Like the life of the Internet at the close of the 20th century, there is a wild-west mentality that dominates the corporate conversation about social media. Strategy is secondary as we scramble to find meaning behind numbers and learn to generate capital out of something that is still in its infancy. But for the most part, current social media monitoring stops with providing data. Numbers are gathered around an area of interest, a few correlations are run between data points and the findings are handed off to the client without any emphasis placed on what the data means. Data provides an answer to the question “what is happening” but fails to address why it’s happening. Anthropology works from an assumption of the inherent interconnectedness of people, focusing on culture as the starting point of investigation.
It seeks to connect the dots and uncover relationships between data points by going beyond the search for statistical significance and focusing on producing valid, actionable insights. “Validity” is the extent to which it gives the correct answer. Imagine a spike in Twitter conversations in late December with negative commentary about your company. The information is statistically reliable but it lacks meaning. It doesn’t even begin to approach an understanding of “why” in any meaningful way. All too frequently, the questions asked and the metrics we assign to them have very little to do with the subtleties of human behavior. The data does not address who those people are, what social and cultural conditions are motivating the commentary, or how independent variables influence the data. The result is that we make assumptions and ask questions that are simply wrong.
To overcome these issues an anthropologically-trained researcher (or research team) filters data through a system of questions that tie each data point back to what we know about cultural patterns and trends. For example, if there is a spike in conversations about bacon, it might be tied to agricultural conditions, but it might also be tied to the fact that Anthony Bourdain talked about bacon martinis on his show the night before. Add to that the fact that people who self-identify as “foodies” have doubled in the last few years and you start to realize that the conversation isn’t so much about the product, but how the product fits into the larger pattern of how people live their lives. The spike in discussion reflects the need to be part of a special group with extensive knowledge that makes them extraordinary in the eyes of other people…or so they hope.
This same principles applies to all social media and online activity. Whether your company is selling soap or helping people make multi-million dollar transactions, human behavior is usually more complex than the numbers alone would suggest. This is where real opportunities lie.
Other companies have the same data you do. They are searching the Web with the hope of uncovering something meaningful. The good news is that they face the same dilemma of not being able to connect the dots between seemingly unrelated topics. Uncovering these connections and understanding the reasons behind them means uncovering new revenue streams, new avenues of messaging, and new business opportunities before the competition can act. Anthropology moves social media monitoring from “what” to “why” to “what next.”