Putting Big Data In Context

Posted by, Christina Dennaoui, Associate Director, Planning + Strategy In a recent post on Ethnography Matters, a blog dedicated to all things related to ethnography, Tricia Wang wrote about the need to see ‘big data’ in terms of people and stories. This approach, which she calls “Thick Data” (a reference to famed Anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of “Thick Description“) suggests that ‘big data’ analyses be framed in larger contexts of people, behaviors and cultural trends. We need to remember there is always a context for the data we analyze. Intel Futurist Brian David Johnson further drives this point home in a recent post about “The Secret Life of Data in the Year 2020“:

Data doesn’t spring full formed from nowhere. Data is created, generated, and recorded. And the unifying principle behind all of this data is that it was all created by humans. We create the data, so essentially our data is an extension of ourselves, an extension of our humanity.

Read that last line again. It’s a simple, compelling truth. Why this talk of anthropology, ethnography and contextual analysis on a performance marketing blog? Whether you’re on the account side or planning side, you are most likely reviewing your own set of big (or medium sized) data. Conversions, click-through rates and page rank are hallmarks of search marketer jargon but they don’t always lend themselves to telling a story that resonates with people outside of search. Sometimes we tend to pride ourselves on our data and metric prowess so much that we forget that clicks and downloads are shorthand for people (or participants) and actions. Divorcing data from context can actually be alienating and potentially misleading. To think about context as a marketer is to remember that we are always trying to connect and guide how participants relate to brands. But participants don’t exist in vacuums: their tastes, queries, and desires are always in flux. The better we can be at thinking about context, the more successful we can be as marketers. Why? Contextual thinking means that we are being more deliberative about where we place advertisements and the kinds of experiences we connect participants to. We are disrupting to delight not to distract. But it also means that we also have to accept that there may be limits to the spaces brands can and cannot play in. So what does it mean to think about context? In a general sense, thinking about context means thinking critically about the conditions and circumstances that allow behaviors and events to occur. It requires you to think about how and why participants behave in certain ways. Empathy is key. This is not about you; it’s about them. Would you want to be on receiving end of the campaign you’re planning? If not, plan again. Understand your participant’s needs and figure out how your campaign can connect with them through language and experiences. Beyond campaign planning, contextual thinking can help you better communicate your performance by helping you tell better stories. Here’s the rub for those looking for a shortcut: there is no shortcut. Slow down. Think critically. Look for meaning. Be thoughtful.

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