Request a consultation

Size does matter. Using small data and big data to develop deep customer insights.


In a world that is generating mountains of consumer data, could we be missing the forest for the trees?

This is one of the questions plaguing those of us responsible for digital insights, marketing strategy and feeding our hungry new house pet, technology.

We have a huge wealth of data but what does it tell us? Can it give us the insights we need to drive demand and shape the customer experience? Does Big Data lie? Does it mislead? How can we know?

Size isn’t everything

The limitations of Big Data was the theme of a recent Vision Critical webinar which featured author and brand strategist Martin Lindstrom[1].

Lindstrom is known for moving into homes and apartments with owners’ permission, in the quest for small data - that illusive and illustrative “A-ha” moment.

He says the clues and observations he gathers almost always reveal an unmet  or unacknowledged desire that can form the foundation of a new product, brand or business.

For example, Lindstrom believes every one of us has at least two ages: our chronological age and our inner age and this concept of ‘inner age’ provides insights in his work. 

He tells the story of the iRobot Roomba - a robot vacuum cleaner that experienced an unexplained plateau in sales after great success.

By observing happy Roomba customers he realised the vacuum cleaner used to have fun, quirky vocalisations but the design had changed and the cute sounds were gone.

iRobot had lost touch with their customers. Yes, they were disciplined, professional and efficient men and women but what Lindstrom discovered was they were also privately quirky and the Roomba met that need until the interesting “R2-D2” aspect was taken away.

The importance of this up-close scrutiny according to Lindstrom is that it helps to correct a particular shortcoming of Big Data.

Big Data represents our online selves but as we all know, the online self can be a mask, or a carefully edited version.

He calls it the paradox of online behaviour: we are never truly ourselves on social media and when we communicate anonymously, the result lacks any context that our offline lives might provide.

“Online, what we leave behind is largely considered and strategic, whereas the insides of our refrigerators and dresser drawers are not, as they were never intended for public exhibition,” according to Lindstrom.[2]

Combining big data and small data

How then, do we use small data to cut through the noise we are all hearing and what point, if any, is there to the collection and crunching of Big Data?

Lindstrom says that insights are gleaned within small data and verified by Big Data.

He says organisations make a mistake if they rely too heavily on Big Data. Not only is the right signal hard to hear in all the noise created by Big Data, it doesn’t reveal the ‘why’.

Nor does Big Data keep us in check. Too often it leads creepy spamming behaviour from otherwise rational marketers.

But small data that is used to create a hypothesis and subsequently tested using Big Data, ensures we don’t lose our human connection.

Small data is all about causation - the reasons customers behave the way they do. It covers the needs, impulses and desires that motivate decisions about why we live the way we do.

Big Data deals in correlations - the patterns and rhythms of online behaviour.

Harnessing both will provide better insight than relying on one or the other.

What will Big Data bring to your marketing strategy in 2016? Is it a distraction or an opportunity? Can companies survive on small data alone?






 New Call-to-action

 Stay up to date with our Twitter


Topics: Marketing, Strategy