I once met Amanda Holden. Let's be precise, I fainted 5 yards away from her for reasons I won't go through here.
And no, I wasn't star-struck. In fact,I didn't like her. Based on what I'd read and what I'd seen on TV. Which means I didn't like HER I didn't like her image or the accepted wisdom of what she was like.
When I fainted in front of her, it was in a busy hotel reception, she was been fawned over by loads of assistants and was about to sweep outside to the waiting press corps (they were filming Britain's Got Talent). But when I did my sparko act, she stopped what she was doing, picked me up, asked if I was okay and got her assistant to get me a glass of water, plus she wouldn't leave until she was sure I was okay. Amidst all that showbiz hurly burly and the waiting journalists outside, she showed genuine concern and helped a muppet like me.
Which made me realise she probably anything like I was led to believe. She was probably quite nice. She'd certainly been nice to me.
When I was a student, I spent 3 years months not really talking to what I thought was the most pretty girl in the swim team because I couldn't see what she has to do with me and she seemed very aloof. It was only at a reunion thing 4 years after we graduated that she asked me why I never talked to her and admitted she had a 'thing' for m (no I don't know either). I found out she was very shy and found it hard to make friends because everyone assumed she was super confident, super cool and super elite.
Yet again she was nothing like what I'd expected, or even like my superficial impression.
It's a bit like that with research and 'consumers'. Data, segmentation, analytics and all that are great. So's listening to social media conversations etc. But if you think you'll understand what people are really like and what they really care about from this stuff, you're sadly wrong.
(Picture from the wonderful We are What we Do.)
Take social media. So much of what people share on these platforms isn't what they're like,it's an idealised version of who they are, or who they'd really like to be. You won't get much truth from that. Just like the 'conversations' you see do not have the same conditions as real life (being anonymous, or at least not face to face makes you do and say all sorts of things you wouldn't do in the real world).
More to the point, I've banged on about the need to tap into what people really care about, not what your brand's agenda is. Much of that will come from habitually absorbing everything you can in popular culture, but also fishing where other don't fish. Anthropology and sociology papers are a useful bet for example. Not to mention dabbling in behavioural economics and stuff like that.
But nothing beats meeting them. In their own environment. As soon as you take them out of that, you affect their behaviour, just like a monkey isn't anything like what it's like in the jungle if you put it in a zoo.
In particle physics, one of the core pillars of quantum mechanics is that you can't pinpoint both a particle's position and momentum, by measuring one, you're interfering with it and affecting the other. It's just like that with people, if you want to know what people do or think, you need to meddle with what they're doing as little as possible. An artificiality lit room with 7 other strangers talking about stuff you never usually discuss or have really thought about is as nearly as much 'meddling' as I can think of.
It takes patience and you have to develop the skill for striking up conversations with people you have never met, which is tough for shy people like me, but who said this job was easy?
For example, I spent half a day hanging around a motorbike retailer, talking to the staff and customers. I was shocked by how many women came through the door and completely changed my view of them. From reckless idiots that get in the way of my car to a weird tribe that see themselves as the last wolves in an overly cushioned world of sheep. They all wanted to feel something in a jaded existence. I began to admire them in fact.
I've learned more about Mums over 35 and coffea/tea and biscuits by being around when my, maternity- leave enjoying, wife has her cronies over than any segmentation study (and you know what gents, they don't talk about us).
Just like I was in no real position to judge what Ms Holden was like until I met her, I don't think you can really say you know your customers until you've spent some time with them in their environment.