B2B Ethnography and Rethinking the Problem

Understandably, the first question a B2B marketer is going to ask is, “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. Rather than getting into a lengthy discussion about how subconscious cues impact a marketing campaign and the need for emotional triggers, we will stick to the functional side of things.

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 how their workday is structured and how technology helps (or hinders) getting certain things done? Do they know what they use and care about on a daily basis? To be honest, most IT departments do an poor job of producing and implementing systems that fit an existing culture.  The problem with marketing, whether B2B or B2C, is that the focus is typically on the product or service, not how the product or service fits into a broader system. The important thing to remember 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 that you understand their world and how your company fits into it.

Another aspect of an anthropological approach is that anthropologists get out into the field, rather than remaining tucked away in formal or staged settings.  What this means is that if they want to study the purchase process at a company, they don’t just spend time with the vp of operations, they spend time with the administrative assistant, the accountant, the dock worker, and anyone else that may prove a source of information.  Ultimately, everything is potentially data and everything influences the system.

Frequently the response is that ethnography is too time-consuming or too expensive (though this is not necessarily true).  But how much does it cost to launch an ad campaign that gains no traction?  How much does it cost to build an online ordering system that is never used?  How expensive is it to create a new service only to be forced to radically modify it to do what your customers need?

Case Study: Rethinking the Audience

Underwriters Laboratories was looking for a way to simplify their website which they believed was outdated and failed to communicate well globally. They contacted me to help them redesign their web presence.

Our team began conducting a mix of international ethnography and informal discussion groups with employees, consumers and partners of different engineering companies. We began by testing the importance of certain content on the current website, but in the process uncovered a common denominator that tied the target audience together: an underlying professional culture that shaped much of how they use the site. Had we simply asked “what do you want?” we would have missed the underlying issues and commonalities that addressed not only what people say, but what they do.  Research subjects often performed differently than what they told people and it was through interacting with them as they went about their work that new opportunities and unarticulated needs emerged. Two West revealed that for the website to truly be global, it needed much more than a content change but a change in conceptual structure and usability that match how engineers around the world worked.

Focusing on the shared traits of the target audience enabled the design team to develop a single website that is universally appealing. It uncovered new ways of structuring the website, along with new business opportunities that could not have been uncovered using traditional methods.  

Principles of Corporate Anthropology 

There are some basic principles to anthropological research that should factor into any project.  Frequently, they are somewhat difficult to get comfortable with, particularly if an anthropological approach hasn’t been used in the past.  If the hurdles of getting past the accepted research comfort zone can be overcome, the benefits to your brand are astronomical.

First, cast a wide net. Recognize that everything is potentially data. You know your business and, like your competitors, you know what the numbers are telling you. But, do you know in advance what aspect of your core target’s culture will be most important to your business issues?  We often find it’s easy to assume why your numbers are coming out the way they are. We also find that these assumptions are often incorrect or only part of the picture. So, begin by observing everything and worry less about getting answers immediately.  The next step, learn the difference between observation and interviewing. And then learn how to let your subjects lead this effort for you.

Observation: take time to observe people, processes, conversations, behaviors. Many questions you wouldn’t even think to ask, but which may be of tremendous importance, emerge during this phase so don’t be afraid of quite time. Sit back and be a part of what is around you. Many people feel  threatened by this, as if they are wasting time. That’s not the case when you are conducting ethnographic research. Insights and understanding come from living and working alongside your population of interest.  Insights and understanding emerge from participating in their activities and gaining first-hand knowledge of how they see and act in their world.

Interviewing: even though your job is to ask questions, learn to be silent and let those around you guide the interview. Ultimately you are in control of the direction of the interview and that is the danger. It’s hard to listen and learn if you’re talking. You may feel that you know the solution to the problems of your participants, but you run the risk of inserting meaning and explanations that may not be accurate.  Let your participants educate you, don’t interrogate them.

Finally, pay as much attention to what people do as to what they what they say they do. It isn’t that people lie, it’s that they have idealized understandings of how they think things should be done.  These frequently deviate from reality.  For example, everyone has images of the ideal Thanksgiving, but few of us live up to the ideal.  We all want to be viewed as rational decision-makers, unaffected by emotions and cultural norms, especially in B2B settings.  But in reality, we do not escape these aspects of who we are. And it is in coming to understand these hidden drivers that produce true business differentiators.



Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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