Posted by: listonjoe | May 9, 2015

Know Your Audience: Ethnographic Research

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Ethnography is not the name of some obscure album from the 1980s, but it sounds like it. If you have customers that you want to sell to, or communicate with, ethnographic research needs to be one of the first tools that you pull out of your toolbox.

As we have been discussing recently here in the strategic communications program, ethnographic research allows you understand your customers, stakeholders or any other constituency at a personal level, allowing you to discern their motivations, desires and reasons they make the decisions they do, buying or otherwise. Once you know them better as human beings, you can develop better strategies to effectively communicate with them.

An ethnographer spoke to our class, bringing with her engaging and interesting stories from the world of ethnographic research. She talked about her experience performing ethnographic research on Microsoft customers. Not corporate customers, but average people who use Microsoft products. As described by her, Microsoft was an organization that seemed to value quantitative measures like numbers, trends, and percentages very highly. The implication being that they valued the numbers more than the human factors behind them.

I began to think more about Microsoft, and their string of unsuccessful product launches. From the Zune, to the Kin to the original Surface tablet/laptop to the recent controversial launch of the Xbox One. For a company with the vaults of money they have, and hallways and offices full of some the most intelligent people around, it has boggled my mind that they could, time after time, fail or underperform in their hardware strategy. The common denominator has been a fundamental misunderstanding of what customers want, and why they want what they want.

Having known people who have worked at Microsoft at various levels, it is clear to me that their focus has leaned toward percentages and numbers, while not truly understanding, on a human level, what those numbers may represent. To me, this seems to be their achilles heel.

It is clear that Microsoft has done ethnographic research, but do they ignore it? Do they misinterpret it? If so, they’ve spent billions of dollars attempting to reposition their products and repair the damage. Seems to me that it would be cheaper to do the research upfront, and realize its importance. There’s no doubt that quantitative research, like surveys, are important to ‘set the table’ in terms of understanding the world your customers live in, but to complete the picture you need qualitative measures, like ethnographic research, to truly understand how to meet their needs. Once their needs are met, you have happy customers.

In today’s world, where opinions burn like wildfire and spread just as fast, and when personal experiences are broadcast to the world, it is more important than ever to be sure you know the people you want to do business with and to develop a positive relationship with them. Otherwise, you run the high risk of failure. Failure, as Microsoft can tell you, is expensive.

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