Does Size Really Matter?

Sample size is a fixation in research. We fret about it, argue over it, and generally have very little to back up the relevance we ascribe to it. Rather than thinking about the outcomes and goals, we get hung up on the n, sometimesusing it as a weapon to bolster a preconceived belief rather than identifying points of interest. And when thinking about online communities and panels, even when the focus is qualitative research, this fixation becomes almost manic. So does size really matter?

The anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar focuses on the number 150. Dunber had the idea that as humans we can only comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships before intimacy and connection is lost. Whether online or off, 150 is about all we can really handle and still have meaningful exchanges.

Over the years I have managed communities as small as a dozen to as large as several thousand. Each has been successful in its own way, because at the center of these samples is what we really want and are striving for – a community, meaning the people involved all have a shared interest or experience. That said, the ranges produce very different results. That isn’t bad, but it does mean you have to think very carefully about what you want from your community.

The primary thing to consider is quality first over quantity. After all, you only get out as much as you put into it, so we should strive to make our communities more dynamic, interactive, stimulating, and engaging. That simple truth is what leads to the best insights – the kinds of insights that drive change. There are exceptions to the quality over quantity argument – it’s called doing a quantitative study. If you need to conduct quantitative research with your community then of course you are going to need to have a larger sample. Additionally, you may also need to ensure that you have sufficient numbers of sub-groups or segments accounted for too. But on the whole, the strength of an online community lies in the qualitative richness that emerges as members become closer, share more, and engage regularly.

Having a larger community this doesn’t mean that you have to lose the human touch / connection with your members and it has become the norm for us to invite sub-groups or segments to take part in communities of smaller size. The intention is to foster discussion, debate, and innovation. It is about looking at the edges of the bell curve rather than at its center.

Whether as a sub-group or as part of the general population, focusing on a smaller sample ensures that we don’t lose sight of those things that drive strong community connections purely for the sake of hitting a number. Regardless of the size it is a best practice to be appreciative of your members by showing them you are listening, to encourage and facilitate discussion, and most importantly to show them that we value them. That’s exceedingly difficult to do with hundreds or thousands of people.


Where The Data Beasts Lie

Since the mid-nineties, the story about IT has been that the “New Information Economy” would give way to vast gains in productivity and creativity. We’ve been told that if we simply implement ERP, CRM, etc., our marketing efforts would be smarter and more efficient. But after 20+ years that is not exactly the case.

The benefits of massive IT implementation and big data are elusive. We have experienced increased efficiency, but far less than was promised us. We are certainly nowhere near the hyper-targeted, data-fueled industry we were told we would become. Take Amazon, for example. Amazon has had more than thirty years to learn our preferences and fine-tune its recommendation engine. Yet it still recommends products that we have just bought and, hence, no longer need and even suggests items to buy that are already in our shopping carts. We’ve been told that the more data a company amasses, the better it will be at targeting consumers. But is this really the case? Think about the old story of the disruptor, Netflix, and the fallen giant, Blockbuster – wasn’t that really one of supply and demand and a better distribution model? Or did we all really watch Netflix because of suggestions generated by its AI, big data, and machine learning? I’m guessing not. Amazon may be an excellent distribution company, but from any human consumer perspective, its recommendation algorithms are deeply flawed.

I can’t help but wonder if this is because big data analytics aren’t generating the insights needed to target consumers any better than what TV advertising and newspapers have always done. Billions of dollars have moved from offline to online advertising, but, in the offices of big advertisers, there is a sinking feeling that the data-fueled Facebook or Google advertising model isn’t going to help them as much as they had hoped.

Part of the marketing model of information technology is that the next big thing is always around the corner. These days, that means deep learning and AI. We’re being told that machine learning is going to revolutionize and disrupt everything as we know it and spur amazing insights that lead to brilliant creative work. You know, just the way big data was meant to just a few years ago. But before this hype-cycle takes off again, maybe it’s time to take a step back and ask ourselves if there’s a better way. What makes these technologies that much different from those of the past? Will they truly stimulate unprecedented insight into what motivates people? Or is this just another round of hype that will distract us from real matters of human importance?

Creating American Wine Culture

 “Wine is sunlight, held together by water”, Galileo Galilei. It is a favorite quote of mine, a beautiful turn of phrase, and for me, an absolute poetic truth. Wine factors into my life in subtle and less than subtle ways. As winter approaches, I settle into my nightly routine with a glass of something rich, heavy, and red – something that holds a bit of foreboding, something dark, something refined. Every spring, my attention turns to luscious, soft, pink rosés. They are vibrant, delicate, and sensual. Wine is more than a drink, it is a touch of poetry in a glass that grounds the season and establishes a dining pattern for myself and my family, though they probably don’t really know the connection between my wine habits and what I tend to cook. But as an American, I know that am an exception to the rule in this regard.

