THE BLOG

Echo Chambers And Empathy Gaps

12/12/2016 15:43 GMT | Updated 13/12/2017 10:12 GMT

Smart advertisers know that they lead lives which are often radically different from the average American consumer.

They tend to be better educated, more socially liberal, and more tech obsessed than the average person they're trying to sell to. They drink in different bars, watch different TV shows and hold different politics views to most Americans.

It's good practice to regularly remind yourself of this gap. New Year's Resolution? Try an occasional cold bucket of sweary reality delivered by Mark Ritson or Bob Hoffman.

Yet simply identifying the problem - that you are, in fact, a latte sipping, New Yorker reading, young urbanite - is not enough.

We too readily turn to laptop screens for insights, discerning our consumers from an excel spreadsheet. We put too much blind faith in data, at the expense of truly understanding them. This can often lead to an echo chamber scenario: apparently objective 'output' is in fact pre-defined by an 'input' which comes from the perspective of a marketer, not a consumer.

If, for example, your company manufactures and sells widgets, you will understandably start from the premise that consumers also spend a huge amount of time thinking about them: product details, slight adjustments or improvements. You start from a warped premise, subsequently ask consumers the wrong questions and get data that doesn't tell you much.

Over the past year, this is a trap which many political strategists fell into on both sides of the Atlantic. Information that could be easily measured and slotted into an existing metropolitan framework, trumped the murkier, contradictory, intangible aspects of human psychology present in the peripheries. Pollsters have been left wondering why, for example, voters opt for candidates in apparent opposition to their interests, or how outcomes can be predicted when perceptions matter more than 'truth' to voters.

Yet our unequivocal faith in data at the expense of understanding of messy human reality is nothing new.

Take the example of Robert McNamara, who in the early 1960s, became President of the Ford Motor Company. McNamara owed his success at Ford to his brilliant, rational, data driven approach to decision making. Labelled an 'IBM on legs', he set up Ford's market research arm and promptly made the company a lot of money by highlighting why so many Americans were inexplicably buying the (small, ugly, German) VW cars.

Yet McNamara stands as a shining example of the hubris of blindly following data, and conducting strategy from 30,000 feet.

Later accepting the position of Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy, McNamara took his approach to the Pentagon, applying it to the developing conflict in Vietnam.

The approach became derided. Historian Lawrence Freedman notes that there was a 'relentless focus on what could be measured rather than what actually needed to be understood' which led to profound miscalculations. McNamara's approach, in business and war, was dependent on the quality of data inserted and crucially 'tended to ignore what could not be easily measured.'

McNamara later accepted these judgments, and noted the failure of the U.S. government to properly empathize with its adversaries. The Vietnamese, he later realized, saw the U.S. as a colonial power aiming to subjugate the country in the midst of a civil war; the U.S. saw Vietnam as a strategic pillar in its Cold War strategy. However accurate McNamara's data was, he had started from a false premise, and subsequently measured the wrong thing. A vacuum of human empathy and understanding lay at the heart of it.

2016 has highlighted the importance of marketers bridging this empathy gap. Data alone is not a solution.

Chris Arnade has offered a clue to how this might work. A former Wall Street executive, Arnade has undertaken a 'Humans of New York' style tour of the U.S., focusing on some of the most deprived and overlooked parts of the country. He contrasts his current 'nitty-gritty' approach to collecting information with his former 'heavy data, big-picture' perspective on Wall Street.

Arnade has highlighted the psychological complexities behind the people he documents, and how their mindsets are not easily reducible to a questionnaire or spreadsheet: the loss of civic institutions and community; the sense of isolation, embarrassment and loss of pride.

Such an approach highlights how unexpected and infinitely fascinating the human condition is. It is not something easily reduced to a series of questionnaires, and requires a subtle and nuanced approach. Of course, the use of smart data is vital to any strategy, but it has limitations, and often leads us to measure the wrong things or solve the wrong problems. We should always start with an empathetic understanding of the people - complicated, hard to understand, contradictory - that we seek to persuade.