A while back I read a great post by web analytics master Avinash Kaushik.  He wrote a bit about data geeks and the mountains of information they routinely collect and build.  Information about traffic source overlain with pageviews,  special segmentation, abandonment rates and exit pages, ad nauseam.   Great piles of information that are watched daily and reported weekly.  It’s the stuff the big-wigs asked for once it became known that the web analytics package could surface the goods. All the company needs in order to get ahead is a little more information …

Information makes data geeks drool.  And yet those thick, aggregated reports are largely ignored by Those Who Make Things Happen.

Own work

How can that be?  The reports are just what they asked for!  Tabbed, cross-tabbed, and on a rolling three-month basis, too. Line graphs … pie charts … it’s all there!

What people want and what they ask for may be two different things.

The big-wigs really want to make the right choices, so their intent is in the right place.  They think data will be the fuel they need to make changes, adjust budgets, rework channel distribution plans, advance launch timetables and the like.

What they find is that data alone – or worse, the standard mind-numbing meetings during which the reports purportedly are to be discussed but are instead filled with other distractions and agendas – is an insufficient means to evoke decisive action, particularly in larger organizations.  They hamstring themselves with so much information, and no effective way to draw meaningful conclusions.  Or no one brave enough to ask “When was the last time any of us actually used any of this?” Or “What does this stuff mean, really?”  They’re intelligent high-earners so they grasp the academic concepts represented by the reports, but the question remains “What do we do next?

The data is essentially meaningless without sufficient surrounding content and underlying context.  Developing strategic insight is the hard part Seth Godin recently wrote about – insight comes from synthesizing information from a variety of sources, finding patterns and discrepancies, and looking in other directions, channels, and platforms.  Customers lead multi-channel lives, so analysis of the data pile had better look at those areas, too.

The real objective is not to collect the data.  The real objective is to find the “something” in a sea of potential options when the environment is not controlled.

More choices do not necessarily lead to better decisions or greater satisfaction.

For about 10 years now, the leading bodies in cultural trends, food service, and grocery retail have reported that Americans are increasingly seeking flavorful options, even in well-established categories.  See Malcolm Gladwell’s famous TED talk for details. These groups believe it’s because we want to exercise more control over our lives and fill our needs for self-expression and customization. Yet studies conducted by Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar suggest that while people like some variety, we are easily overwhelmed when our selection of choices – be it jam, computers, or clothing – exceed six or seven.  There are neurological limits on humans’ ability to process information. It becomes too much for us to compare and contrast.  We’ll even abandon the situation without having made any choice at all.  We overestimate our own capacity for managing these choices.  (I’m talking about consumers now, but doesn’t it sound like the business scenario above?)

We all scream Ice Cream!

Help me help you.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve configured my new Dell online, only to abandon the shopping cart.  The whole thing got to be too much.  It wasn’t any sort of sticker shock, but rather the fear of making the wrong selection which gripped me.  Was that the right processor for my 67-open-tabs-at-a-time habit?  Could I store all my raw video files without risk?  Better to stick with the dog I have for now, I guess.

Consider for a moment the veritable cornucopia of choices in women’s outwear at Land’s End.  Not only are there designations of parka, jacket, and coat but then there’s down of various fills, Polar This, Therma That. The list goes on.

That vast assortment could just lead to decision paralysis. All that data!  Instead, Land’s End designed a shopping experience which categorizes their large assortment of clothing options into something I can latch onto and digest.  I don’t really want to know the warming properties of one individual material over another, but with high-level categories like “Warm” “Warmer” and “Warmest” along with a temperature performance designation, I can now translate all the product info into something meaningful.  And take decisive action.

What we really want is a better choosing experience – the information-processing component of choosing.  We want to minimize our cognitive stress to make better selections which will satisfy us. “We frequently pay a mental and emotional tax for the freedom of choice.”

Iyengar and article coauthor Agrawal wrote:

If the market for your product is saturated with choice, you can’t gain a competitive edge by dumping more choices into the mix. Instead, you can outthink and outperform your competitors by turning the process of choosing into an experience that is more positive and less mind-numbing for your customers. You can design a more helpful form of choice.

The bottom line.

Business:  when they say they want more data, what they really want is better analysis of the data.

Consumers:  when they say they want more choice, what they really want is a better choosing experience.

How can the interests of business and the wants of consumers meet to drive revenues and satisfaction?

*Note:   Cold Stone Creamery boasts 11.5 million flavor combinations with their array of ice creams.  Baskin Robins differentiated itself in 1953 with 31 flavors, one for every day of the month, before growing to 1,000 flavors today.

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About Heather Rast

Heather Rast

Heather is Principal of a boutique Cedar Rapids digital marketing company. She develops brand positioning strategy and marketing communications plans to distinguish small businesses from the competition and attract their ideal customers. Her content planning, writing, and online community-building work helps larger businesses better serve their audiences with useful information that solves problems as it builds affinity for the brand.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://twitter.com/PaceButlerCorp PaceButler Corp

    Great article Heather. I used to work for a church and most churches that I know of were plagued by this exact same issue. “Let's give them a thousand choices that way everyone can find where they fit best.” Fail. That kind of thought, like you said, only confuses and overwhelms people. Now, people want to be told up front what choices they have. People are talking with their feet anyways, so if they don't like the choices they have they will just leave. I feel like that is a better option than giving them to many options, ultimately watering down your brand, and letting them down later. I respect brands (Jimmy Johns=sandwiches only) that tell you what they are about and stick to it. I know people that hate Jimmy Johns but I also know alot more people that love it. I think the extremes are actually good for business. It's engaging either way.

  • http://www.puredriven.com Patrick Garmoe

    Great article Heather. I think people like to think about lots of data like they think about classic books. Everyone wants to say they've read them, but no one (or few) want to actually read them. Lots of data makes people feel smart.

    I think in the realm of social media, companies need to design a good strategy (obviously) and then decide on the handful of data points they'll rely on to gauge whether they meet those goals. One stream of data isn't enough, but several should be enough. And then just rely on that set of figures, tweaking as needed.

    Unfortunately, people require a pot of numbers. Right now – as you point out – they reach for the ocean of data instead.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

      Patrick, I wondered about the response I might get from this post. I realize that the issue isn't as simple as it might sound, but I honestly believe that the symptoms are systemic across organizations large and small. Reports and dashboards can serve as topical trappings, and sometimes even a crutch inhibiting us from learning the skills to dive deeper and think laterally. I'm not suggesting that data itself isn't useful, but rather that sometimes we take rote paths and expect to discover the Holy Grail. We waste a lot of time talking about TPS reports.

      As you say, very few make real use of the raw information that gets collected. Those that do read and extrapolate something meaningful have to be very skilled in persuasion and presentation to get their findings considered. It's less about having the answers and more about knowing the 5 or 6 things that matter to the business, are necessary to advance, and then looking for clues that can inform a decision.

  • http://www.softmusic-dm.com teena

    Great article Heather.

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