In per capita wine consumption globally, the United States ranks 39th. That’s one spot behind Bulgaria. We even trail Iceland, Canada and Estonia (34, 33 and 32). But while the US is 39th in per capita consumption, we rank 4th in wine production. In addition to sheer scale, American winemakers produce some of the best wine on earth. Wine better, cheaper, and more available in the US than it ever has been. And yet, 38 countries enjoy more wine per person than we do. But to my mind this isn’t discouraging, it’s exciting. Very, very exciting.

People who gravitate to wine imagine that everyone has at least a few bottles on hand, this isn’t the norm everywhere in the country. And looking at the statistics it would be easy to assume that wine is not as much a part of our culture of food and drink. Our country’s winemaking history dates to the arrival of British settlers in New England and the Spanish settlement of the Southwest. When Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida in 1513, he was followed by Spanish and French Huguenot settlers who began making wine with the native American grape, Muscadine, as early as 1565. So wine is quintessential to our history. But looking back on the timeline of wine production in the US and it’s loss of ground to other alcoholic beverages, we are in something of a rebound. That said there are wineries in every state now, from Alaska to Florida. It’s no longer a matter of Napa.

If we contextualize the actual per capita amounts of wine we drink, it comes out to about 3 gallons of wine per year, or about a bottle a month. The French drink 15.3 gallons a year. So there is clearly room to grow. But wine is part of French culture – it’s part of the national identity (along with Luxembourg, Argentina, Austria, etc.). The question is, how do we make it part of ours in the US?

A study of 2,000 wine drinkers showed that the average Americans will only start to fully appreciate a good bottle of vino toward the tail end of their 20s, but how they get into it, and what they prefer, varies greatly. But the most common way Americans get into wine is from a friend, with 30% reporting that’s how they originally tried it. One in five discovered it on their own, and 17% were drawn into wine by a partner. So relationships tend to be the dominant entry point.

The question is, can you take those simple introductions into a craft and turn them into something bigger? Can you create a rite of passage, a “wine awakening”? Imagine travel packages specifically targeting the expert and apprentice, so to speak, that makes the process smooth, unintimidating, and transformative. Or fostering a practice (e.g. a holiday) that celebrates a person’s graduation from the days of rum and coke and sloppy Saturday nights into a world of refinement and reflection. Or meal prep delivery services that include wines and points of discussion. The point is, there is an opportunity to turn wine from a mysterious consumable to a cultural symbol.  

The good news is that wine is on the rise. The upward trend for wine consumption in America is positive, and expected to keep growing at a small but steady rate of around 2% to 3 % per year. Consumers are finding more reasons to “celebrate” with a bottle of wine or drinking more wine when a bottle is opened, and in some cases doing both. But the process is slow and unlike other drinks, wine has yet to become an American cultural standard. It is still mysterious, threatening, and perhaps a touch too sophisticated in the minds of some. But with mystery comes curiosity. With threat comes excitement. With sophistication comes transformation. Those all represent powerful tools for creative problem solvers.

Triangulation: Validating Research and Strategy

One of the central problems we run into when discussing research finds, particularly when we’re using those finding to give strategic direction, is having the research’s validity called into question. I’ve talked over the years a fair amount about the idea of triangulation, but I’ve rarely summed up what it means. Here’s my take in a nutshell. Validity refers to whether the findings of a study are true in the sense that findings accurately reflect the situation and are supported by evidence. Triangulation is used by qualitative researchers in particular to check and establish validity in their studies by analyzing a research question from multiple perspectives. The goal of triangulation isn’t to arrive at consistency across data sources or approaches since inconsistencies may be likely point to opportunities to uncover deeper meaning in the data. In other words, points of contradiction signal things we can leverage. The point of triangulation is to start to make sense of complexity and to operationalize how we uncover insights. So what do I mean by triangulation? That’s easiest to understand in terms of triangulation types:

  1. Data triangulation
  2. Theory triangulation
  3. Methodological triangulation
  4. Environmental triangulation

Data triangulation involves using different sources of information in order to increase the validity of a study. These sources are likely to be stakeholders in a project – participants, other researchers, employees, community members, etc. I the case of studying fast food and family meals, for example, the research process would start by identifying the stakeholder groups such as parents, children, cooks, cashiers, coaches, etc. Participant observation could be conducted with each of these groups to gain insight into their practices, habits, and beliefs. Or, more likely, concessions are made and in-depth interviewing takes place with a smaller set of stakeholders. During the team analysis stage, observations are compared to determine areas of agreement as well as areas of divergence. This type of triangulation, is perhaps the most popular because it is the easiest and quickest to implement..

