Oddballs, Outliers, and Social (and Marketing) Change


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I have been doing quantitative research for more years than I like to admit. I’ve seen research trends come and go. I’ve seen analytical models rise and fall in popularity. I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth on the virtues of qualitative vs. quantitative research techniques and methods.

Through all this, several immutable truths remain. Every researcher knows them.

– Too small a sample gives unreliable results. If the number of people interviewed, surveyed, studied, or examined do not represent a statistically significant sample of the population, market segment, or “persona” you are interested in, don’t bet the company on it.

– Well crafted qualitative research – focus groups, interviews, etc. – can often yield unexpected insights. But the significance of the insights should be tested quantitatively.

Okay, so now we are all on the same page about statistical significance.

But let’s turn the page for a moment and consider the statistically insignificant: the outliers and oddball data buried in every study.

Most people make decisions in their lives that they feel (or hope) are in their own best interest. Each of these decisions is personal and idiosyncratic. As more and more people make similar decisions, each for his own reasons, a trend emerges. Some trends grow, and some trends die. The trend’s vitality depends directly on those individual decisions made (or not made) time and time again.

These trends inevitably start small and some remain small or disappear; and some will grow. But all these early trends (or trends-to-be) are generally statistically insignificant. They represent outliers in the data that we regularly come across while doing market research. And we routinely set them aside as of no value.

But is that so? Maybe. Maybe not.

It’s become fashionable to talk about “influencers,” “thought leaders,” “trend setters,” and “early adopters.” But the iPad and SmartPhones have become ubiquitous because millions of people have, individually, found them fun and useful. Celebrity endorsements, on the other hand, are having a measurably decreased influence on politics, where they used to be far more important.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that “influencers,” et al. are important. Yet their importance is with fads and fashions, not with sustainable long-term trends. Their importance is in sales. It is not in strategic planning and marketing.

I would suggest, instead, that it is the outliers and the oddball data that are the true strategic trend indicators.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that we invest time and energy in product/service development efforts based on oddball data.

Rather, I am suggesting that we develop a new sensitivity to the statistically insignificant. That we track the outliers over time and see if their numbers do, indeed, increase. And if they do, we need to pay attention to them as the possible harbingers of an emerging social and marketing trend.

The companies that discern trends first – and develop ways to capitalize on those trends – are the market winners in the revenue sweepstakes.

The smart CMO will pay attention to the oddballs and outliers. They have an important role to play in future marketplace success.

Emily R. Coleman
Dr. Emily R. Coleman is President of Competitive Advantage Marketing, Inc., a firm that specializes in helping companies expand their reach and revenues through strategy and implementation. Dr. Coleman has more than 30 years of hands-on executive management experience working with companies, from Fortune 500 firms to entrepreneurial enterprises. Dr. Coleman's expertise extends from the integration of corporate-wide marketing operations and communications to the development and implementation of strategy into product development and branding.


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