Ethnography and the B2B Marketer: Wake the Hell Up.

Not long ago I heard a B2B marketer ask, “why should I care about ethnography?”  After all, if they are in the business of selling steel to manufacturers, their chief concerns are cost, not color palates or cultural norms. But culture drives all our interactions and having a set of mindset that thinks differently from people within the organization is tremendously important.

Think about the experience many business people have with their IT department personnel as an example. From their standpoint, they may do an excellent job of meeting the needs of your company, but their perceptions are grounded in the technology and their inherent aptitude with it. But do they know why some managers like computers and some hate them? Do they know what they use and care about on a daily basis? To be honest, most IT departments do a poor job of producing and implementing systems that fit an existing culture. The important thing to remember, however, is that they are not alone.  Particularly in B2B settings, where the needs of the customer are either assumed or grounded in the proverbial sample of one. For the executive overseeing product or process X, it is easy to become so close to a subject that one stops seeing the big picture.

Why is that? We often see one culprit. Perception. The realities of business often deal in shifting timelines, especially in our current quixotic economic state. Internal marketing and strategy departments across all industries often re-evaluate their scopes of work prematurely, basing their business decisions on reactions to the market fluctuation. There are several dangers in this type short-sited behavior. The first of these dangers is interrupting your research and/or compromising your methodology. Abandoning observation and analysis of the patterns in the rush to  start a campaign or push a new process is usually where things start going down hill.

Most people consider their analysis of the situation in question to be thorough, or at least sufficient, if they spend thirty minutes interviewing a few “stakeholders.”  For an ethnographer, work and interviewing are thought of in days/weeks, providing enough perspective to uncover powerful insights. And this is where an anthropological perspective helps.

The basic idea is that people do things the way they do and believe  the things they believe for specific reasons, and those reasons should be considered when a company considers its brand, its messaging, and its products. The decision process of an executive or foreman can’t be discovered through a brief interview. In most cases the interview results in unintentionally canned information and tells you about what they think they are supposed to say, not what they really do.  In most cases, the interviewee can’t even explain how he or she makes decisions or conceives of a company. It’s tacit knowledge that can be transferred only by interacting with and observing in an anthropologically-informed way.  That’s how you understand their world and how your company fits into it.

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