Theory triangulation involves the use of multiple perspectives to interpret a single set of data. This method typically entails using sources outside of a particular field of study. One popular approach is to bring together people from different disciplines. For example, a team looking into grocery shopping habits might have people trained in research at its core, but it might also bring in people with backgrounds in theater or storytelling because shopping is increasingly a performative act. These individuals from different disciplines or positions bring different perspectives. Therefore if each evaluator from the different disciplines interprets the information in the same way, then validity is established.

Methodological triangulation involves the use of multiple qualitative and/or quantitative methods to study the topic. For example, results from surveys, focus groups, and interviews are compared to see if similar results are being found. If the conclusions from each of the methods are the same, then validity is established. If contradictions are found, then there is either a flaw or an area to dig into in more depth.

For example, suppose a researcher is conducting a case study of a video gaming to determine how best to position a brand. A researcher would use interviewing, observation, document analysis, or any other feasible method to assess gaming habits. In addition, a researcher could also survey participants, people watching Twitch, and game developers as a quantitative strategy. If the findings from all of the methods draw the same or similar conclusions, then validity has been established.

Environmental triangulation involves the use of different locations, settings, season, and other factors related to the environment in which the study took place. The key is identifying which environmental factors, if any, might influence the information that is received during the study. These environmental factors are changed to see if the findings are the same across settings. For example, suppose a research team wants to evaluate how people use gym memberships in order to determine when and how best to market to potential new members. If the evaluation occurs during the holiday season, there may be different results because people are too busy to get in workouts or look into memberships. In order to triangulate the data, a researcher would need to evaluate fitness habits throughout the year in order to gather true and certain information on behavior changes and the reasons driving them.

Benefits and Problems. The benefits of triangulation are that it increasing confidence in research data, creating innovative ways of understanding a phenomenon, revealing unique findings, challenging or integrating theories, and providing a clearer understanding of the problem. That leads to new opportunities, richer marketing and advertising strategies, and reduced risk. On the downside, the primary disadvantage of triangulation is that it can be time consuming. Collecting and sifting through more data requires greater planning, resources, and commitment. Triangulation is a useful in research and the development of solid marketing strategies, but it’s absolutely necessary to weigh the advantages and disadvantages before putting it into practices.

Planning Basic Field Observation

When I’m sent to a setting, be it a country I’ve never visited before, be it digging through someone’s cupboard, watching them plan their next vacation, or cooking dinner with a family I’ve never met, one of the first things I do is think through how I will make sense of the environment and how to align what I see and experience with what participants tell me. Unfortunately, a fair amount of what gets sold as ethnography is in fact interviewing in a person’s home, office, or car. We talk, they talk, and then we take those utterances and ascribe a sense of meaning that is often taken as gospel. We may take note of the surrounding, but we frequently overlook applying the same methodological rigor to the observation process that we do the interview.

Observation means watching and listening to people and trying to form some ideas about how the physical environment shapes their actions, beliefs, behavior, knowledge, and interactions. That’s a lot to take in. So it’s not enough simply to observe people, you need a plan for operationalizing what you take in and the patience to let you and your team make sense of what unfolds. We spend a lot of time talking about context in this industry, but we can be lax in using good models and social theories to understand what contexts are really at play. So what does that look like? It varies by project, budget, timeline, and need, of course, but there are some basic rule that apply across the board:

  1. Set primary focus: It’s easy to be overwhelmed if you’re trying to take in every action and every element of fieldwork, so determining the primary focus of observation up front helps minimize overload. One of the simplest steps is to determine what you hope to get from interviewing and identify gaps. This helps you identify what area of observation is most important to the success of the project. For example, if you’re talking with families about how they handle dinner on busy days, the key point of observational discovery may center on mobile eating, making the car or minivan the focal point.  
  2. Identify key stakeholders: How we make decisions and how we negotiate power are often different from what we believe. Prior to entering the field it helps to identify as many stakeholders as possible and begin thinking about how their actions in context may corroborate or contradict what others have to say. Nurses, for example, often play a much bigger role in medical treatment and patient compliance than doctors. Thinking about the strategies and tactics they employ to get a job done in relation to the broader organizational structure helps pin down observational “must haves” prior to entering the field.   
  3. Thinking through variables: Until you’re actually in the field it can be difficult to speculate about what might take place in a given context, but doing so reduces time and improves collaboration between team members. It’s helpful to think through things like workflow models (present and future), communication patterns, deviations from protocol, and situational awareness as a team. Think about how people shop in a grocery. It is often a shared activity with different members of a household assigned unofficial tasks – thinking through who manages the process, how they communicate when separated, how they use aisles as a means of wayfinding, etc. allows the team to identify reference points before the shopping process begins.
  4. Develop supporting materials: Most people have a field guide and a plan for capturing interview field notes, but observations often find themselves relegated to the margins Developing a systematic observation sheet in critical to capturing good observational data. There is no set method since each project has specific parameters it must meet, but they should typically include timestamp, pre-defined categories, a section for descriptive notes, space for mapping, a section for artifacts, a section for activities. For example, if you’re mapping how people think about bathrooms in their homes, an observation book might be designed to document cleanliness, location in the home in relation to other rooms, amounts and types of decoration, etc. The point is to have a systematic tool that team members can use to exchange information.

