The pharmaceutical industry is getting access to data streams that can profoundly change how they do business. Considering that wearable technology that monitors health metrics can connect to other devices—such as exercise equipment—via the Internet of Things, the possibilities seem endless.

Big Data is great, right? Knowing who did what, when, and how provides a river of information that you can dive into to learn more about your consumer. But as more companies invest in Big Data, we’re starting to see its limitations.

Big Data tells you what happened in the past. Where and how someone bought something last week, or what they watched last night. Predictive analytics, especially machine learning, can leverage Big Data to look forward. But anyone who believed what Big Data predicted about the 2016 presidential election can attest to the fact that predicting behavior just from Big Data is far from foolproof.

Which is why you need Thick Data.

What is Thick Data?

Thick Data is a term used for qualitative data, the kind you get from interviews and ethnographies. Thick Data requires the human touch, real-life observations of actual behavior, and in-depth conversations.

Why is the human touch important? You’ve heard the phrase “correlation is not causation.” That means just because two things are linked by statistics or data, it doesn’t mean one caused the other. As Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlation website points out, if you map line graphs for 2000-2009 of the divorce rate in Maine and per capita U.S. margarine consumption, the graphs are the same. But it takes an actual human being to understand that those two things aren’t connected by cause and effect.

Thick Data answers the questions “Why?” and “What If.” Knowing why consumers do what they do and what they would like to do differently are starting points for effective innovation.

Let’s say you are a pharmaceutical company that wants to differentiate your brand by offering an app to encourage effective management of a chronic disease. The best way to understand how to create a useful product for your consumer is to follow a few of them around and ask questions. That’s what we did when we worked with a major dialysis care provider. The patients told us they had trouble following the renal diet. With restrictions on whole wheat bread, brown rice, and bananas, it was counterintuitive. “Now I can’t eat tomatoes?” one woman said, “how can I know what to eat when I go out with my friends?”

We supplied a branded guide to eating out with easy to understand dos and don’ts. Our simple conversations got us to the “what if”—what if I had a handy guide to foods that I can and can’t eat?

Insights from Thick Data get to emotional and behavioral truths that algorithms can’t detect. Like how much consumers trust you. If a consumer is going to wear a device that transmits information to their healthcare provider or give a pharmaceutical company access to real-world evidence of the efficacy of a new medication, there has to be a high level of trust.

Do Your Consumers Trust You?

One of the ways we get Thick Data is through The Mother Board, a proprietary panel made up of a diverse digital community of mothers. Since moms make 85% of all purchasing decisions in the household, they are a critical demographic for every industry. Moms also provide a significant amount of care for sick loved ones. We asked The Mother Board some questions about their role as caregiver.

When asked about their biggest challenge as caregivers, many moms referenced medication.

“Finding the right medication. The doctors prescribed medication that was antiquated and had my daughter asleep practically for an entire month. She was only 3 months old. At that point it was not good for her to be asleep like that. She now has several developmental delays.” —Chrissi

“Trying to decide whether or not medication is necessary. Worrying that his wheezing will get out of control.” —Cindy

They have ideas about what tools could help them—their “what ifs.” When asked what kind of digital tools these caregivers would love to see, they provided the following ideas.

Tell me if he needs meds or not. I don’t want to give them more than necessary.” —Cindy

“Medicines in different countries which are safe for you. List of ingredients in different languages.” —Maria

“Maybe an app that would put you in touch with others who have the same disease would be helpful.” —Tammy

But when we asked them if they would enter personal data in an app from a pharmaceutical company, many expressed reservations. Some said it depended on the utility of the app, and how secure it was.

“I don’t really trust pharmaceutical companies to be doing stuff with patients in mind, so I feel unsure about this one. I feel that they are out to make (money).” —PJ

When we specifically asked if they would trust a pharmaceutical company as a partner in managing a medical condition, the majority of our small sample said no.

If you are a pharmaceutical marketer who wants to leverage Big Data and build brand loyalty by providing useful information to consumers, what does our slice of Thick Data show you?

First, you probably want to get some Thick Data of your own to confirm if we’re right. Second, this critical demographic of caregivers struggles to use your product effectively, wants help in the form of better tools, but doesn’t trust you enough to use the tools you might provide.

Pharmaceutical marketing is exponentially more complex than marketing aimed at selling potato chips or automobiles or mobile phones. And Big Data for pharma is more complex as well. Consumer concerns about data privacy are more acute when the data in question is about their bodies rather than that pair of shoes they purchased.

But that complexity demands an even clearer commitment to getting to the human insights that only Thick Data can provide.

  • Skyler Mattson

    Skyler is the President of brand experience agency WONGDOODY. She has built her career driving award-winning, transformative work for clients across a range of categories, from consumer packaged goods to technology to entertainment. She is Co-Founder of June Cleaver is Dead, a consultancy within the agency that specializes in brand experiences for moms.

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