Don’t Drown in a Tidal Wave of Information

We’re in a golden age of instant information. But, as SLRG President Jon Last explains in his July 2013 Media Post commentary, that doesn’t necessarily lead to better strategic decisions, unless sports marketers can navigate the pot holes.

As one who makes a living in sports marketing research, the warp speed evolution of technology has opened myriad windows into the actions and attitudes of fans and other consumer constituents of vital importance to our clients. With the proliferation of media channels, greater use of databases for behavioral tracking, and of course, the ability to access, aggregate and analyze social media conversation, we are in a golden age where information rather than conjecture can lead to better strategic decision making.

But for all of the fanfare and opportunity associated with “big data” comes greater risk of information inundation, misinterpretation and paralysis by analysis. Good marketing research has always been an artful mix of proper sample framing, a well-constructed and designed data collection plan and most importantly, thoughtful and sound analysis and insight formation. These three elements are all important inputs to each other. And today with so much readily accessible data, it’s easy to overlook the first two elements and jump right into a foundationally flimsy attempt at the third. At the risk of sounding self serving, I’ll use an automotive metaphor: Cars with more technological features may make it easier for people to drive, but you’ll only get the most out of the vehicle with a professional driver behind the wheel. Here are some of the major potholes to avoid.

OverAmplification and Saturation

If we are truly vested in our work, we are seeing our industry and our market through a vastly different lens than others. That’s not a bad thing, and to avoid being hypocritical, I am first to admit that my “non-working” hours are largely consumed by listening to sports talk radio, participating in sports and research centric online communities, consuming lots of vertical media on various screens and in print, attending sporting events and ravenously digesting my Twitter feed.

We are in a 24/7 information barrage, and as a sports marketer and fan, it’s inspiring to have so many access points to satisfy my insatiable appetite. But it’s also easy to take the musings of other “thought leaders” as well as “Jerry from Comack” calling the “Michael Kay Show” for the fifth time this week, as reflective of the greater market voice. With a proliferation of information comes the natural cognitive reaction to take the opinions of the vocal minority to stand for more than they should.

Seeing the latest My Golf Spy insider driver prototype reviews can easily allow me to inaccurate, far-reaching conclusions by forgetting that the product testers reflect only a small, niche segment of the overall golf equipment market. They probably play better than I. They definitely assess the product quality much more thoroughly and differently than the vast majority of the target market. So, with this abundance of data from a non-representative sample, we run the serious risk of over-amplifying points of view and perspective.

The incessant stream of opinion and speculation brings upon us higher perceived importance and greater legitimacy for conjecture. Like many of you, I quickly came to the conclusion that things are looking pretty bleak for Aaron Hernandez’ legacy as a role model. But, in reality, we don’t really know what he did. We are framing our perceptions largely through the speculation of others. And this doesn’t only apply to situations of jurisprudence, it holds true for evaluations of products, teams and endorsement deals absent thorough, well-designed research.

The Underwhelmed

A related problem is the ability for this unrepresentative information barrage to allow formal research to underwhelm us, when it should instead be re-grounding us in the real world. Fresh off of reading multiple “insider’s reviews” of the aforementioned prototype new golf driver, and having spent months of intensive R&D testing, our clients can be disappointed when so much of the technological innovation and nuance that went into the new product and heralded by the “insiders” flies over the heads of typical consumers in focus groups or survey testing.

As I’ve written before, we are not the customer, and our research often shows that communication of emotional triggers and performance benefits are more resonant than an exhaustive look under the hood. We often lose sight of the bigger reality because we are so immersed in the iterative details. It’s like the old joke about the brand manager who, after months of developing a new ad campaign, walks into his agency’s office concerned that the creative may be wearing out. He is gently reminded that the advertisements in question are still in test.

Finding Diamonds in the Rough

But therein lies the critical nature of the analysis stage. Even with well-sourced sample frames and expertly designed data collection, the right type of analysis means separating the wheat from the chaff, knowing where to look for the important data and, most importantly, testing hypotheses, examining data within appropriate filters and proper context and only then, reaching conclusions that become useful insights.

As a poignant example, our firm recently conducted consumer testing for a sporting goods manufacturer looking to launch a premium line extension at a significantly higher price point than their core line. Upon casual observation, the results were dismal. An overwhelming majority rejected the product and felt that the proposed pricing was excessive. Had the client gone straight to launch, it surely would have been skewered by the press and attacked on social media. Yet, with a well-designed research study, we found a small but meaningful subset of its target audience, who loved the product and demonstrated price elasticities even higher than the suggested retail pricing.

By then studying this group of acceptors in isolation, our team was able to advise the client on those messaging triggers that resonated most with this segment as well as on their behavioral profile. The result was a niche line extension that performed admirably from a profitability standpoint, and an unexpected ancillary effect in that the entrance of the premium product and its in-store adjacency to the core line, elevated sales of the latter product. Absent a thoughtful look at what the data really meant, this would have been a squandered opportunity.