Since marketing moved online and mobile, big data sets have been created filled with clicks, transactions and other behavioral data. Since people don’t have to answer questions, but just do what they do, this information is easier to attain and sometimes more accurate than asking about remembered behaviors.
Now we’ve added wearable technology that can collect this information at any time, with a constant interaction between the user and the device. We can measure biomarker data like eye movement, heart rate, pace of walking, blood sugar or blood pressure, and it can be uploaded in giant amounts. Stimuli (marketing) and response (physical data) can be studied and approaches crafted.
At first, these sounded like groundbreaking ways to combine qualitative research with quantitative data. But the more I looked into it, the more uncomfortable I felt with the idea.
Is It Ethical?
Marketers and researchers can now be surrounded by consumers’ weights, activities, sweat measurements, location data and more. With all of this data being generated by individuals connecting technology to the movements of their bodies, shouldn’t we be concerned about our humanity?
Yet, when a downside to wearables shows up in the press, the issue tends to be privacy.
Think about it: if companies start seeing buyers as purely unconscious creatures who don’t know anything about their own motivations, who just walk around reacting to things; instead of as conscious, cognitive beings making choices, then what? The worrisome outcome of this shift can become a feeling that there is no need to talk with buyers at all – analysts can just study them and see what they do, extrapolate the findings, and manipulate them into doing what companies want them to do.
We Can’t Get Carried Away with Data
It’s true, numbers are convincing. But we shouldn’t let that take away from the human aspect of consumer research.
For example, A/B testing assumes that either A or B is best — that marketers hold the cards and can study reactions at a distance and control the results. But we may find that ‘none of the above’ is actually the right answer if we talk with our buyers and design research questions based on their thinking and feeling, not just their behaviors.
Besides that, wearables may actually make individuals more conscious about their own actions and motivations. The quantified self trend points to the upside of using wearables for data collection. In the same way, if we partner with our research subjects, they can provide insights into their own actions. Wearables can provide us with the what, and then we can discuss the data with the participants and they can help us uncode their own behavior.
The problem with just studying what people do is that you don’t know why they are doing it. Too many assume that behavioral data points the way to truth, whereas that data may not actually capture the nuance needed for success.
What Should We Do?
We must make consumers partners in the process of designing products and promotions, instead of lab rats to be manipulated.
To quote Madhav Mirani on ESOMAR.org, “What if there was a better way to acquire some data and information passively (permission-based of course) and only ask specific and pointed questions for data that cannot be acquired passively?” Include both passive and active feedback, preferably connected so that participants can consciously help to decode their own responses.
For example, showing an eye tracker pattern to respondents and asking them to explain what they were thinking when they looked at a certain item, or having a discussion with an ad viewing group whose heart rates were measured using a Fitbit about what they were experiencing when their heart rates went up or down.
Notice to companies: respect your buyers in order to respect your business’ brand and mission. Don’t just use them to help you sell stuff.
Written by Jennifer Cooper