Keeping a pulse on what the market really wants

Now that the new political reality is setting in, commentators are turning their attention to the learnings of election season.

Perhaps the biggest learning of all is the level of disconnect between what the media, pollsters and so-called experts thought they knew about the American voting public.

For those of us in the business of helping brands understand and connect with target audiences, the electoral disconnect sounds a warning about relying on data-driven means of tapping into likes and dislikes.

Today I want to look at what we can learn from the election season, and consider the steps that businesses and communications professionals can take to keep their finger on the pulse of what America wants.

The fallacy of data-driven market research

At the outset of the election (and even in its closing days), the Clinton campaign believed the odds were in their favor, and the media supported this view – assumptions that were all based on extensive poll data and research.

In the past, these data-driven campaign predictions have proved remarkably accurate and there seemed no reason to doubt them now.

In fact, there is a whole industry predicated around the power of market research and its ability to predict what kind of coffee a 25-year-old Wisconsin woman likes to drink on a Friday morning. Or how the average 40-year-old man working in finance consumes his daily news. And what the likely political opinion of a blue-collar worker in Michigan is.

This year, we learned that so-called data-driven predictions have their limitations and in some cases, can be wholly inaccurate.

In an article by Vox’s Ezra Klein, the simple reason Hillary Clinton didn’t run a different campaign was because she thought she was winning. Based on pollster-supported assumptions, Clinton made the now clear mistake of relying on ‘safe’ electoral states such as Wisconsin and doing little on the ground in these states as a result. Her team underestimated the level of discontent in blue-collar voters who traditionally vote Democrat, and in turn failed to make their concerns a cornerstone of her campaign.

Perhaps if Clinton had spent more time face-to-face with these voters, she and her campaign team would have recognized the weakness in the data firsthand. They would have seen the struggle many were facing and the anger with the status quo.

In his own words, President Obama said he won Iowa not because the research indicated he would, but because he spent “87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry”.

The key learning here is that data and market research should not be viewed in isolation – other checks and balances much be in place to determine the accuracy of that data, namely human interaction. Businesses should take this learning to heart. Customers are not data – they are real people, spending hard-earned money on your wares. Poor customer service and poor quality products all leave a bitter taste, and in today’s world customers have plenty of choice.

Taking the time to listen

Spend time with your customers, ask probing questions, be curious and actively listen to their opinions – and use social media for the great advantage it offers. Check out what your customers are saying, their likes, dislikes, what you could do better. In the age of internet trolls, it is all too easy to dismiss the ramblings of disgruntled commentators, but for some customers – grounded airline passengers for example – they feel it is their only forum when a business fails to take their complaints seriously.

Another factor that emerged in this election was the number of undecided voters. Enthusiasm for candidates varied dramatically based on current events, their behavior in a given moment, as well as traditional and social media influence.

For businesses, this a reminder to not assume customer loyalty is forever and customers should never be taken for granted. Consumers have endless choice and a series of missteps by a brand can easily result in falling out of favor – look at uphill battles faced by once hot brands like Chipotle, Lululemon and Abercrombie & Fitch right now, to name but a few.

Human preference, brand loyalty, and consumer choice is not an exact science. Market research, analytics on consumer patterns, credit card histories – these can all point to customer preferences and likely behaviors, but they are no substitute for listening directly to that customer, and taking the time to understand what matters to them.

That is how candidates break through with voters. And this is how businesses break through with customers.