Big Data

How Marketing mistook clicks for customers (and how to get them back)7 min read

Over the last decade, the emergence of big data and adtech has driven marketers towards counting clicks rather than talking to their customers.

What’s the similarity between our obsessions with Data (as marketers) and the ‘discovery of Corn’ by the Europeans when they reached America in 1494. Keep reading to find out.

Tricia Wang, is a globally renowned Tech Ethnographer, who focuses on helping organizations uncover how their bias towards the quantifiable comes at the expense of profits and people, and how to fix it. Her work focuses on data collection, analysis, and insights, but instead of machined churned and machine reduced big data, she focuses on human collected and human analyzed Thick Data (more on it in a short while).

In this incredible presentation at the Nudgestock 2019, she talks about how our obsession with big data (large data sets, analysed rigorously through algorithms and then drawn into patterns to get insights) has hugely impacted our ability to draw real insights about real people and use these to build products and programs which server our customers.

You can get all the key takeaways from this incredible session below.

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The Big Idea

Marketers got obsessed with using big data as a panacea for all their marketing woes. But now we know much lesser about our real customers than before.

Key Takeways

  • As marketers, many of us now suffer from a bias – Quantification bias: the unconscious valuing of the measurable over the immeasurable. Thus any data point, how so much insignificant becomes more important in our mind, compared to any qualitative information
  • This has resulted in the over glamorization of data and it has become the ‘big data’
  • We turn to big data for very well-intentioned, good reasons because we all want to make the right decisions with our investments, especially marketing investments
  • The need for big data has led to the growth of a large ecosystem of adtech, which promises to provide a quantitative way to get your customer’s attention
  • Almost every CMO worth his/her salt now has a dedicated adtech/martech stack in his/her marketing arsenal. For many companies, the investment in this goes up to 30% of their marketing budget
  • However, ~70% marketing leaders say that they are unhappy with their online marketing stack, which is a dangerously large number when 30% of the budget is dedicated to it
  • It is not difficult to see why? A look at the adtech ecosystem below gives an answer
New Ad Tech Ecosystem Map Released By LUMA Partners' Kawaja ...
  • The ad inventory supply chain is so fragmented and so opaque, that is is almost impossible to be sure of what is being measured and if the measurement is reliable
  • This challenge stems from the fact that the adtech ecosystem looked at the existing ways of segmenting customers (demographic and psychographic) and just made it faster and more scalable, without inventing something new
  • Thus, all the new quantitative models are essentially based on the exciting models, just larger and economically more efficient
  • On the customer side, there are more than 1.7 Bn people who have installed ad-blockers, completely boycotting the adtech supply chain


  • It seems like our original purpose reaching customers has kind of gotten lost. Due to the emergence of adtech and our fixation on driving all marketing through data, very few companies, if any at all, are talking to customers directly to learn what drives their decisions
  • We are using the budgets to build dashboard and use dashboards to optimize the digital marketing budget without even knowing who is the real customer
  • In the last decade, in parallel to the emergence of adtech, there has also been a decline of the ‘customer insights’ function. Most companies have either completely outsourced it or provide it lip-service
  • At the agencies, the gap between creative and adtech has widened to the extent there seems to be no common grounds
  • Adtech believes that creative work is a commodity and the marketing stack is governed by how well they can optimize the ads
  • On the other hand, the creatives believe that the headline and copy and the artwork grab customer’s attention and adtech is just a media channel
  • In his divided world, the customer is falling through the cracks and neither party has a clear understanding of who the customer is and what motivates them and what are the barriers
  • In this context, it is essential to elevate the level of consumer insights once again as consumer insights forms the vital third corner of adtech and creative triage
  • Tricia Wang rebrands qualitative consumer insights as Thick Data, which she defines as:
    • the most direct, unmediated data from humans that captures their full context of emotions and stories. Thick data allows you to see the world with alien eyes, you know, to ask questions and unpack assumptions that might lead you to make the wrong move or miss the mark entirely
Why Big Data Needs Thick Data - Ethnography Matters - Medium
Courtesy: Tricia Wang
  • To reclaim our understanding of the customer, we need to integrate big data with thick data in a scalable and replicable manner
  • One of the problems with big data is that the machines can only see what you train them to see. So a machine trained to see only fire will see every movement and every entity as a moving fire
  • Thick data balances the big data by rescuing the customer context that comes from normalizing and standardizing and clustering big data
  • Thick data helps in spotting emergent behavior and black swan events that our business and algorithmic models might be missing
  • The lesson here is that to really understand customers, we have to stop treating ad tech tools, much less any kind of technology as a magical solution
  • We need to rebalance. And as marketing functions are increasingly in charge of growing the business, they need thick data integrated with big data to lead to business growth

Ideation prompts

  • Does your business rely too heavily on only big data and there is no direct conversation with customers
  • Do you integrate your insights by directly talking to the customers with the machine generated big data
  • Does consumer insights function has a seat at the table when marketing budget decisions are made
  • Is there a person from social sciences, arts or anthropology background in your agency/your business who balances the maths, sciences and engineering graduates

I hope you liked reading this summary of Tricia Wang’s phenomenal session from Nudgestock 2019.



You almost missed this

If you are wondering what happened to the link between data and discovery of corn, here’s your answer.

But before that, please do take a moment to share the Seeking North newsletter with people for whom you care by using any of the buttons below.

When the Europeans found corn in America, they felt corn is magical, full of nutrients and starch power. They took it back with them to Europe where it quickly became a key part of the diet. But then corn-dependent Europeans started suffering from extreme forms of malnutrition which was fatal in many cases. This was absent in the Americans.

The reason is that the Europeans missed the process of Nixtamalization, which the Americans used to prepare corn before consumption. This missed insight made corn useless and even deadly for the Europeans.

In a similar way, marketing fixation with big data leads to missing of such crucial insights, which can prove fatal to marketing campaigns.


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