There was a time when businesses only really cared about things like age and sex – the “demographics.” Erstwhile marketers in grey suits would stand in front of their CEOs, point at chart boards, and talk about how Product X was perfect for the “male 24-36 demo.” It worked, to a degree. (I’m speculating about the grey suits).
Those days are long behind us. Today, marketers use much more robust concepts with cool names like “psychographics” and “correlative analysis.” Well, I think they’re cool. I’ve been told by a non-marketer that they’re slightly creepy. Whatever.
In any regard, we use these methods to understand which consumers will buy our clients’ products and what they really want. We create market segments of consumers with similar preferences and behavioral characteristics. In today’s fragmented world, it’s impossible to say whether a given 24-year-old male will prefer a Jeep, a Prius, or a moped. There’s too much at play.
Today’s businesses (Facebook is a good example) want to know what we like to do, what we think about certain things, what we watch, when we watch it, why we buy an Apple phone over a Samsung… the list goes on. They take this data, plug it into a mathematical algorithm, and lo and behold, correlations and insights are spit back out. The more pertinent data a business can collect, the better understanding they can develop of their customers. Ideally, this results in a better company/consumer relationship. You get what you want, and so do they.
Still, even the most diligent and determined company can’t escape this one simple fact: life is not black and white. On any given day, you can feel one way about something; on the next, totally different. This makes business people pull their hair out – and it can also frustrate us, as humans, every day.
We often try to break things down into simple blacks and whites. We do this to make decisions easier, to simplify our understanding of things, and to be more efficient. In part, we use schemas and heuristics. The former establishes frameworks for our perceptions (i.e., “Any animal that is tall, hairy, and has a mane is a horse”); the latter gives us cognitive shortcuts based on experience (i.e., “I’ve been bitten by two horses; therefore, all horses bite”).
We all do this. No one is immune. Sometimes, these methods cause us trouble – we can believe we have a thorough knowledge of a situation, when in reality we are far from the truth. Other times, we are so befuddled, we just stop trying to understand. This is, in part, what contributes to bad things like racial stereotyping. It’s also part of what prevents us from achieving goals (“I’m short, and only tall people play basketball”), entering new relationships (“All my past relationships have hurt, so my next one will too”), or relishing the beautiful grey areas that rest in between the poles.
Here’s a mild confession: I used to actively try to think in only blacks and whites. Maybe it was my military training, or maybe it was something else. Regardless, I had an important conversation with a family member a couple of years ago that changed my way of thinking. That person pointed out, quite simply, that not everything is black and white.
I can say, unequivocally, that the person I am today is due in large part to that conversation, and to the realization that there are grey areas inside everything. If the black is bustling Miami, and the white is quaint Madawaska, then the greys are all the fantastic, varied places in between – full of adventure, promise, and opportunity.
I use marketing data, numbers, and algorithms in my professional life. I appreciate them in my personal life, too. But in both, I find it fulfilling to step back, look at the big picture, question my assumptions, and find insight and inspiration in the grey areas. It’s impossible to know every detail and predict the future. We can get close, but we just can’t.
Stop being afraid that the horse will bite. Saddle him up. And ride him into the unknown – there’s untold adventure and opportunity there, waiting.