Food, Sex, Guilt: How Marketing What We Eat Needs to Change

Eating has always been closely linked with courtship. All species, including our own, seem to be involved in this mating gamble with food as the bait. Equally, food and sex are generally closely linked. Biologically, they are physically linked in the limbic system of the brain, which controls emotional activity. Many of the words we use to describe sexuality and food are similar—both areas of experience deal with different textures, tastes, and smells. It is not surprising that we link food and sex. Good food is little different than good sex.

Here’s an example of where the two, food and sex, intertwine – dating. The choice of setting for food and courtship is as important as the food itself. There is a tendency to move gradually (or swiftly as the case may be) from the public to the private. For modern urban couples, dates usually begin in a crowded public place such as a bar or lower-key restaurant. On the “second date,” they may move to a more intimate restaurant. This stage may be prolonged, but at some point (date three, four, etc.) the “your place or mine” issue arises, with, researchers have found, her place being generally preferred. At this stage she is supposed to supply a meal – usually a “romantic” candlelight dinner – thus demonstrating her abilities as a cook and hostess. Of course, for non-heterosexual couples the gender rules don’t apply directly, but the process unfolds in much the same way: public space, intimate space, private space. Breakfast follows the consummation, often cooked by the host since it’s her/his kitchen, but with the more egalitarian or romantically inclined, that act of cooking falls to the “guest”.  While this is a fairly mechanical breakdown, the point is that food is a prelude to sex, part a symbolic dance. It is increasingly intimate and sensual. And this level of interconnectedness between food and sex touches on everything from food categories (chocolate as an aphrodisiac, etc.) to holidays to fetishes.

What’s most interesting, however, is that it is the very sensuality of eating that spurs the rejection of food pleasures in more conservative circles. And that conflict between puritanism and sensuality shapes how we talk about, advertise, and market food. Food is fuel, sex is procreation, and pleasure is something not to be entirely trusted. The pleasures we derive from sex and food are filtered through an elaborate set of internal conflicts competing against our most basic drives – cultural norms, dogma, and historical context remind us that the sensuality of sex and food are tinged with the animalistic, the impure.  We finish an extraordinary meal, give a great exhale (smoke a cigarette after sex), and then say, “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” or “why did I eat that?”. In other words, we taint those things from which we derive the simplest of joys. That seems exceeding strange. Mark Twain noted the bizarre anti-eroticism of Christianity when he considered heaven, though the observations can be applied across many religions, cultures, and times:

“[Man] has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race . . . sexual intercourse! It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!”

Sex is deemed “good” when it conforms to rather rigid restriction that often appear to be centered on limiting or acknowledging pleasure. That same rigidity and focus on restriction and/or guilt carries over to what we eat. Food taboos are known from virtually all human societies. Most religions declare certain food items fit and others unfit for human consumption. And religions are by no means the only institutions to champion this approach to food and sex; medical doctors, governments, etc. have all participated in some of these same practices.

As an example, The Catholic Church, the dominant shaper of many norms in the formation of Western civilization, teaches that all people are obliged by God to perform some penance for their sins, and that these acts of penance are both personal and corporeal. The purpose of fasting is spiritual focus, self-discipline, imitation of Christ, and performing penance. Deprivation is meaningless unless it is joined with a spiritual fast from sin. St. Basil gives the following exhortation regarding fasting:

“Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.”

Similarly, when it comes to sex, among what are considered sins gravely contrary to chastity, are masturbation, fornication, pornography, homosexuality, and contraception. And these sorts of restrictions are not limited to one faith – comparable restrictions, whether religious or secular, appear in all cultures. Whether you’re a believer or not, and I certainly have neither the desire nor the right to pass judgement on anyone’s faith, the point is that humans have a long tradition of censuring behavior, both carnal and epicurean. And those cultural positions are demonstrated in any number of subconscious marketing and advertising manifestations.

