You’ve probably heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. This story first appeared in the Buddhist text Udana 6.4, dating around the 1st millennium BCE. If it’s been awhile since you’ve read it, the parable goes like this:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to their town. None of the men were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said, “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.”

So, they sought the animal out, and when they found it, they each reached out to touch it. The first man, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another man, whose hand reached its ear, the animal seemed like a kind of fan. Yet another, whose hand was upon its leg, said, “The elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.” The man who placed his hand on its side said, “The elephant is a wall.” Another who felt its tail, described the elephant as a rope. The last man felt its tusk and stated that the elephant is hard, smooth, and like a spear.

Which man was correct? They were each basing their conclusions on primary research. But none of the men had the complete picture. They didn’t have all the data.

We Now Know Everything

We have access to more data today than we ever have. Big Data is a term that marketers use to describe the extremely large data sets that can be analyzed by computers to reveal patterns, trends, and associations related to human behavior and interactions. Big Data is used to determine what target audiences desire and to predict how any given market segment will develop.

Or Do We?

But this unprecedented access to data has lulled us into thinking we can know everything there is to know about a group of people via analytics. Yes, Big Data is a function of truly complex computations, and the data scientists who work with that data are intelligent and innovative. But there’s only so much we can learn about a person through a computer.

Werner Heisenberg, a German theoretical physicist, said, “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” When we’re seeking to understand a group of people, are we absolutely sure we’ve asked all the right questions?

How to Get a More Complete Picture

So what’s the solution? We have to recognize that people are complex beings that aren’t easily reduced to a set of quantitative data points. In our quest for quick knowledge, we’ve focused almost exclusively on the data that can be easily measured. We’ve forgotten about qualitative data, where real insight is hidden.

Gathering qualitative data is a time-consuming process that’s inherently inefficient. It requires having old-fashioned conversations with people. It’s almost impossible to automate. But it’s the only way we’ll find the missing pieces of the bigger picture.

Qualitative data takes us all the way around the elephant, from trunk to tail. And this type of data goes far beyond describing the outward characteristics of the elephant’s physical being. To continue the analogy, qualitative data gives us a glimpse of this magnificent animal’s astounding intelligence and reveals that elephants are also surprisingly emotional creatures. 

Let’s not get star-struck by Big Data and its mirage of quick knowledge. Let’s do the hard work of qualitative data—the interviews, the conversations—and dedicate ourselves to truly understanding the people we’re trying to communicate with, attract, and sell to. In marketing (and in life!), our success depends on it.

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