Humans are far more predictable than you think, if only you'd ask them

Dom Burch is the founder and MD of Why Social, a strategic marketing consultancy, and former senior director of marketing innovation and new revenue at Asda. Trained in PR, Dom has spent the last 17 years in a variety of comms roles at Asda, Direct Line and Green Flag including head of PR and head of social.

Facebook is the all seeing eye these days isn't it? It has more than 1bn active monthly users sending out billions of signals every day. Big data in the truest sense of the word. Information that in turn is hugely valuable to one of the world's most successful advertising platforms.

It can seemingly relentlessly monetise our everyday actions by selling our interests, our friendships, our relationships and our brand preferences to advertisers who crave better, more efficient targeting.

Yet, even Facebook with its enviable grip on the inner depths of our behaviour has to enhance what it thinks it knows about us by asking simple questions in the form of a customer survey.

The Verge recently reported that Facebook is considering introducing a tipping facility so you can monetise your content on its channel. An interesting potential development in its own right. But what really caught my eye was how it was using a customer survey to understand its own users' preferences. How can this be? Surely the all seeing eye knows me better than I know myself?

The survey, however, asks users what data would be most interesting to them in order to understand their own influence. For example, would they like to know the percentage of their videos people actually watch, or how many new followers a post generates?

The Verge adds: “Typically data like that is interesting primarily to large brands and publishers, but it could be useful for celebrities and other public figures who are trying to understand their audiences. And as Facebook presses its chief advantage in social media — that is has the largest audience — sharing that data with users is likely to make rival services look puny in comparison.”

But what data to share with users is clearly a conundrum facing Facebook executives, hence the need for an opinion poll.

According to The Verge the survey's questions about monetisation came as part of a larger set of questions aimed at asking people how they use their personal profile pages, what kinds of things they share there, and whether their Facebook friends comprise mostly real-life acquaintances or people the user has never met in person.

Who knew they didn't already know eh? It's mildly reassuring that big brother ain't as smart as I thought he was. It also reveals a human truth; numbers only produce data. Questions, if asked well, create insightful answers. Statements of intent. Not just records of past actions, and understanding what people are going to do, if true, can then inform what you focus your effort on to ironically keep one step ahead of them.

Earlier this week I listened to an excellent podcast interview by Michael Stelzner with Park Howell of Business of Story fame. Park says data does one of three things:

  • Reports an event that has happened.
  • Monitors event that's currently happening.
  • Attempts to predict an event in the future.

While data can be the foundation of a story, it still has obvious limitations.

Take your average weather report. It was hot yesterday, it'll be cold today and will rain tomorrow. You don't really care about the data, you care about the event.

In my case, I wish I'd had a BBQ yesterday, I think I'll put a jumper on to walk the dog, and I best not plan do much outside tomorrow. As Howell says, "Data can't kill us but an event can'. And our reptilian brain prefers to understand events. Data scares it, and forces an instinctive response of 'prove it, prove it, prove it".

To help make the point, have you ever been at a conference and some smart arse gets up on stage and starts showing you a load of charts and numbers highlighting that millennials don't click display ads, hence ad blockers will rule the world and kill all websites versus the guy who tells you a story about his two kids who watch YouTube videos whilst playing Minecraft, pausing live TV in the background, mid conversation on FaceTime who then moan when you interrupt them for their tea.(By the way, his kids hate display ads popping up all the time, and pause TV so they can fast forward the poorly targeted TV ads. Not because they don't like advertising, they just don't like wasting time being interrupted by badly targeted advertising.)

Howell argues if you are trying to connect with an audience you should always lead with an event (a story), then back up your hypothesis of how the event is going to play out with data to prove it. I find it staggering that an opinion poll of as few as 1,000 people, if nationally representative, can within a few percentage points, consistently and accurately capture the mood of an entire nation. In the case of the US, that means you can understand 319m people's views on something, simply by asking 1,000 of them what they think.

Equally staggering is why more brands and organisations don't have an active panel of customers who they regularly poll. At Asda six or seven years ago, Rick Bendel, the then chief marketing officer, oversaw the introduction of the Pulse of the Nation panel.

It was a hugely beneficial resource of core Asda customers who anyone in the business, or any supplier could access, in order to test a theory or simply get closer to what they were thinking.

“Customer data without insight is just your opinion,” he would say.

Sales data, which retailers have in abundance, reports an event that has happened, or monitors an event that's currently happening. It then attempts to predict an event in the future.

Understanding how customers feel about something, and what actions they intend to take enhances that data in a way that builds a more informed customer led strategy. The life blood of any business hoping to survive. And reflecting the outside view inside an organisation is essential. Or as Jack Welch famously once said, “If the change on the outside is happening faster than the change on the inside, then the end is near.”

In a very basic way, we used the Pulse survey to find out what our customers were doing on social media. We used it to dispel the myths and reinforce the truths. Which platforms were they on each day and for how long? Did they ever read reviews, leave reviews, write blogs, share content? What did they use Facebook for, Twitter for, and which platforms were irrelevant, in spite of the gurus of the day saying retailers would die without them (Pinterest for instance)?

It focused our efforts, emboldened our approach, put naysayers back in their boxes, and prevented us from being distracted.

Asking 1,000 people, our actual customers, their views on how they use social media in relation to their preferred grocery store, helped define a five-year strategy which ultimately attracted 1.6m of Asda's target core customers (young mums who do most of their weekly shop at Asda) to become a fan of ours on Facebook.

An opinion poll of a mere 1,000 of Asda's 18m customers set in play a programme that built an enviable army of advocates. All we had to do was ask them what they thought.

Follow Dom on Twitter @DomBurch

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.