Why insights trump data

If anyone awoke to a collective hangover on 9 November, it was the polling industry; and more broadly, the market research industry. While researchers and pollsters attempt to help managers and policy makers anticipate events and make informed decisions, their efforts clearly missed the mark with the 2016 election And this just a few months after being drastically incorrect in predicting the outcome of the British referendum to leave the European Union.

The chart below shows how the New York Times’ live forecast evolved over time on election night. It clearly illustrates how the polls made the U.S. election one of the largest nail-bite-inducing events ever—for live viewers, readers, and followers alike on both sides of the political spectrum and across the globe.

Chance of winning presidency
New York Times poll presidential election
Just moments before midnight EST on Tuesday, the New York Times’ poll indicated an 80 percent chance of Secretary of State Clinton winning the election.

As a marketer who relies on data to make decisions and formulate advice for my clients, this is one of the scariest charts I have seen in a long time. Please, don’t get me wrong—I don’t intend to share yet another political analysis here. I’m thinking about how brands and marketers have a lot to learn from how the election unfolded in the months leading up to election night and in the final hours before President-elect Trump took the stage for his victory speech.

Focus on the oats, not the horse

I strongly believe that the reason—at least in large part—for the collective surprise over the election results stems from our fascination with so-called predictive data, and from an unhealthy focus on seemingly key metrics: in this case, who wins the election. While mesmerizing, they color our assumptions and distract us from making more profound attempts to truly grasp what is fueling those metrics. Does this ring a bell for you? How many of your reports and analyses focus solely on market share, revenue, or profits?

What if we shifted our focus from the horse race to what feeds the horses? If we better understood the concerns, frustrations, and tensions, as well as the hopes, dreams, and ambitions, of citizens and consumers? Surely that would allow us to build better policy plans, communication messages, and products alike.

Voting polling place
Image courtesy of Flickr user Eric Hersman.

Ignore the logic

Journalists and media executives have known for quite a while that today’s scattered media and technology landscape makes it nearly impossible to find an audience or sample that is representative of the whole population. But even if it were possible to reach potential voters and consumers on their mobile devices and create attention-grabbing surveys to collect opinions, should we choose to trust those opinions?

Trump rally signs supporters
Image courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

Behavioral economists and neuroscientists have provided concrete proof that many—or even the majority—of our decisions are not driven by logic, rationale, or fact. Instead, they happen more automatically. They are driven by emotional and physiological triggers, not complicated thought processes or long-winded internal conversations. Yet, it still feels so much “smarter” to rely on numbers and ratios, and ask others to do the same, even when there is strong evidence that this rationale is flawed. In fact, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to one of the pioneers of this new paradigm.

We need to accelerate experiments in these exciting and somewhat risky fields of market research to find ways to complement the overwhelming amount of existing data points. We need new, alternative sources of insight into human behavior and decision making. This will enable us to get closer to reality, allowing us to truly see what consumers think and where their opinions lie.

I voted sticker election
Image courtesy of Flickr user Brian Tobin.

From hindsight to foresight

These are just two ways we can get closer to a more reliable model for understanding decision making. In an age of information overload, we don’t need more data or additional observations. We need new ways to unlock true, underlying insights into the drivers of human and social nature. By leaving our collective comfort zone, and moving away from the all-too-easy analyses based on hindsight, we may actually find ways to spark change in how we think about ourselves and those around us.

Moving forward, I refuse to settle for anything other than foresight. I am more convinced than ever that we need to support experimentation to unlock new ways of finding insight that influence our thinking and behavior when it still matters—before decisions are made. Are you with me?

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