When the Possibilities Are Endless - Choose Wisely

The unfolding drama around Facebook and the massive leaks of personal data has been impossible to avoid. We have all effectively agreed to participate in a variety of business models that trade the intimate details of our lives in exchange for the convenience and pleasure these internet sites provide us. We, the public masses, are outraged but complicit. And those of us in market research or marketing should particularly take a moment to reflect on how we gather and use data.

Now I've been as grateful as anyone else for the blessings of the "free" internet. Living abroad, I depended on Facebook to help me stay in touch with distant friends and family. As a teacher I was infinitely grateful to Google for helping me quickly answer impressively random questions. Both for private research and hobbies, I continue to rely on a host of services like YouTube, Amazon, Instagram, and Spotify to stay in touch with the coolest trends from Seattle to Seoul. As a curmudgeonly older Millennial I can vividly recall what it was like to navigate a world via paper maps from the gas station, printing photos from real film, and writing actual letters. It's a little alarming how recently I have used a fax machine, to be honest.

So I do see the argument that we are getting something valuable in exchange for that personal data. And I do see that there are benefits to having my preferences and habits tracked across platforms (particularly when it comes to media recommendations). However, I don't buy that this is a miraculous new age for marketing and market research.

I've seen it over and over again... Big data is the future and we will all eventually succumb to gratitude for the convenience of having our tastes curated for us. And perhaps the algorithms really are coming for us all. But for now I am glad that while our firm uses a variety of different methods and technologies a significant part of our work continues to employ relatively low-tech qualitative research methods. I believe the work we do is as much an art as a science.

We recruit people who are willing to share their personal perspectives with us. They know what they've signed up for and they are generously compensated for their time. I think there are some insights that can only be gained by taking the time to talk face-to-face, because we're looking for so much more than a pattern of behaviors. We get to hear how people feel about these choices, what drives them, and what they feel is still missing. What we do is fundamentally human and I'm proud of that, even if sometimes we are also trying to create and sell new products.

I'm not saying there isn't a valuable role for big data, but at the end of the day if your methods make people feel creeped out or violated, you should pause for a moment to reconsider. Because we are truly living on the edge of new technological possibilities and the norms and structures that we put in place will deeply impact generations to come.

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