meaningless wordcloud

I’d like to tell you a short, cautionary story today to explain why I am wary of “word clouds” and most other trendy displays of social media data and “sentiment.” By the end, I hope you will be wary, too.

Long before the days of Sysomos, Radian6, or even Facebook, the only way to learn about trends and “sentiment” was to actually poll your customers or go out and talk to them.

When I was a marketing director for a large company I led an activity called “Listen to the Customer.” To augment regular customer surveys, every other year we would get on a plane and actually visit with a cross section of customers face-to-face. This was not a “nice to see you” visit. This was a rigorous process to help identify trends, ideas, and ways to improve our product.

One year, after we had spent weeks on the road, we concluded our trip with a group of researchers at their headquarters in Atlanta. In the very last hour of the very last meeting, one scientist mentioned in an off-handed remark that he had seen a new preliminary government study indicating that a chemical in our packaging might be related to health problems.

We were stunned. WHAT?

Although the research was indeed preliminary, if it turned out to be true this would be a devastating development that could bring our company to its knees.

The power of “the one”

As a cautionary measure, we immediately began a multi-million dollar effort to eliminate the suspicious chemical from our product. This was a very unpopular program both internally and externally because there was no proof of a problem yet. After three years of research and customer testing, we introduced new packaging that was completely free of the chemical.

Two years after we had made the change (five years after that customer meeting!), a front page article in the Wall Street Journal announced conclusive new research linking the chemical to a variety of human health issues. We were in good shape. Our competitors were not.

I wanted to tell this story because if we had depended on a word cloud or a chart of “sentiment analysis” to tell us what was going on with our customers my company would have never made this discovery and avoided a catastrophe.

These new analytic tools can make us lazy marketers. In the past few weeks I have sat in meeting after meeting looking at customer “research” based on word clouds and beautifully-designed infographics that tell us NOTHING about what is really going on in the marketplace.

Dig deep for insights

We will rarely get break-through insights from a high level data summary … which is probably the same thing our competitors are seeing any way. Insights that lead to innovation do not normally come to us through lists of averages and word counts.

Do you really want to find competitive advantage? Get out of your word cloud and spend a couple days with your customers. Ask them what they love. Ask them what they hate. Ask them what keeps them up at night. Dig deep. Ask why, why, why, why, why.

Do. The. Work.

What is your take on this issue? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!

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