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Why big data isn't always the answer

Katherine Noyes | Aug. 20, 2015
Qualitative data can provide deeper insight into customers, behaviors and trends.

"The average CMO today is managing up to 14 dashboards," Sebastian said. "It's a case of analysis paralysis: I have 10 million data points that are looking at my question in 17 different ways, but I have no context for what the meaning is."

Historically, the analysis of qualitative data has tended to be very manual and human-intensive. "You could not just submit a database query against a document and get some numbers back that you can feed into a visualization," explained Kirk Borne, principal data scientist at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Qualitative data analyses have typically been limited in scope as a result, but that's starting to change. Not only are there more tools and packages designed specifically for qualitative data, but there are also "increasingly clever ways that qualitative data are being transformed into quantitative data, thereby unleashing the full power of quantitative analytics on the qualitative data also," Borne said.

YouEye conducts online studies using video and audio to record users interacting with clients' websites, advertisements or other materials. Typically, between 50 and 300 users are selected for each study, depending on what the client hopes to learn. Video gets transcribed and coded using a combination of human coders, natural language processing and machine learning. At the end of the process, clients get a highlight reel to illustrate the results.

In the case of a coffee vendor, for instance, "we ran participants through interactions with the product and ended up with a highlight reel of every time they mentioned a competitor instead," Sebastian said. "You immediately have a causal analysis of why you're losing customers -- that's not something quantitative data can tell you."

QSR International is another company that makes software tailored specifically for qualitative data, and its NVivo product is used at Gallup. Though best-known for its national polls, Gallup also consults with organizations to help them understand the emotional aspects of their relationships with their customers, and that involves lots of qualitative data.

"There are certain key research questions that are inadequately captured by quantitative methods alone, including why a customer is actively disengaged or indifferent towards a supplier or the feelings, motivations and thought processes of a customer as they experience a service," said Ilana Ron-Levey, a researcher and strategy consultant with Gallup. "When we partner with an organization, quantitative data allows us to assess how widespread particular opinions are, but qualitative data is essential for us to understand the meaning behind particular frequencies and distributions," she said.

Gallup uses a variety of techniques to assess customers' perceptions. In a recent business-to-business project, for instance, it interviewed more than 100 senior-level customers face-to-face and collected both qualitative and quantitative data on topics focused around customer engagement, Ron-Levey recounted. The team inductively analyzed the qualitative data using NVivo as well as manual coding methods in Microsoft Excel.


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