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Published April 9th 2014

What is Thick Data and Why Should You Use it?

Thick data involves qualitative informative materials, tools or techniques that help brands gather granular, specific knowledge about their target audience

The term ‘big data’ can be used in a plethora of contexts and due to its inherent broadness, it can be quite challenging to find a straightforward definition that covers all its aspects.

One of the most compelling and comprehensive definitions we’ve come across is Lisa Arthur’s one, which defines it as “a collection of data from traditional and digital sources inside and outside your company that represents a source for ongoing discovery and analysis”, as detailed in this Forbes article.

Another engaging approach was adopted by Jonathan Stuart Ward and Adam Barker at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, who attempted to gain a better understanding of general perceptions of this buzzword and come up with a definition that everyone can agree on.
Their slightly more elaborate explanation, “a term describing the storage and analysis of large and or complex data sets using a series of techniques including, but not limited to: NoSQL, MapReduce and machine learning”, is based on expert (such as Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, etc.) opinions and use cases.

Nevertheless, the danger of focusing all your attention on Big Data and its charts, numbers and facts is missing out some of the qualitative insights of your audience’s day-to-day lifestyle choices and preferences.

And this kind of insight can be investigated using what has been dubbed ‘Thick Data’, and the methods used to acquire it.

Thick Data is about a complex range of primary and secondary research approaches, including surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, interviews, journals, videos and so on.

In a nutshell it’s all qualitative informative materials, tools or techniques that help brands gather granular, specific knowledge about their target audience.

In this way, they can understand customer behaviour, analyse and adapt their marketing strategy according to consumer preferences, and lead the game in their industry.


Thick Data can be a top-notch differentiator, helping businesses truly uncover the kinds of insights they sometime hope to achieve from big data alone.

Social media – a key topic that we simply love to wax lyrical about of course – is an important piece of the puzzle.

One thing you might be wondering, though, is where does social media monitoring fit in with traditional market research methods?

One aspect worth bearing in mind is that social analytics could and should be perceived as a way of complementing those long-established mechanisms.

In most cases, listening tools reveal hard metrics compared to the kind of data you’d be getting from a survey or focus group, which is more qualitative.

In this context, its purpose is to allow you to compare and contrast findings, as well as revealing topics and trends in conversation that you might not have noticed or considered exploring through only one research approach alone.

So by blending the multiple strands of research into a cohesive study, this Thick Data can help you look at the big picture and put all the different stories together, while embracing the differences between each medium and using them to pull out interesting themes and contrasts.

The power of Thick Data is thoroughly explained by Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen and illustrated by Samsung’s use case, in which the brand used Thick Data to better understand their customers’ relationship with TVs.

Only by using rich, multi-format and multi-approach research were the brand able to discover some key insights.

How did Samsung use Thick Data to Thrive?

Samsung relied on external help for conducting hours of interviews, analysing videos and listening to conversations, while looking for an answer to “What does the TV mean in the modern household?

Research revealed that to most people, TVs aren’t electronics, but furniture.


From this essential insight, the Samsung team redesigned their TVs, going for a modernist approach and changing their marketing strategy, based on customer feedback.

Figuring out how to make the most of Big & Thick Data, and what is the right proportion to use of each is a debatable topic.

Therefore – even though we live in a digital era – there are occasions when human observation or face to face communication can make a difference and bring invaluable benefits to your business, especially when used alongside online research techniques.

We’re interested to see how any of our readers are using social media data with traditional research techniques (to create thick data) to uncover meaningful insights. Let us know.

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