Big Data And The Power Of N=1

Since the birth of the teenager, what teens do has been a source of shock, worry and voyeuristic fascination for adults. Every adult was once a teen, which means the focus of their concern isn’t, deep down, the behaviour, but the specific cultural clothes it’s dressed up in. Fashion, politics, music, videogames, and nightlife have all fallen under the judgemental spotlight, assessed with a mix of disdain, bafflement, and barely disguised envy.

Nowadays, of course, the point of interest is social media. “How teens use social media” is the subject that launched a thousand posts. Infographics scream about a handful of percentiles difference in teen activity across sites. Newspaper thinkpieces peer, smelling salts in hand, at teenage hookup apps. Marketers oil up and wrestle each other in pits for the right to name the Generation after Y and map its digital life.


Most research reports feel as authentic as this photo.

And pieces like this one get read, a lot. “I’m 17 And It’s All About Brand Me”, writes Carmin Chappell about her highly mediated, presentational, digitally-enabled life. It’s a very good piece – self-aware and full of good examples. It deserves its 1400 tweets and 800 Facebook mentions – a whole lot more than any blog post by me, or by any other researcher I can think of. (Yes, it’s on Mashable, so it automatically has a bigger audience – but Mashable knows what its readers want.)

But as a researcher, it made me feel bad. The thing is, making information exciting and shareable is our job as researchers – or ought to be.

What Chappell’s post does so well – because it’s her telling her own story – is make a complicated point personal and real. She takes apart a single tweet, puts it into context, and in doing so illuminates a wider truth about how teens and social media interact. (Or, at least, she makes it feel true).

Whereas the typical research method involves erasing the individual. At best they stick around to provide colour for generalised findings – verbatims from groups or MROC posts. At worst they get subsumed into a statistical soup, reduced to trends or pen-portraits for customer segments.

The idea of pen-portraits was a noble one – bringing customers to life. Sad to say, though, they were never going to be as vivid, as quirky or as interesting as actual consumers. Pen portraits were marketing zombies, half-alive character sketches at best, which hardly ever feel real even to the marketers who use them.

Research storytelling has always had to face this compromise between robustness and authenticity. The statistical truth simply doesn’t feel as convincing as an individual testimony, even if that is wildly unrepresentative. In a story context, N=1 can be as powerful as the largest sample. As we’ve written before, stories can be a false friend if you’re trying to understand your customers – but at the same time, there’s no doubting their power.

But one of the side-effects of the rise in large-scale, passively-collected data is that perhaps we can now have it all. We can aim for the robustly authentic. We can draw our wider conclusions and then dig around in the data to find a real individual that epitomises them – if we’ve got the necessary permissions and aren’t in breach of the law, of course.

This is something we at BrainJuicer experimented with in the work on web retail which we showed at ESOMAR this year. We collected a huge amount of passive web data, and to illustrate a couple of our findings we dug up real purchases from real people, anonymised them, and turned their stories into short videos. These were almost an afterthought – a nice touch, we reckoned. But at the debrief those videos turned out to be the things our client loved most, and wanted to pass on inside the organisation. We’d worked hard to build a case with charts and numbers, but it was those short, real stories that sparked the real attention.

It’s an example of the power of N=1 – a specific story with the quirks left in making findings real. We’re now working on a second study, this time moving the focus onto social media as well as retail. We might not end up with stories as good as Carmin Chappell’s but we can get nearer that ideal of robust authenticity.

(To hear the ESOMAR presentation – minus the videos, but with stories intact – tune into our Webinar on Thursday.)


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