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Photo via Tune
Malcolm Gladwell speaking at the Postback conference in Seattle. Photo via Tune

Malcolm Gladwell had some bad news for mobile marketers: Just because you have more data doesn’t mean you’re going to make better decisions.

At Tune’s 2015 Postback conference on Thursday, Gladwell outlined the gap between what we may think we know about audience and the truth. In normal Gladwellian-style, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Outliers offered a contrarian view to the power of big data, tossing out anecdotes that were perfect cocktail chatter, packed with just enough science to be interesting.

Malcolm Gladwell still rocks a Blackberry. Photo via Tune.
Malcolm Gladwell still rocks a Blackberry. Photo via Tune.

“I thought what I would talk about this afternoon…is what data can’t tell us,” Gladwell said. “All of you in this room spend a lot of time pondering the question of what data can tell us, but I want to talk about the limits of that.”

To summarize the problem, Gladwell recounted the study a psychiatrist performed on some peers in which the information provided by the study’s author increased over time.

Giving more data to the experts resulted in almost no change in the probability that they would give the correct diagnosis, the study found.

But when studying their confidence in a diagnosis, more data led to a stronger conviction that the diagnosis was correct, so more data might lead them to make stronger recommendations to patients.

“We’re getting reams and reams and reams of data, and our assumption automatically is that makes us better at solving the problem of the consumer,” said Gladwell. “So what i’m going to try to do today is puncture that confidence.”

Gladwell then presented three problems: the Snapchat problem, the Facebook problem and the Airbnb problem.

With each problem, he took historical examples of how experts were unable to see the benefit and understand the significance of a trend because they were blinded by data.

With Snapchat, Gladwell pointed to the difference between generational and developmental changes in people’s behavior. Developmental changes are part of everyone’s life cycle, while generational changes deeply affect one generation.

For example, horror movies are developmental since “nothing would change” if every horror movie in the world were destroyed. They are a rite of passage for late teens, but don’t change the culture at large.

Rap music, on the other hand, is generational. Rap music affected culture at large, from fashion to race relations.

Gladwell then asked the audience to consider whether Snapchat is generational or developmental. Is it going to affect culture deeply, or is it just another way to communicate and gossip when we’re 17?

The data doesn’t really help answer that question; it’s something only time can tell.

Photo via Tune
Photo via Tune

Gladwell compared the Facebook problem to the rise of the telephone, and how the new form of communication was misunderstood by those who first popularized it.

“If you look at the way the telephone industry markets the telephone…what you discover is that they have no clue what they’ve got, no understanding whatsoever about what’s going on with the phone,” Gladwell said.

The telephone was marketed mostly to urban businessmen and the wealthy for the first 40 years of its existence. The telegraph executives who sold the first telephones didn’t understand the potential of the new communication device. It took until they retired for new blood to come in and comprehend the true potential of the telephone as a tool for gossip and a transformative device in the communication landscape.

“Any kind of new and dramatic innovation takes an awful long time not just to spread but also to be understood,” Gladwell said.”Facebook is at the stage that the telephone was at when they were convinced that the telephone wasn’t for gossiping.”

We’re just starting to see the social network move into hosting media content from historic and modern brands, which may be the next step. Or it may be an attachment to old media that will look as comical in 30 years as restricting telephones to business use does now.

The Airbnb problem is a problem of trusting the data you’re given, Gladwell said.

“Data can tell us about the immediate environment of consumer attitudes,” he added, “but it can’t tell us much about the context in which those attitudes were formed.”

According to various studies cited by Gladwell, millennials have the lowest trust in others that researchers have seen since they started tracking this data.

“At the same time as millennials tell us they don’t trust anyone … the companies that rely on trust are going through the roof,” Gladwell said. “Uber and Airbnb are all about getting into the car of someone you’ve never met and letting someone who you know nothing about stay in your house.

“If it is, in fact, true that millennials don’t trust anyone or anything, then Airbnb and Uber are on really, really shaky ground,” Gladwell said.

Tune CEO Peter Hamilton interviews Malcolm Gladwell
Tune CEO Peter Hamilton interviews Malcolm Gladwell

But he thinks that the success of these companies, in the face of stories around apartment squatters and drivers breaking into houses, shows that the data doesn’t tell the whole story.

The data and the market conflict.

“So which one is right?” Gladwell asked. “The point is you can’t tell that from looking at behavioral patterns or the data.”

At the end of his talk, Tune CEO Peter Hamilton quizzed Gladwell which of his books is his favorite (David and Goliath) and how companies can get better at hiring more women (conduct blind interviews to keep gender out of the equation). He also circled back to millennials and his interest in how large life events, like heading off to college or getting married, change their behavior to more closely resemble earlier generations.

That’s where developmental versus generational changes become apparent.

Throughout his talk, Gladwell reminded the audience that the data doesn’t tell the whole story.

Sometimes, they need to step back and assess problems the data might not catch, or how the data may be painting the wrong picture, or that only time can tell you what the data means.

While mobile devices can generate tons of data, it’s the marketers who are the important step in getting through to consumers.

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