Marketers are positively drowning in data. You don't need to take my word for it: A recent survey of some 1,700 chief marketing officers worldwide by IBM Consulting said marketers are being in some ways paralyzed by the reams of research they're being provided. 

Aside from eye strain, migraine headaches, and other occasional physical side effects, the mounds of data are impairing, if not disabling, the one quality great marketers (and entrepreneurs for that matter) depend on: their gut instinct.

Indeed, Christa Carone, Xerox's chief marketing officer, recently opined, "I fear that marketers' access to and obsession with measuring everything takes away from the business of real marketing. It's impossible to measure squishier, meaningful intangibles, such as human emotions, personal connection, and the occasional 'ahhh' moment. Those things often come with a marketer's intuition and they deliver big time.”  

I agree with Ms. Carone. It's important not just to collect data, but to feel what your audience is feeling on a personal level: as humans, rather than data points in a report. That's why my team has begun asking the "why" question whenever we have the opportunity to go beyond a client's market research data. The latter is superb for answering the who, what, when and where questions necessary to sell a product, service or organization. But, data fails miserably when it comes to providing answers to the why and how questions. Stated simply, market research disconnects marketers from the human contact that is so crucial to triggering an executive's gut instincts and eliciting an ahhh.

Here are three recent examples of how we've used the why question to glean insights left unearthed by the clients' market research:

  • A major technology corporation conducted quarterly surveys of its employees that told them everything except why their workers weren't engaging with the organization's internal communications. By sitting alongside a handful of employees at different levels and from different business units, we found out why. We learned that they were already overwhelmed with information from internal and external sources. And we could see first-hand, as they worked in real time, that there was no space on their computer screens for any more input. How, we asked, can internal information become a must-read? Easy, they responded, explain how the company can help us do a better job, get a raise and promotion, and we'll find the space. We've since retrofitted the employee communications and workers are now engaging.
  • A professional services firm was trying to connect better with chief financial officers. Thanks to decks upon decks of research, they knew all there was to know about the world of a CFO, except how to engage with him (Note: more than 90 percent of the CFOs in the client's target base are male). Empowered to speak to a number of CFOs for an hour each, we asked a series of why questions. Why you do ignore our client's thought leadership? Why do you instead go to certain conferences to learn what's next and make connections? And, why are you having so much difficulty making connections at those conferences? The answer to the final question produced one of many ahhh moments for us and our clients. CFOs were too busy to connect with other CFOs in advance of the conferences they attended. If our client could become, in effect, an eHarmony for CFOs, they'd provide a clear value-added benefit that would set them apart from competitors. Guess who is now setting meetings for CFOs?

  • A financial services firm in a highly competitive, highly commoditized industry was desperately trying to appear hip and relevant to the college and university students it needed to recruit for future growth. Yet, despite endless surveys and on-campus seminars, no apparent differentiator bubbled to the surface. So we took the time to follow a mix of undergrads and graduate students from our client's target schools on their online job search journeys, as they made various decisions about a future employer. At each step, we asked why they visited a particular chat room, web site or blogger. When they finally arrived at our client's site and then exited just as quickly, we again asked why. "Simple," one female student told us. "I'm a triathlete and am worried the 24x7 nature of your client's business will prevent me from pursuing my passion." Market research had told our client that work-life balance was a big concern for incoming employees. They thought they had adequately addressed it online. But as the recruitee told us, "I saw a lot about work, but not much about life." We confirmed that oversight when we analyzed their online presence. As are result, our client not only switched the mix, but, critically, told one work-life balance story through the eyes of actual triathletes working at the firm.

Nothing is more challenging in today's frenetic workplace than pausing to put yourself in the shoes of your audiences so you can find out why they do, or don't, engage with your product, service or organization. But, I'd argue it's never been more important to find the time to ask the why and how questions. If you do, I guarantee you’ll be the one emitting the next ahhh.