We shouldn't be choosing between leveraging big data to make decisions vs. conducting in-depth qualitiative research about our customers. We should be using both methodologies, as they are often quite complementary. As market researcher and Kellogg Professor Gina Fong states, "“Big data’s having a real moment right now. Numbers don’t lie—and big numbers sometimes give people more confidence in the data. But they only give you the what. Consumer anthropology and qualitative research are there to address the why behind people’s choices.”
Qualitative research can be most effective when we study people in their natural environment - retail stores, homes, workplaces, public parks, mass transit stations, etc. The key is to see what they do, rather than relying simply on what they say. After all, as Margaret Mead once said, "What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.” Fong offers a wonderful example of how qualitative research can deepen our insights into consumer behavior and even prevent us from jumping to the wrong conclusions. Kellogg Insight describes her powerful example:
For example, a colleague of Fong’s loved eating avocados, but he had stopped purchasing them in the grocery store. Looking solely at patterns in the data, the store’s brand team might conclude that he and others like him didn’t like avocados anymore, or that avocados had become too expensive. Armed with this information, the team might react by discounting avocados or displaying them in another part of the store. But his motivation for passing up avocados was more complicated.
“He really liked avocados, but he didn’t know how to pick one when it was perfectly ripe,” Fong says. “Either the avocado would ripen too fast and spoil, or it would take too long to ripen, and he would forget about it. This was frustrating to him, so he just punted the whole activity.” On a recent store visit, he saw a display with avocados categorized in three groups: “ripe today,” “ripe in a couple of days,” and “ripe in four to five days.” This has led to him once again buying avocados.