Why We Still Talk to People

We are in the age of Big Data and algorithmic analytics, but for that data to be useful it needs to be meaningful and actionable on a human scale.

Data tells a story. The specifics of that story depend on how well that data reflects real-life, on-the-ground experiences. And sometimes, the one big number to rule them all can obscure more than it reveals.

For example, unemployment in the United States is at or near an all-time low. This suggests that Americans should be in an era of unmatched prosperity.

But other sources of data attuned to the specifics underlying the employment rate complicate that story. The Job Quality Index developed by researchers at Cornell judges the ratio of “high-quality” to “low-quality” jobs in the U.S.[i] The current ratio is 81, meaning there are 81 high-quality jobs for every 100 jobs of lower quality. This ratio has been worsening over time.

A recent study from the Brookings Institution adds more depth to the story, finding that 44% of the overall workforce of 18–64-year-olds are in jobs that pay less than $18,000 a year. Further, a recent Gallup study shows that 60% of U.S. workers describe their jobs as either mediocre (44%) or bad (16%).

Together, these data points help surround the question to bring that one big-data point—the unemployment rate—down to human scale. People do have jobs, but they aren’t necessarily good ones that help them get ahead in life.

These studies of employment show how important it is to understand the direct experience of individuals, in order to see the whole picture.

Good research examines what the data means on a human scale. At Willow, we make sure to use tools that uncover both the “what,” and the “why” within the data. Clients often have data from their operations that identify the existence of an issue (the “what”), but that data isn’t well-equipped to determine why the problem is occurring.

For example, we were retained by a prominent local nonprofit organization who was happy with how things were going from a big-picture perspective. But as they looked toward future growth, they realized they weren’t sure how much people knew about the full scope of their activities.

Put simply, they needed to know: “How much do people actually know about our organization, and what do they think of us?”

We went straight to the community and learned that, while general awareness was high, specific knowledge of the work the non-profit makes possible was not nearly as widespread.

At the same time, talking to the community revealed that, once they learned more, people were both surprised and impressed by the non-profit’s work. Respondents also told us that the organization was prioritizing the right issues and living the values the community believed in.

The research insights provided a clear path forward for our client’s communication strategy: Get the word out about the specific good works the non-profit is already doing.

And, because we found that our client’s work strongly aligned with community values and priorities, the research allowed the non-profit organization to take steps to strengthen its ties to the community—creating a virtuous circle where the organization’s programs reflect community wishes, which in turn drives more interest and more donations, which allows for even more support for the community over time.

This is why we still talk to people. Because some questions can only be answered by going directly to the source.

For more on this project, see our case study: “When our client wanted to measure brand awareness, but got so much more.”

[i] A “high-quality” job is defined as one that pays above the weekly wage mean, currently at $919 (or $47,788 annually), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/wkyeng.pdf

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