Henry Ford is widely quoted as saying, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” And while it may be apocryphal, it’s frequently trotted out as an argument against relying too heavily on user research or testing.
I have been hearing this quote more often lately, which is likely a reaction to the incredible amount of consumer information marketers now possess, as data takes center stage in so many business decisions.
We are in the golden age of consumer knowledge, with social data mixed with shopper data overlaid with net promoter scores and brand strength monitors. We can run focus groups online and serve surveys to thousands with a few clicks. Never before have businesses had so much insight into the minds of consumers and what drives their decisions.
Yet there is some hesitation. There is the concern that we are entering a mechanized era where we are simply the responders to consumer feedback. That the dawn of artificial intelligence is already starting to render us useless as creatives. They say they like blue, we make it blue. They seem to like puppies in ads, we put puppies in ads. They want faster horses, we speed up the horses. It’s understandable that there would be some pushback against this perceived loss of control and creative input.
That rather dystopian view of understanding consumers and creating advertising is severely off the mark. It fundamentally ignores what is at the core of this great industry of ours: the creative leap of faith. Data isn’t erasing our ability to create and innovate and take those leaps; it’s simply showing us the right places to jump and how far we might be able to go.
Data Is Wood
If data is raw material, the output of a survey is like a pile of wood: of small value unless someone builds something out of it.
Let’s imagine that focus groups gather for the Model T. Henry Ford is behind a one-way mirror, having a snack, and watching people talk. The moderator says, “You all get around today on horses. How could that be better?”
A young man says, “I would like a faster horse.”
Then a new parent adds, “Well, I would like a safer horse.”
An older woman interjects, “I wish my horse smelled better.”
Suddenly, we have the seeds of a go-to-market strategy. The people in the group didn't imagine the automobile, nor were they expected to. That’s not what research and focus groups are for. Rather, they said what they wished for. They explained their frustrations and what they saw as their perfect future.
This consumer feedback isn’t robbing Ford of his ability to take a leap, but rather letting him know what that leap should involve if it’s going to be successful. With a lot more data points to help frame up our story, we begin to see what we can say to get consumers to become passionate about our client’s invention. We see what will take people from never-heard-of-it to can’t-live-without-it by understanding what their needs are.
This is the mistake we make in research all too often: paying too much attention to what people say, while ignoring why they are saying it.
The Data Goldmine Under Your Nose
For those looking to take a leap, getting underneath what people are saying to what they are thinking and why is crucial. The good news is that the raw material may already be in your hands, in the form of brand trackers. One of the best practices we have at our agency is to use brand trackers to search for new patterns and insights by recombining the data in surprising ways. You may run one of these—the gigantic PowerPoint research reports that explore how your brand and your marketing is doing versus the competition.
To get into the why instead of just the what, request the absolute raw data from these studies, down to the individual response level. Then load it up into a database and begin testing ideas to see if you find differences between the lovers and haters of a brand. Those ideas are where the creative touch of an actual human really matters. It’s a practice that artificial intelligence isn’t going to be replacing any time soon. From there, you can look to see if you find combinations of demographics that show pockets of advocacy, or if you discover a hidden group of people who share a common attitude, but not a common behavior.
Once you find these gems, run new research. These are generally simple surveys that allow you to try to prove out new ideas. If they pass the test, they become insights that you can take forward to drive new work. The value of this is huge. With data analysis tools, you can move quickly with fairly large data sets. You can get new insights from the data you already have on hand. You can begin to look at your market in new and compelling ways.
Thinking about data as raw materials, not complete answers, is a way to get back to the human aspect of what we do. Any answer can be valuable—even “faster horses”—if we look at it the right way, dig a little deeper into it, and use it not as an answer, but as a way that we can take a step farther. By taking these raw materials and refining them, you can use them to build a scaffolding that will be the jumping-off point for big creative leaps.