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In the world of data and analytics, anecdotal evidence is often demonized. Why? People in general and marketers in specific mistake anecdotal evidence for quantitative proof, for statistically representative, reliable, and repeatable evidence. Anecdotal evidence is none of those things. It’s one person’s experience, so it’s not representative. Depending on that individual’s perspective and biases, it may not be reliable. Its very nature as an anecdote means that collecting similar information under similar circumstances is not repeatable.

Even anecdotal evidence in aggregate is still not reliable. My friend and colleague Tom Webster often says, “the plural of anecdote is not data”.

Should we promptly dispose of all anecdotal evidence?

In a word, no.

Anecdotal evidence (we assume it’s truthful) is a form of qualitative data. It’s not a measurement of anything, but its very existence tells us that at least one person has perceived something to be true. That’s a qualitative data point, a place to start thinking and asking questions.

For example, let’s say we’re working on market research for the next great cup of coffee at our coffee shop. While sitting in the shop with a cup of coffee, the guy next to us makes an offhand remark about how he’ll never drink kopi luwak even though it’s very trendy in the coffee world at the moment. If we’d never heard of kopi luwak, this anecdote, this piece of qualitative data, is a new starting point for us to investigate. Perhaps our coffee shop companion might never drink kopi luwak, but that doesn’t mean our other customers wouldn’t.

Qualitative data helps us answer the question of what, whereas quantitative data helps us answer the question of how much. Anecdotes like the above help us to better form questions about what. Instead of asking our customers what the latest coffee trends are, we could use the anecdote about kopi luwak to be more specific in our line of questioning.

Anecdotal evidence is not without value. Don’t rely on it to make decisions; certainly, don’t bet your business on it, but don’t discard it as worthless. Let it serve its role as a starting point to ask better questions.

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