Dietary rules and regulations often govern particular phases of the human life cycle and may be associated with special events such as menstrual period, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and in traditional societies preparation for the hunt, battle, wedding, funeral, etc. But in Western society of the last millennia, the central focus seems to be either protecting us from ourselves or playing off of the guilt we’re taught to embrace over taking pleasure in eating.

Protection: First off, this is not meant as a condemnation of regulations. Quite the contrary. Consider laws requiring food container labels or restaurant menus to include nutritional information. First, these laws don’t “protect us from ourselves” in the sense that they don’t forbid us from buying or eating certain items. It doesn’t even require us to read the nutritional information. It only requires that the information be available so we have the option of making informed choices. Foods with health consequences lead to medical resources being used for diseases that could have been prevented, causing society as a whole to spend more money on medical care. So there is an obvious benefit to reminding people that there are consequences to their actions, be it eating or having sex. No, what I am talk about is how we often rationalize food, or demonize it, and thus project a sense of  moral judgement onto what we consume that is rooted in historical and cultural prudishness. If  what we eat and how we have sex are anything but simply pragmatic, we aren’t just sinning, we’re endangering our very lives.

Take bacon for example. Bacon tastes delicious. It is smoky, fatty, and comforting. But we’re also reminded on a regular basis that it will kill you. One bite and you have placed one foot in the grave. And so we turn to other foodstuffs as a substitute, such as turkey bacon. Understand, I have no problem with turkey bacon, but I am intrigued by the fact that it isn’t sold on its own merit. Turkey bacon is, in fact, rather tasty. When it comes to how it’s marketed it is placed in opposition to traditional bacon, offering to prolong our lives and indirectly reminding us that eating traditional bacon is morally ambiguous at best, morally bankrupt at worst. We are protected from the decay of civilization and our hedonistic, self-destructive ways by choosing the alternative. The same can be said for fat-free yogurt, light beer, margarine, or vegan cheese (such as it is). Don’t get me wrong, I have no qualms with promoting a healthy alternative and I’m not passing judgement on any of these foods, but I am suggesting that using the motif of protection from ourselves is highly suspect.

Now, compare it to how we address sex. Abstinence is frequently the only way to ensure avoiding the fires of hell, sex for the simple joy of it is secondary to its role as an expression of the will of God, etc. Ultimately, the restrictions we place on sex are there, we’re frequently told, to protect us from a wide range negative outcomes and in doing so, we instill a deep sense that its sensuality (as with food) is dangerous and morally suspect. All of this leads to the second major point. Namely, imparting a deeply ingrained sense of guilt.

Guilt: The less utilitarian a food is, the more we market it in terms of indulgence. Food becomes a dirty secret. There’s something slightly perverse to enjoying that bite of chocolate or that butter spread across your toast. The same holds true for how we approach our sexuality – if it appears as something other than utilitarian it is rife with sin. It’s something to be hidden away and consumed or done when no one is looking. And when we combine sexuality and food in advertising and marketing (there are countless examples of it), we inevitably portray the connection as something to be hidden behind closed doors, something kinky.

The result is a rather unhealthy approach to food and sex. The subtext we see and are taught is that there’s something fundamentally wrong in taking pleasure in these things, be it eating a cheeseburger or getting it on for the sheer pleasure of it. From a marketing and advertising standpoint, talking about indulgence certainly works, but its sustainability is questionable. Particularly in light of the openness and inclusive nature of younger generations. For them, guilt is not the control mechanism it once was.

Changes Underway: Not surprisingly, there is a shift underway, where marketers are embracing the pleasure of food for its own sake. Companies like Fatworks, makers of high-quality fats for cooking have embraced flavor and texture as their key selling points. Shatto Milk has put quality, flavor, and ties to the local community above discussions of calcium, osteoporosis, or conversely, the evils of dairy. There is no sense of guilt, but rather an acknowledgement that the food we eat gives us pleasure. And that’s something we should be happy about.

Food and sex are two of the most basic drives for animal behavior. Creatures need food to sustain themselves and they need to continue the species—or blow off a little hormonal steam. Does sex sell? The short answer is yes, sex sells. We as humans crave sex. And, while I don’t think all of us constantly walk around fantasizing over what we can fornicate with next, research says otherwise, at least in part. As it turns out, how we think about food follows a very similar pattern. Advertising and marketing that highlight the sensual, near-sexual nature of food sells. The point here is not to analyze sexual advertising, that’s a topic for another day. Rather, the point is to ask whether or not marketing will need to focus more on the positive associations we have with sex and food going forward. I am inclined to think that our relationships with food and sex will become less guilty and less puritanical in the coming years. How we advertise and market will need to follow suit.

