Fan Engagement fails with Big Data

I believe that Fan Engagement, if it is to be truly effective – ‘authentic’ if you like – has to mean that human experiences matter over numbers alone. That isn’t to say that data isn’t important, but experience shows that you can’t really understand a human being solely by looking at the numbers generated by them.

Football has a Big Data obsession
You can only understand so much about me by my location data (if I let you have it), shopping habits, the car I drive (I don’t), how often I eat out, or how often I post on Instagram. Besides, as people are increasingly handed the keys to their own data through privacy laws like GDPR, the data itself even cease to exist in some cases. Where does that leave you then?

With data, you can begin to form an idea of the sort of person I might be in broad terms, and some of the categories or segments I might fit into, but it is only by speaking with me, getting to know me, the things I do, people I associate with, that you will actually know me. Then, you’ll know why I do certain things, like certain things, act in certain ways.

Data can be a particular problem for those who work in modern communications. Because of the constant reams of it pumped out, there has developed a whole huge industry around processing it, based on an assumption we can always turn it into something useful, some form of ‘insight’. I’ve dealt with myriad companies – I’ve used the odd one, and been tempted by others – who tell me that by using some kind of data analytics tool, they can give me a level of insight into stakeholders or customers that in the past I could scarce have dreamt of.

I’ve said it before in the Little Book of Fan Insights: the world of Fan Engagement is worryingly dominated by this type of thinking. The average Fan Engagement conference has sessions on data and tech, whilst the fan representatives and experts on the actual relationships are ignored – even literally when they’re speaking at the event: I’ve witnessed delegates trooping out of the room as the people with the direct experience of fans get up to speak. This stuff is what takes time and, often, tenacity and patience to uncover. It’s what ‘Global Tech Ethnographer’ Tricia Wang calls ‘Thick Data’. (In the past, this would probably have been referred to as ‘qualitative’, but she believes that it’s important to have a phrase that mirrors ‘Big Data’, a term invented because the term ‘quantitative data’ no longer cuts it.)

‘Big Data’ is defined as:

‘Data that contains greater variety arriving in increasing volumes and with ever-higher velocity.’ (Gartner’s definition of Big Data:

And here is what management consultants Deloitte say about it:

‘The sources of big data are numerous and growing. Think about transactions from financial markets and e-commerce sites, chats on social networks, signals from RFID tags, cell phone conversations, urban traffic cameras, surveillance cameras, web search and browsing patterns, and even weather satellites. Big data covers all these stores of information and more.’ (Page 3 of the 3 minute guide to Big Data, Deloitte, 2012:

The unknown quantity
It’s easier, as the proponents of Big Data would have it, to believe that you have measurable, quantifiable customers, stakeholders, publics. The implication is that you can use this over the need to get to understand complex and difficult, messy people. But understanding the mess of humanity is exactly what you need to do. The unexpected and the disruptive happens because of this ignorance: the Brexit vote for example, Corybn’s election and re-election to the Labour leadership, populism in the United States, and it’s why in football, the #WalkOutOn77, or Leeds United’s new badge happened, why Enfield Town and AFC Wimbledon exist, or why supporters’ trusts like that at Bristol City jumped on the club so publicly about pricing and stadium accommodation.

You can see football’s obsessive over-reliance on Big Data in (blurry) picture form, in a dataset like this from Barcelona.


Is football trying hard enough?
I’m not sure football is always valiantly grappling for the right perspective either. There are some terrific – but very limited in number – people out there, doing the hard yards. Look at what Brighton and Hove Albion do with their away-travelling fans, or the initiative in supplying tampons and women’s sanitary products from clubs like Barnsley. It has to be a matter of willingness, and I don’t think that willingness is there often enough. It isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. The use of Thick Data, understanding people as people – even if you use Big Data as tool to get there, or to help to frame the context or understand elements of the overall picture – isn’t the standard in the game, and it needs to be.

This is where the work of people like Tricia Wang is important to our understanding of where and when Big Data is important in Fan Engagement, and when it’s not; when Thick Data matters more (and, yes, when you need to be sceptical of it too). There are two excellent videos of hers I’ve included below, both of which are well worth taking the time to watch.

The first is her Ted Talk about her experiences consulting for Nokia in China (and how they rejected her findings about the growth in popularity of the iPhone amongst the youth population there).

The second is her presentation at tech event, The Conf in 2016, where she explains how in the past, humans have repeatedly used the mediating quality of new technology as though it provides the absolute, immutable truth, rather than something that can be and is used by people who have their own perspective, a different world view, a view that can distort reality.

In short, technology isn’t neutral. Big Data isn’t a series of ‘facts’.

Seek out those who disagree with you
I currently see reams of blogging, writing and study into how amazing Big Data is as a tool for Fan Engagement, the problems it will solve – how it’ll give you a ‘360 degree view of the fan’. There are consultancies and consultants telling you that if only you invest in Big Data, you’ll reap the rewards. Segment, interpret, track, and you’ll be able to understand your fans (and of course, be able to sell more of what you want them to buy). But are you exercising any scepticism here? Is Big Data what you really need? Don’t you need to really drill down into the numbers, and get to know the faces, the people, behind them? Have you sought out the views of people you might disagree with, or whose perspectives might help to challenge your own thinking? Have you invested in Thick Data? That’s got to be good for business.

Thick Data might be less fashionable, less attractive, when compared to the apparent ease of cut-through of Big Data. It might be tempting to fall for the myth that Big Data has now solved the hard work of getting alongside other human beings: of empathy and understanding, but it hasn’t. You still have to interpret, to understand, to empathise, take a perspective, to exercise judgement. No tool can do it for you.

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