and their motivations. We’re trying to validate the interest areas or ‘passion points’ that we suspect are being under leveraged. Sometimes people are engaging directly with us and other times, we’re observing how they connect with each other or the products. Online and off. My main work is in film and television.

Obviously, collecting and interpreting data is a very big part of what we do. I love numbers (they can be very comforting) but increasingly, I’m thinking that the sheer volume of data we’re playing around with can cloud the real truth.

It’s easy to get lost in numbers and forget the human behind them: to forget how someone actually looks, or speaks or what might be important to them. More and more, I’m trying to find ways (and I hate this term) to humanise data.

Get out and boogie

img-jones-2I sometimes use quite unconventional ways of tuning into people and their worlds.

For example, I go to a lot of music festivals to see how people are dressing, what drugs they’re taking, how they talk to each other. Or when I’m travelling on a bus, I’m always listening. (I have my earphones in but I never have the music going.) And I always go where the people are; for example, crazy places like this comic book convention called Comic-Con in San Diego. Comic-con is full of people dressed up like superheroes or comic book characters. It’s an entire sub-culture that I’d never known much about but had probably assumed were far less sophisticated than they are. I needed to go into their environment or their ‘passion world’ to move past my own limiting beliefs about them.
Photograph by Fred R. Conrad

I’ve always thrown myself into the different sub-cultures to understand them. I don’t think you can sit there and read articles or reports about people. You have to live it. That’s how you identify and appreciate the layers of unique difference.

Micro-audience groups

I remember asking a client once how they were targeting their audiences and he said ‘We target everything we do towards 18-49 year olds.’ I was flabbergasted. 18-49? Why would you whitewash 3 generations of individuals – different races, different socio-economics, different most-things, into one group? It took a long time to persuade them but now this client has a whole host of micro-audiences based on passions and behaviours peculiar to each group.

Other ways I deep dive into centres of passion might be via social media platforms like Pinterest or Instagram or Facebook groups or forums. These are places where people are engaging directly with their interest and we can often get fantastic insight to what they could want. (Even if they don’t know it themselves yet!)

The main thing I guess, that we’ve always got to do, is to simply get off our backsides, get out of the office and away from the traditional sources of information.

Focus schmocus

I’m not a fan of focus groups. You get a lot of false reads because it’s a false environment. Essentially you’re forcing people to over-emphasise or think deeply about a subject that normally they wouldn’t think that much about. It’s like forced thinking.

Take for example, rice crackers. You bring a whole lot of different people together to think about rice crackers but in real life, no-one ever thinks about rice crackers. You just pick them up and eat them, that’s about as far as it goes. This means that if you run a focus group to find out what it is about rice crackers that people really want, it’s unlikely the people are going to be able to tell you. Some people in the room would have a lot to say of course because focus groups breed performance and really suit people who like to talk. But is what’s being said, what we all need to hear? And what about all the people in the room who aren’t talking?

I would much rather do one-on-one’s with people and explore how they’re actually living and what’s important to them.

I love visiting people’s houses. I used to do a lot of work where I’d go into people’s cupboards or beauty cabinets and ask them, ‘Why have you got this there? Why did you buy that? What did you hope it would change for you?’

People are speaking then from a more powerful and informed position: the starting point is them, not us.

It’s more than what is talked about

Observation is a key part of our process. We ask less direct questions and try to understand more through observing behaviours and non-verbal reactions. We’re exploring technology at the moment which has sensor cushions in cinema seat. These sensors can detect during a movie when someone’s fidgeting, or getting up for popcorn or jumping because it’s scary. It’s a way of ‘seeing’ body language in a dark room and getting someone’s true reaction without interference. Facial recognition technology that can record facial expressions during movie screenings, say in airplanes, is exciting me too.

It probably all sounds a bit stalker-ish but it’s not so different to the broad information gathering we all do when we’re sitting and listening to a person with all our senses. Face to face in conversation, we intuitively register body language and facial changes to get closer to a deep understanding of the person we’re talking to. In my experience, verbalised feelings are usually much less accurate (or complex) than those we see through behaviour.

Sometimes in our work, we hit the spot and sometimes we miss. I suspect there are things, like feedback loops, that our industry could do a lot better. For us, timing always comes into it at the end; once we get the baton, we just run with it.

Take aways

  1. The value of micro-audience understanding: different strokes for different folks
  2. Get out of our comfort zones and into passion zones for our users
  3. Beware false (if convenient) conclusions from surveys and focus groups

team-angelaWritten by Moya Sayer-Jones from a conversation with Angela Jones: Communication/Data Planner

How might these ideas be translated to our sector?

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