There is a wild-west mentality that dominates the corporate conversation about social media. Like the cavalier approach to the internet at the close of the 20th century, strategy appears secondary as we scramble to find meaning behind numbers and attempt to generate capital out of something that is still in its infancy. This approach is mirrored in social media monitoring, which more often than not stops with just 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 what any of if really means. As we come off of Black Friday and prepare for Cyber Monday, companies are sifting through mounds of data gleaned from social media monitoring in hopes of uncovering something that will give them the absolute edge over the competition, but it means precious little if we don’t understand the deeper issues behind shopping, gift giving, consumption, etc.
Granted, data provides an answer to “what is happening,” but it fails to address “why it’s happening.” The “why” comes from anthropological analysis to data to uncover connections between data points that are normally overlooked, which provides new business opportunities and ways of messaging to customers. Anthropology works from an assumption of the inherent interconnectedness of people, focusing on culture as the starting point of investigation. People and cultures are so complex, and anthropology strives to make sense of that complexity.
Similarly, digital anthropology seeks to connect dots and uncover relationships between data points by going beyond the search for statistical significance and focusing on producing valid, actionable insights. Loosely speaking, “reliability” is the extent to which a measurement procedure yields the same answer, however and whenever it’s carried out – it’s the data in their purest form. “Validity,” is the extent to which it fives the correct answer. Imagine a spike in negative Twitter conversations in late December about your company. While the information may be statistically reliable, it lacks meaning. It doesn’t even begin to approach an understanding of “why” with any kind of depth or understanding.
All too frequently, the questions we ask and the metrics we assign to them have very little to do with the subtleties of human behavior. The data doesn’t address whom these numbers represent, what social and cultural conditions are motivating the commentary or how independent variables influence the date. 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 on 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 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 people living their lives. This hypothetical spike in discussion reflects the need to be part of a special group with extensive knowledge or expertise that makes them extraordinary in the eyes of other people. And that is the place real opportunity lies.
These same principles can be applied 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. Discovering these connections are where the real opportunities reside.
Keep in mind, other companies have the same data you do and they too are searching the web with the hope of uncovering some hidden insight. In fact, 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. Digital anthropology helps move social media monitoring from “what” to “why” to “what next.”