NEW YORK/COPENHAGEN: Much has been written about in recent years about "big data," but this only gives marketers half the picture – they need "thick data" to understand the "why?" as well as the "how much?"

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, two executives from strategy consulting business ReD, Mikkel B. Rasmussen, director/Europe division, and Andreas W. Hansen, senior manager/New York, described thick data as that "generated by ethnographers, anthropologists, and others adept at observing human behavior and its underlying motivations".

And they argued that there has been very little dialogue between this group and those involved in the collection and analysis of big data, which often sits in corporate IT function.

"It's only by combining the two forms of data that a complete picture emerges and real solutions to the strategic problems facing CMOs may be found," they suggested, adding that this approach could also end the use of surveys and focus groups which "add very little strategic value".

They offered an example of this approach which was taken by a large European supermarket chain with declining sales and eroding market share.

Traditional shopper surveys left the CMO none the wiser as people appeared to hold contradictory beliefs, with similar proportions saying price was the most important factor in their shopping at the same time as they claimed to always choose better quality items even though they cost more.

But an in-depth study, where social science researchers spent time with consumers in their homes and daily lives, revealed significant shifts in social behaviour and shopping habits that led to the conclusion that a convenient and distinctive shopping experience was more important than price alone.

These insights were cross-checked against big data, so confirming that "the experiences that the company's stores offered were out of sync with the reality of the consumers" and enabling the CMO to explore where action needed to be taken.

"This back and forth between what they knew was happening (big data) and why (thick data) was key to making a sound decision," the authors wrote.

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff