I recently co-authored a book on the field of consumer research, specifically examining the power of observational research conducted on the internet (called Digital Ethnography) in helping organizations tap into white-spaces for innovation. My co-author, Jason Partridge and I were pushed to write this book because every time we told someone that we help companies identify net new innovation opportunities by studying human behavior on the Internet, we’d often get the question — “but don’t people lie on the Internet?”
The reality is as human beings, we lie everywhere. We work hard to create an identity that we think is how we want the world to see us. That desire never goes away. But, on the Internet, the impersonal nature of interaction and the ability to hide behind a computer screen and a pseudonym gives us courage to express the deepest darkest parts of us that is otherwise carefully tucked away for no one else to see. In our book, we argue that in the world of Web True.0, researchers can truly understand the unspoken motivations and hidden drivers behind why people do what they do. That is what our book is about.
I thought I’d share an excerpt from the book to give you a taste of what we’re talking about. Enjoy!
In 1961 Henri Matisse’s masterpiece, “Le Bateau,” was hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since Matisse died in 1954, he was not available to see this particular piece displayed in one of the world’s most reputed and respected art institutions. Which is unfortunate when you consider that the curator of the museum and his staff had hung the picture upside down.
It took 47 days before a museum visitor by the name of Genevieve Habert noticed the mistake. After three visits to the museum, she couldn’t help but feel that Matisse would never have placed his more complex, main motif at the bottom of the painting and the simpler, less complex motif on top. With a little bit of research, she was able to find a catalogue with a picture of the art work displayed correctly.
Once the Museum’s art director was notified, the painting was flipped. When Matisse’s son (an art dealer who himself had attended the exhibition without noticing the error) was informed, he said Habert should receive a reward. But most important, when the museum investigated how this mistake occurred, the person in charge of installing the pictured claimed they simply followed what the labels on the back of “Le Bateau” directed. Those labels were upside down.
Further in the museum’s defense, the painting also had deep, dominant screw holes on the bottom of the back of the frame, so it was clear that the painting had been hung incorrectly by other galleries in the past. The Museum of Modern Art’s crime was simply doing things the way they had always been done before. It wasn’t until Habert provided a different perspective that the experts were forced to look at the painting differently, and more closely. After a more rigorous and intense examination, they found faint holes at the top of the picture frame highlighting the correct way in which the art was to be hung, and be seen.
This story serves as a powerful metaphor for Fortune 500 companies looking to better understand their consumers — because, much like modern art, consumer culture is a deeply complex mystery that needs to be carefully studied. It is a product of the past, a pulse revealing the desires of consumers in the present, and a window to the trends that will shape the future. Is it complex? Yes. Is it confusing? Yes. But properly analyzed and interpreted, consumer culture can unlock insights that drive more accurate and effective business strategy.
In our present day, the most powerful and most important window we have into consumer culture is the Internet. Because there are 2.4 billion people online every day, sharing their souls with the world.
Consider that in the next 60 seconds consumers will share 2,460,000 pieces of content on Facebook. They will share 347,222 photos on WHATSAPP and 216,000 new photos on Instagram. There will be 277,000 new Tweets, 26,380 new reviews posted to Yelp, and 8,333 new Vine videos shared. Behind every post, every picture, every thought, and every opinion there is a person revealing how they see the world. They are telling us how they see themselves, how they want to be seen, and what they aspire to become. They are leaving a trail of social media breadcrumbs that can guide us into having a deeper, more emotional, and more empathetic view of the good, the bad, and the ugly that make up what we are as human beings.
Whether you are a CEO of a billion-dollar company, a marketing manager at a start-up, a senior executive running an innovation department or quite simply a person who prides themselves on being savvy when it comes to social media, our guess is you are underestimating how much you can learn about someone online.
This book will change that.
Because while many believe that the majority of these shares or posts are simply minutia, we have discovered that the truth, in fact, lies in the minutia. But in order to find the truth, we need to take a slightly different lens through which to view these “minutia- type” data. This book will turn you into an authority on this “new” lens.
But it will be controversial.
Quite simply because if you look at how most corporations, organizations, and politicians (and the research firms they hire) conduct research today, they almost always rely on two basic methods.
The first involves asking people to tell them what they think or feel, via surveys, polls, focus groups, or in-depth interviews. This means the consumers they are trying to understand are always interrupted and, in some way or another, their response is consciously or subconsciously influenced by the experience, because they know that they are being observed or, worse yet, judged.
The second method involves looking for patterns of behavior (like what people are talking about or where), by studying consumer conversations and interactions online.
Here’s the problem. Both these methods yield rational information, because they come directly from the mouth of the consumer. And when you take what a consumer tells you at face value, you miss the underlying insight — the real reason WHY someone is saying something or acting a certain way.
This is not to say that there is nothing to learn from these approaches and this book is certainly not meant as a critique of the research industry. These methods are great when you need to determine WHAT someone has done or said, and WHERE and WHEN they did so. But the real question that drives innovation, more effective communications, meaningful consumer journeys, and more powerful business strategies is WHY? Traditional research almost always fails to answer WHY consumers are acting a certain way and therefore fails to reveal unmet and undiscovered opportunities to motivate consumers to change their behavior. No matter the industry or category.
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