Consumers as Human Beings, Not Merely Count in a Sample Size

There I was at work on a Tuesday at 10 am, opening up the dashboard of yet another digital research study I have been working on. Every time I login, I feel the wave of deja vu washing over me. I’ve worked on so many studies like this before and this one is no different, even if my colleagues will tell you otherwise- this campaign I’m analyzing is their baby and they are expecting positive results on the main campaign metric we’ve set forth in the beginning.

Sometimes I wonder if the work we’re doing actually creates a positive impact. Does advertising really help us connect people to brands? Do we apply our learnings from our consumer studies so that we actually connect better with our customers? These are the things I wonder everyday and keep me up at night. We work hard to deliver what ever it is our clients ask for, we own tasks that we believe will move their business, and we do things at their best interest even when they don’t see the big picture right away. We spend a lot of time at work. We spend a lot of time at work, a lot of days. We do a damn good job at the work we do.

But as anyone who work in media can attest, sometimes our work seems a distant from the customers we speak to and the clients we serve. We talk about our clients consumers and potential consumers who they are trying to reach, in terms of vague technical terms like “users” or “respondents,” which bring to mind empty silhouettes like those that Facebook assign you on your profile when you don’t upload a picture.

In terms of statistics, we love taking sets (of things, people, data, etc) to analyze. A sample size of 1 is deemed negligible. We look for insights later; statistically sound reasoning is priority. We like when the large groups of people have commonalities because that means they are easy to group. We typically don’t like outliers. We like normal distributions. All because we are dependent on the data to give us the answers. Data is our crystal ball, map, compass. Things are easy to explain with statistical tools.

OK, fine. So we don’t always fail to acknowledge individuals. There’s actually a level of “personification” we inject into planning our media campaigns; we create target profiles wherein we define personas and bring them to life. We take pains describing a representative (how ever fictional) person who possess the traits and responsibilities to better connect to those we want to reach. This is Julie. She is in her late thirties, is married, and has 3 kids. She is a full-time employee who carries a very busy schedule so she doesn’t have time to cook. She’s the perfect example of the person we should reach and sell product “X”.

There’s a lot of talk about “empathy” in business these days. Some look at it from a perspective of self-interest, claiming it can drive career success. Others talk about it as a way to bridge our own understanding with that of another person’s by understanding how they view the world, so we can understand their thoughts in context.

This brings us to a bigger question: how much do we really understand people? The news media talk a lot about statistics. We de-personify people. How do we communicate to a group of people efficiently so we maintain scale, but also acknowledge their individuality? Annie Dillard described a scenario in her book “In the Time Being,” that 1-2 victims are more memorable and we are more disturbed when reading about them than we are reading about a large group of victims. I wonder if, as humans, we are psychologically only capable of feeling empathy toward a handful of people, and we that we are unable to identify with crowds…

I’ve been thinking about various concepts such as human experience, professional versus personal identities, and visibility as an employee lately. This musing is the first in a series.

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