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Is Small Data the Next Big Thing?

Written by Heather McNair on September 8, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Is small data the next big thing for online communities?

Most people aren’t skilled woodworkers -- but almost anyone can build an IKEA dresser. That’s how intuitive the company’s design and instructions are. And it’s no accident that its furniture design is incredibly attuned to users’ needs.

IKEA pays very close attention to consumers and can predict their behavior, from what they’ll furnish their home with to how they’ll assemble and use each item. Obviously, with a company this large, it’s impossible to point to just one aspect of business that spurred its success.

But here’s an anecdote that encapsulates much of its philosophy -- Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA’s founder, was so obsessed with understanding the consumer, that he’d occasionally work at a checkout counter to see what people bought and ask them questions directly. Can you think of any other billionaire executives who’d do the same?

Although your organization probably doesn’t have a checkout line for you to learn all about your customers, it’s still very important for you to connect and understand the human side of how customers behave.

We tend to not sweat the small stuff and look at the big picture when creating community strategy and making decisions, but what if there’s real value, as IKEA found, in the micro-details?

That’s where “small data” comes in.

What is small data? It’s all about the details

Recently, everyone from large corporations to political campaigns has been obsessed with “big data” -- that is, taking enormous packets of data, plugging them into complicated algorithms and predicting the future based on past actions. Everyone from Amazon and Google to presidential candidates successfully use big data to further their missions, whether it’s to precisely target prospective customers or to win elections.

But are we relying too much on big data and large trends to predict future behavior? And what if your organization simply doesn’t have the resources or sample size to conduct these types of experiments?

Small data counters the massive, overwhelming data sets people are hungry for right now. Instead of looking at thousands, or millions, of data points, small data is about the individual. What’s important to them? What do they talk about? How do they organize their day? These small, minute details sometimes hold clues to larger trends or illuminate answers to problems you’ve had trouble solving.

Your community needs small data

As people, we tend to make large, sweeping assumptions about every topic on earth. And that also includes your community and what your customers want.

But how true are the assumptions you’re making? Yes, in order to function, you need to make some general assumptions, but have you backed them up with understanding and certainty? The assumptions you’ve built your foundation on top of could be old, outdated, or just plain off -- and if that’s the case, how are you supposed to grow a successful community that truly resonates with your customers?

In order to build a thriving community, you need to clearly understand both what your company and customers need from the community, then find the sweet spot in the middle that creates value for both. Finding common ground can be a tall order, especially if you only have half of the puzzle.

So, how would you use small data to bridge the two sides? And, importantly, how do you, as a community professional, collect the data?

Connect with your community

Small data can still sound intimidating -- but, unlike big data, it’s easier to wrangle.

Small data is really about connection and empathy. It’s about knowing who your customers are, beyond just how they interact with your product or within your community. No, you don’t need to embed yourself into their lives (a North Carolina-based Lowes Foods, sends employees to live with consumers!). But you should log off your computer and get to know your customers in real life. Otherwise, how can you create a meaningful online community experience if you don’t actually know who your customers are?

Go to their workplaces -- offices, hospitals, construction sites, nonprofits -- and ask questions. What do your customers talk about when they’re at work? These could be good topics of conversation for your community. How do they decorate their desks (do they even have a desk)? Family photos or pictures of nature? These clues can help you see what’s important to them. If their walls are filled with diplomas and certificates, you better start creating badges and ribbons they can add to their online community profiles.

Think of the character Sherlock Holmes -- he’s the master of small data. In the books, he can look at someone and determine so much about them -- where they’ve been, what train they took, what they had for breakfast -- just by observing the smallest details normally overlooked.

You can use small data at any stage of your community’s life cycle. Even if all is well, it could be good to double check your assumptions. Tap into the power of small data before a launch, to make sure you’re on target, or if you don’t see the engagement you need. Who knows what you’ll discover when you head out the door and bring your online community building offline.

Topics: Online Community Management, Member Experience

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