When Big Data Nearly Killed the Black Forest

In every aspect of business right now, companies collect data until they see a pattern that appears statistically significant, and then they use that tightly selected data to drive decisions. The problem is, we assume that the data has merit, that it is objective, and that it holds the answers that will change the way business is done. Data is anything but objective because there are always humans involved. Critics have come to call the problem p-hacking and the practice uses a quiver of little methodological tricks that can inflate the statistical significance of a finding:

  • Conducting analyses midway through experiments to decide whether to continue collecting data
  • Recording many response variables and deciding which to report post analysis
  • Deciding whether to include or drop outliers post analyses
  • Excluding, combining, or splitting treatment groups post analysis
  • Including or excluding covariates post analysis
  • Stopping data exploration if an analysis yields a significant p-value

Add it all up, and you have a significant problem in the way our society produces knowledge. Increasingly, we desperately try to reduce the vast complexity of the world into a series of statistics that we can use to try to comprehend what’s happening. As if staring at the numbers long enough will give us the secrets of the universe. We divest brands of meaning, devalue the art of marketing, and fixate on sample size. But the world is a bit more complex than that. And when we get it wrong, it can be a disaster.

In the second half of the 18th century, Prussian rulers wanted to know how many natural resources they had in the forests of the country. So, they started counting. And they came up with these huge tables that would let them calculate how many board-feet of wood they could pull from a given plot of forest. All the rest of the forest, everything it did for the people and the animals and general ecology of the place was discarded from the analysis.

But the world proved too unruly. Their data wasn’t perfect. So they started creating new forests, the Normalbaum, planting all the trees at the same time, and monoculturing them so that there were no trees in the forest that couldn’t be monetized for wood. Based on the data at hand they began to transform the real, diverse, and chaotic old-growth forest into a new, more uniform forest that could be controlled. For the first hundred years or so, the scheme worked. But then the forests started dying. The complex ecosystem that underpinned the growth of these trees through generations were torn apart by the rigor of the Normalbaum. The nutrient cycles were broken. Resilience was lost. The hidden underpinnings of the world were revealed only when they were gone.

Now, take the ad-supported digital media ecosystem. The idea is brilliant: capture data on people all over the web and then use what you know to show them relevant ads, ads they want to see. Not only that, but because it’s all tracked, an advertiser can measure what they’re getting more precisely. And the spreadsheet makes an awful lot of sense at first. Unfortunately, looking at data alone overlooks the peculiarities and complexities of the human experience. Because data is very good at answering how and what, we assume it can also answer why.

We’ve deceived ourselves into thinking data is a camera, but in fact, it is an engine. Capturing data about something changes the way that something works. Even the mere collection of stats is not a neutral act, but a way of reshaping the thing itself. There are numerous quotes about how important data is, and how decisions should always be backed by data. Data is one perspective. What your users are saying is another perspective. What you internally want to do is another. What makes financial sense is another. To make a decision you gather the perspectives that matter to you, weight them according to your judgment and then make your call. Data is a false god. You can tag every link, generate every metric, and run split tests for every decision, but no matter how deep you go, no matter how many hours you invest, you’re only looking at one piece of the puzzle.

Snacks, Time, and Sex

We have to eat; we like to eat; eating makes us feel good; eating nourishes our bodies and souls; it is more important than sex. It is also a profoundly social urge. Food is almost always shared; people eat together; mealtimes are events when the whole family or settlement or village comes together. Food is also an occasion for sharing, for distributing and giving, for the expression of altruism, whether from parents to children, children to in-laws, or anyone to visitors and strangers. But a great deal of the social elements are being lost as we become ever more chained to the clock. Hence, the continued rise of snacking.

According to a study by the Hartman Group, 91% of consumers snack multiple times throughout the day. Not too surprising, but perhaps more importantly, snacking now accounts for 50% of all eating occasions. In fact, 37% of the time, a snack provides one of the three key meals of the day. Note that – it isn’t a supplement, it’s a replacement. But I don’t believe this signals the decline of the meal in terms of social importance. In fact, I think it signals quite the opposite. While we may see more replacement over time (assuming we keep to our busy, calendared lives), it doesn’t mean the importance of mealtime is on its way out; it means that the meals that are left to us take on a sacred importance. So what does that mean for the future of snacking?

