One can barely walk into a professional circle without running into references to big data these days. The promise of big data is an almost prophetic one. Lying in all those 1s and 0s was all the information required to make pin-point predictions about customer behavior. But something was wrong: Somehow, big data wasn’t working the way it was envisioned.

As companies throughout the world have found out, despite its hugeness, big data isn’t doing what it is supposed to do: connect people with brands. It went to great lengths delving into the how and what, but sorely misses out on the why of it all.

This is where thick data steps in.

While big data is useful for quantifying human behavior, it struggles to understand its quality, or rather, its motivations. Combining big data analytics with anthropological and ethnographic models can yield significantly more accurate insights into human behavior than either one of them alone ever could result in.

Samsung’s experience with thick data analysis in early 2000 proved this succinctly. Back then, a Samsung TV looked like any other, and company executives felt there was an opportunity lurking somewhere. They were finding it hard to understand what the TV meant to a modern day consumer, particularly in the context of their homes.

Samsung commissioned a study which included a strong anthropological component to understand if there was a missing opportunity. After reviewing hundreds of interviews, videos and other studies, they discovered that most consumers were not even treating a TV as an electronic. To them, a TV was part of their furniture which needed to blend in with the room.

One respondent actually hid the TV in the corner of the room because he did not like the way it looked, while another wanted his TV to have a "timeless" appearance.

Samsung went back to the drawing board and redesigned their TV sets. They hid the speakers and any other distracting feature so that their TVs could look good in a modern living room. Their solution saw immediate success as it fused form and function like never before.

Netflix has gone so far as to say that geography, age and gender are "garbage" for predicting what an audience might like to watch! They instead like to group their consumers into clusters with common tastes. Drawing from sociology and psychology, Netflix believes that variations between individuals in a population can be far greater than those between different populations.

For instance, if they were to recommend options to a person with interest in science fiction, they were better off leveraging their knowledge of what sci-fi fans generally like regardless of where they were situated rather than what people of that age, gender or geography like.

They were proven right too. Wired revealed 90% of Netflix's anime content was streamed to users outside of Japan.

The confidence brands small and big alike are showing towards big data is understandable. As humans, we are naturally wired to adopt trends and practices which impart a sense of certainty, which was what big data was going to provide. While it has delivered on volume, it lacks depth of insight which is also crucial for gaining a comprehensive picture of the situation.

The qualitative aspect of data-- the stories, the people and the experiences-- gives decision makers something that big data simply cannot: the motivation to act. The stories that thick data delves in come with an emotional context which paired with the analytical prowess of big data can yield a far more confident decision.

At MW, we understand this connection better than anyone. By bringing together the art and science of data analytics, we provide you with unprecedented insights into your customer base so that you can create strategies that are real-world ready.