November 8, 2016: The Day the Data Died

electoral-map-2Still think marketing research is more science than art?

Allow me to introduce exhibit one, the 2016 presidential election. With the exception of a single poll, USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times, everyone got it dead wrong. Lamenting this epic fail in research in The Hollywood Reporter, Michael Wolff went so far to say it was the “day the data died.”

That’s not quite right. Big Data is here to stay and has obvious benefits. Look no further than Google, Amazon or Facebook, three of the most monumental success stories of our age, for living proof.

Like many Americans and people around the world, I am still in a deep state of shock and denial over the election results. But I never believed in the polls, though the partisan in me desperately wanted to, and I was not at all surprised by the outcome. In truth, I always had a sense of dread about it all that turned out to be warranted.

Human nature does doesn’t do well with ambiguity or uncertainty. Seeking resonance in our lives, we look to outside, “objective” validation of our beliefs. Liberal or conservative, this leads us to dwell in our self-contained ideological bubbles, consuming media – Fox News or Huffington Post, for example – that help us cope with events beyond our control. Similarly, business people, politicians and have developed an addiction to quantitative research and big data for the illusion of control, to justify their decisions and attempt to minimize risk.

With the ascent of big data, the digital age and the ever growing complexity of the marketing world, more and more executives seem to be completely dismissive of qualitative research. Feeling is not the same as “fact” in their minds. Only decisions based on “hard data” can be justified.

They could not possibly be more misguided.

Just a few months ago, the polls got it completely wrong with Brexit. And we’ve seen quantitative research miss the mark terribly in marketing over the years as well. New Coke, the H-P Touchpad, the Edsel, Microsoft’s Zune and Frito-Lay’s WOW! chips were all supposed to be the next big thing. In the case of WOW!, the appeal of healthier, less fattening chips was undeniable. But Frito neglected to factor in the effect of olestra, the key ingredient behind the miracle claims. Seems that that they didn’t want to think about the diarrhea, incontinence, and cramping caused by this wonderful breakthrough in chemistry. Oops.

There are lots of ways quantitative research can go wrong. New Coke and WOW! were cases of incompetent data interpretation, or perhaps management seeing just what they wanted to see and ignoring everything else. In other cases, research can be flawed due to asking the wrong questions, bad assumptions, poor sampling, or any other number of errors.

Regardless, it is difficult for quantitative research to reflect the power of the heart, which almost always more important than rational thought. Feelings, and the intensity of those feelings count. People will always lie in research, even to strangers they’ve never met and will never see again. Case in point, studies show that as many as 90% of whites in the U.S. who feel they are truly not prejudiced in any way have subconscious, implicitly racist views that affect their attitudes and behavior toward people of color. Racism is also underreported as many research respondents are simply unwilling to admit their true feelings to survey takers, and to a lesser extent, anonymous online surveys.

This phenomenon was also thought to be at work for Donald Trump, where many who fully supported his views on banning Muslims, deporting millions and building a wall were too embarrassed to say so publically.

People lie in qualitative research as well. My very first experience watching a focus group included the moderator asking a group of moms what kinds of snacks they served their children. I never knew that fresh fruits and vegetables were so popular! However, after some not so relentless probing, there turned out to be a lot of chips and cookies in those households as well.

That’s the power of great qualitative research. A gifted moderator has the radar to detect incoming b.s. When you put people at ease, get them talking, involve them in creative exercises and exercise patience, the truth will emerge.

I have traveled and conducted research extensively in Southern, Midwestern and Southwestern “red” states this year. A good deal of this work was in health care, where respondents did not hesitate to make their opinions on Obamacare, the man himself, and his heir apparent, Hillary Clinton, well known. It wasn’t pretty.

Seemingly pleasant, reasonable and very nice people exploded in anger and became downright nasty. We had all read about the pent up anger of the white working class in the newspapers and in the polls. But reading about something and a face-to-face experience are two very different things.

We always talk about addressing our customers “pain points” in marketing, but this is largely metaphorical. These people were in real pain, in terrible emotional distress caused by economic uncertainty, perceptions that the American Dream had passed them by, feeling belittled by urban, coastal, kale-eating elites, and the feeling they were being passed by for “illegals” or machines. The intensity of their feelings was visceral, and captured perfectly by a demagogue promising to “make America great again,” restoring them to their past glory.

The Trump campaign was 100% wonk free and largely fact free. There were no detailed policies, simply a series of bromides based entirely on feelings of frustration and a thirst for change. Clinton, on the other hand, offered pages and pages of detailed policies on her website.

She did a lot of things right. Clinton had one of the best organized, well-funded campaigns in history. According to Bloomberg News, the Clinton campaign had raised a total of over a billion dollars, as of October 28. That’s $1,068,000,000, compared with Trump’s $512.2 million. As of October 7, reported that “Clinton has more than twice as many field offices as Trump nationwide (489 vs. 207), and her organization dominates Trump’s in every battleground state.”

She had popular, mainstream superstars singing her praises out on the campaign trail. Bruce Springsteen, Jay Z, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Jon Bon Jovi, Madonna, Lady Gaga and more. Trump had Omarosa, Michael Tyson, Gary Busey, and ex-Housewives of New Jersey star and ex-con Teresa Giudice.

None of it mattered. First, it’s a different age. As the Hollywood Reporter’s Wolff puts it, “Ads don’t work, polls don’t work, celebrities don’t work, media endorsements don’t work and ground games don’t work.” Traditional marketers feel the sting of this observation all too well in the digital era, where authenticity, word of mouth and online buzz can be far more powerful than big budgets and traditional media plans.

The electorate as a whole wasn’t that motivated this cycle. CNN reports that turnout was at a 20-year low. Hillary’s very own voters didn’t really like her or trust her. She proved to be uninspiring, especially to the Millennials who went crazy for Bernie during the primaries. Votes for Hillary weren’t necessarily for her as much as they were not for Trump.

Many Trump voters didn’t trust him either, with a good deal of them feeling that he had neither the experience or temperament to occupy the nation’s highest office. But they overlooked his boorish behavior and lies because he stirred their passions. To look at his rallies and write them off as gatherings or crazy deplorables misses the point. It’s nice to think that “Love Trumps Hate,” but there was little real love for Hillary and a great deal of intense passion for Trump.

Passion is a hard thing to measure. You just can’t put a number to it. So continue to do your quantitative measuring and data massaging. It would be foolish not to. But the only way to make real sense of the numbers, or understand whether you can trust them completely, is to talk to people face to face. Listen to their tone of voice. Watch their body language. Challenge their assumptions and get them to think metaphorically. Find out what they are truly passionate about. At the end of the day, claims like “whiter teeth in two days” (speed) vs. “twice as white in 30 days” (efficacy) hardly matter. What your toothpaste company stands for is far more important.

Qualitative work, well done, will reveal what is in people’s hearts. I’ll take that over what’s in their minds any day.



  • Scheide
    Posted at 11:43h, 04 January Reply

    Well done. I’ve been struggling with this since Nov 8. Sometimes I feel like a Deer caught in the Headlines of my Twitter Feed. Big Data and the struggle for Hearts & Minds … seems familiar.

    • jbhirsch
      Posted at 15:06h, 04 January Reply

      Thanks John.

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