Isolation and individualism are defining hallmarks of snacking. As eating experiences that tend to be individualized and not shared, snacks can address consumer needs in ways that traditional meals often cannot. The boundary between meals and snacks is blurring, but most people understand a meal to be shaped by cultural traditions around timing, ritual, setting, and food groups (the piece of meat as the centerpiece of the plate still defines the meal for most Americans). Snacks, on the other hand, are highly personalized and variable. Of course, the connection between personalized eating and snacks breaks down in certain situation like watching movies or sporting events, but those are special events and food plays a different role. So yes, snacking and snack foods are part of a shared experience in given situations, but generally speaking snacks are defined by individual tastes and circumstances.

Driving all of this is the increased time pressures under which we work and live. Nearly half of Americans say they feel lonely. Approximately 40% say they “lack companionship,” their “relationships aren’t meaningful,” and that they feel “isolated from others.” The frenetic pace of modern life has created what journalist and author Brigid Schulte calls “the overwhelm.” Humans have always needed to tell time, but the clock, as we know it, wasn’t always the measure. For 10,000 years, humans lived in an agrarian culture and understood time through nature: the seasons, the rise and fall of the sun, and the sow-and-reap rhythm of crops. When time became money, our relationship to relaxation also changed. It used to be that the mark of accumulated wealth was leisure—restorative moments away from the toils of labor to enjoy other pursuits. Today, productivity is our top priority. And this relationship with time has a huge impact on how we eat and with whom we eat – or don’t.

On the positive side, the future of snacking looks bright precisely because people aren’t slowing down any time soon. It provides flexibility. Looking ahead, there are multiple opportunities for companies to relate with consumers around new, flexible eating styles. With fewer cultural constraints than meals, the future of snacking will give consumers opportunities to explore new kinds of food and beverage, new brands, and bend traditional eating patterns to their personal needs and wants. Smart manufacturers and marketers will speak to the role snacking can play in our dietary regimen.

On the negative side, we run the risk of drifting deeper into a state of semi-permanent liminality. The blurring boundary between meal and snack will accelerate, leading to the emergence of more undefined eating occasions. Within its prominent position, snacking will continue to involve an interplay with meals, particularly breakfast and lunch. That has ramifications for everything from imparting cultural norms, to modes of courtship, to how restaurants develop their menus. We can be sure that eating as display – as a code of messages about selves and status, role and religion, race and nation, etc. – will persist in our species, this animal that lives by symbolic communication. But how eating manifests and how snacking shapes it will have to be handled delicately by manufacturers and marketers alike. 

Why Methodology and Theory Matter for Marketing

Some years ago I had someone interject into a conversation that the work we had done was “just a theory.”  I decided to ask just what the word “theory” meant to him and the response was hardly a surprise – a theory is an idea, plain and simple. It is subjective, a novel thought based on personal opinion and observation, but lacking numbers to back it up. I spent the next fifteen minutes explaining what a theory, in my interpretation, was and how different theories are used to make sense of observations, lay the groundwork for building a model of behavior, and derived from a compounded set of observations through time. Fortunately, I succeeded in getting him to understand that our findings were more than anecdotal moments and good guesses about the topic at hand. But it left me thinking that every now and again we need to step back, reexamine what we mean when we say “theory” and think about how to convey it in a setting where the word is at odds with the worldview of the client (internal or external).

In Greek, from which the modern English word “theory” is derived, the word theoria, θεωρία, meant “a looking at, viewing, beholding”, and referring to contemplation and speculation as opposed to action. Theory is especially often contrasted to “practice” (from Greek praxis, πρᾶξις) a concept which is used in a broad way to refer to any activity done for the sake of action, in contrast with theory, which does not need an aim which is an action.  This isn’t to say that theory and practice can’t go hand in hand.  It is to say that a theory is more than an nifty idea – it is grounded in observable facts that form patterns we can witness and understand, be it how aerodynamics work or in how people shop for butter.  Ethnographic work, whether in an academic setting or in private enterprise, guides the work we do and has relevance to the outcomes of that work. A classic example of the distinction between theoretical and practical uses the discipline of medicine: Medical theory and theorizing involves trying to understand the causes and nature of health and sickness, while the practical side of medicine is trying to make people healthy. These two things are related but can be independent, because it is possible to research health and sickness without curing specific patients, and it is possible to cure a patient without knowing how the cure worked.

In modern science the term “theory” is generally understood to refer to a proposed explanations of phenomena, made in a way consistent with scientific method. This obviously holds true when applied to business. Such theories are preferably described in such a way that any scientist in the field is in a position to understand and either provide empirical support or empirically contradict it. A common distinction sometimes made in science is between theories and hypotheses, with the former being considered as satisfactorily tested or proven and the latter used to denote conjectures or proposed descriptions or models which have not yet been tested or proven to the same standard.

