Self ethnography is turning research from push to pull #mrx

Self-ethnography – literally putting the tools of our trade into the hands of consumers and encouraging them to document their own lives – is a growing part of what we do. It has been enabled to a large degree by the growth of smartphones in the mainstream, and the growing tendency for people to document their lives and the world around them.

It’s taking research into completely new territory: from push to pull.

Over the past decade the research industry has been asking the question: how can we make something that is essentially undesirable (i.e. research) a little more bearable? So everyone got very excited about gamification and Flash-based drag-and-drop exercises in online surveys. 

But we’ve started to notice that far from sugar-coating a bitter pill, self-ethnography techniques can make research desirable, beneficial and even cathartic for people. And the end result is deeper and more powerful insights. 

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The calm before the storm at #MRMW

Just stumbled upon this short film of myself and Revelation’s Steve August talking about the use of mobile research as an accompaniment and enhancement to our face-to-face research.

They lulled us into a false sense of security though. The Market Research old guard hated the idea of mobile ethnography and virtually hounded us out of the auditorium…


Focused ‘web surfing’ is so last decade

In the early days of radio, people sat down of an evening specifically to listen to it. It was their chosen activity, the thing that they did. Gradually, as the broadcast hours of radio increased, the cost of radio sets came down, and perhaps the novelty wore off, radio started to become more incidental.


Video, as the song goes, then started to kill the radio star. Families gathered together to watch the evening’s broadcasts. This is what the BBC Yearbook of 1946 had to say about it:

Viewing television is a very different activity from listening to sound broadcasts. 

The radio set can remain on for hours at a time; you can enjoy it as background to reading, writing, homework, or housework. Some people can even enjoy it as background to conversation, darts, or bridge. 

The television set demands your attention; you cannot enjoy television from the next room. You must sit facing the set, with the lights down or shaded, and if you are a normal viewer you will find yourself very reluctant to be disturbed during a programme that you enjoy.

Despite the recent renaissance of the living room, brought about by huge household investment in home cinema systems, bigger screens and PVRs, TV has still slipped progressively into the background over the decades. IPA Touchpoints data over the past decade has shown that around half of all TV viewing is classified as a ‘secondary activity’. So while TV clearly still has its appointment to view moments, viewers no longer sit in rapt fascination, “facing the set, with the lights shaded” the moment the box is switched on.

Today’s reports from Pew Research that a growing number of teenagers are deserting the PC in favour of smartphones as their primary means of accessing the internet suggests that ‘surfing the web’ is now likely to follow a similar path, moving away from a dedicated sit-down experience to something more mobile, more all-pervasive, more spontaneous.

This should already be forcing web designers, advertisers and researchers alike to radically re-appraise the way we reach and engage with young people. It’s not just about shifting what we do onto smartphones. It’s about redefining what we understand by ‘internet’.

Mobile advertising needs to keep up with consumer behaviour

Around 6 in 10 adults in the UK now have a smartphone and a growing number of traditionally PC-based behaviours are shifting to the handheld screen. Mobile web use is growing 14 times faster than that of PC web and giving rise to entirely new consumer behaviours and possibilities. Yet the mobile advertising market has barely evolved over the past 2-3 years.  Mobile feels like the one sector where advertising is not keeping up with consumer demand.

OK, consumers will not actively tell you that they want “advertising” on their smartphones. I’ve seen focus groups full of people reacting with horror at the very suggestion. I reacted in a similar way when I initially read today’s news that Coca Cola wants to “get a Coke into every hand with a mobile phone.”

Our aversion to the concept of mobile advertising is not surprising. The mobile is an incredibly personal device and the fear is that advertisers may increasingly invade this private space with unwelcome and intrusive messages. This perception has not been helped by un-targeted, un-solicited SMS spam which is far more unpopular than DM. While DM drops onto the doormat, unsolicited SMS feels more like advertisers walking unannounced through the front door.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is mobile display advertising. When it comes to display ads on a mobile screen the issue is not consumer resistance; it is consumer ambivalence. Mobile display advertising is barely noticed at all, given the rapid, task-focused nature of mobile web behaviour and app use. It’s incongruous and anachronistic.

So, it’s hard to talk to consumers about “mobile advertising”, because it’s a loaded term, a catch-all for advertising that doesn’t get it; advertising that jars with the core values of their device. Where smartphones are ultra-personalised, “mobile advertising” is seen as scatter-gun and impersonal. Where smartphones are valued for their design qualities, “mobile advertising” resembles a 1995 PowerPoint presentation. And where smartphones offer location-specific information that is of real-time benefit to the user, “mobile advertising”, well, doesn’t.

Yet the potential for brands to use smartphones to connect with consumers in new and mutually beneficial ways has never been higher.

Social media and email are increasingly shifting to smartphones – so those who follow brands can increasingly act on brand communications in real time, when out and about.

Consumers are more and more receptive to location-sensitive messages from brands they trust – if they opt in and if the benefit is clear. Obvious, tangible benefits include vouchers and real-time information about nearby promotions. (In this context, the aforementioned Coca Cola strategy makes perfect sense, if you ignore some of the hyperbole.)

Smartphones are increasingly used to share media content with friends and colleagues – turning a screen around to share a video clip or image. This offers huge potential for immediate viral campaigns that are timed to harness a particular moment: Friday nights in the pub being an obvious example.

Consumers expect their smartphones to surprise and delight. Everyone can think of a ‘wow’ moment when their smartphone has harnessed new technology in a way that is amazing – making life easier, enhancing an occasion, delighting us by showcasing the phone’s technical capabilities. When brands provide these ‘wow’ moments, they gain a great deal of love.

The growth of smartphones as the central media device in our lives represents huge opportunities for brands to engage consumers in entirely new ways, offering real benefit and utility and in return receiving consumers’ attention, engagement, immediate responsiveness and even some brand love.

So why is it that this still remains the exception rather than the norm? I suspect this is because when it comes to smartphone growth, marketers are chasing after eyeballs when what matters is hearts.

What is Insight? Seriously?

Back in the final years of the millennium, when IT professionals were worrying about Y2K, market researchers were worrying about insight. Their clients were starting to demand it, the trade press was writing about it, the word even started to appear on business cards.

Everyone agreed that it was a Very Good Thing, without really having a clear idea of what it was, or how to define it. A bit like Goji berries or hybrid electric vehicles.

Researchers being researchers, we entered a definition phase, accompanied by deep introspection. There were conferences (I confess to speaking at a couple, on this very subject), there were debates, there were endless articles.

But at the end of it all, I thought we knew what insight was.

And yet a dozen years later, the question is still being asked. What is insight? How does insight differ from research? Can we achieve more impact in the boardroom if we change our job title to Insight Director?

How can it be that this is still happening?

Are there really still practising researchers who aren’t sure what insight is? If so, it may be time to look for another job.

In the words of the late Teddy Pendergrass: If you don’t know me by now, you will never, ever, ever know me.