Theories are analytical tools for understanding and explaining a given subject. Why does this matter?  It matters because the term “theory” is often dismissed by people as simply an idea that is plucked from thin air, with nothing to back it up but a few subjective guesses. We can dismiss a theory if it doesn’t correspond to our view of how the world works. The catch is theory is perfectly acceptable (and perhaps perfectly accepted) when it fits deeper cultural “truths” we want to believe in. Most people accept gravitational theory without any knowledge of the mathematics behind it, but readily reject social and cultural theories. It has little or nothing to do with the rigor and/or validity of the observations. Rather it stems from what we choose to believe, independent of the science behind it or any knowledge of how either the deductive or inductive methods of knowledge acquisition work. This means that when we discuss our findings with a development team, a marketing executive, a designer, etc., we need to be able to define the theoretical models we use to encode and decode observations, and we need to clearly distinguish between a theory and an idea. But it also means that we need to engage people and get buy in for the simple truth that methodological rigor matters when developing marketing strategies.

Culture, Food, and Food Porn

Eating is not as a simple food-in, excrement-out process. It is a series of encounters – with cultures, with memories, with time. What we eat is a matter of self-creation, culture-building, and expression. People connect to their cultural group (groups, more accurately) through similar food patterns. Immigrants often use food as a means of retaining their cultural identity, as well as sharing that identity with the culture into which they have migrated. People from different cultural backgrounds eat different foods. The ingredients, methods of preparation, preservation techniques, and types of food eaten at different meals vary.

Food items themselves have meaning attached to them. In many Western countries a box of chocolates would be viewed as an appropriate gift. The recipient of the gift would react differently to a gift of cabbage or carrots than to chocolate. In other countries chocolates might be a less appropriate gift. What is considered edible or even a delicacy in some parts of the world might be considered inedible in other parts. Similarly, although food is often selected with some attention to physical need, the values or beliefs a society attaches to potential food items define what families within a cultural group will eat. For example, both plant and animal sources may contribute to meeting nutritional requirements for protein; soybeans, beef, horsemeat, and dog meat are all adequate protein sources. Yet, due to the symbolism attached to these protein sources, they are not equally available or acceptable in all societies.

On an individual level, we grow up eating the food of our cultures. It becomes a part of who each of us are. Many of us associate food from our childhood with warm feelings and good memories and it ties us to our families, holding a special value for us. Food from our family often becomes the comfort food we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress. But in recent years, these rules have become more fluid and open to interpretation. When it comes to food, we are increasingly global.

In a digital-first era, many people latch onto food as something that engages all of the senses and brings people together in physical space. I think that that’s expressed in social media. Food has become a conduit for creation. If you look at any of the statistics for Instagram Facebook, Twitter, etc., food topics are amongst the most posted and the most viewed. There are websites and message boards dedicated entirely to food. “Food porn” has become a feature of our language. Technology has changed our cultural relationship with food, for better or worse, for a few reasons. First is sensory deprivation. We have formed into a society that’s so accustomed to sitting in front of a screen and typing, whether that’s with our laptop or our phone. Food is tangible, it is imaginative.

Thanks to the portability of cell phone cameras and the magic of photo filters, we are well equipped to pose as amateur photographers. There are presently over 143 million images tagged with #food on Instagram—and while not all of those images are of food, the hashtag shows that we’re thinking about food socially. From plate shots of that special meal at that amazing restaurant to the spread from a backyard barbecue to the meal you just painstakingly made from scratch, food images are a large part of our social feeds. Our eyes let us “taste” food at a distance by activating the sense memories of taste and smell. Even a feast for the eyes only will engage the other senses imaginatively, for to see is not only to taste, but also to eat. The chef’s maxim, “A dish well presented is already half eaten,” recognizes that eating begins (and may even end) before food enters the body. While we may not be able to feel or smell or taste what’s on the screen, it sets us up to anticipate and dream. It lays the groundwork for our next food adventure.

Social media has, in some ways, made us more isolated, but food gives us a reason to come together with people, both virtually and in the physical world. It has the potential to break away from the isolation we often find ourselves subject to as we become more and more engrossed with the technology in front of us. It gives us a reason to take time out of our increasingly busy schedules and broaden our world, whether that’s dining out or cooking together.

What this means is that food is exploration, is drama, is a stage. Not only does it reinforce cultural norms, it expands them and redefines them. How we represent food in social media reflects a new conversation with those like us and those we have yet to connect with.