Identity signalling

Guiseppe Peppe_The music sounds better with you

Pic: Guiseppe Peppe

I interviewed a lot of athletes in 2017. Personal trainers, coaches, instructors, and all types of participant from elite to amateur.

The role specialist kit plays in their worlds interested me.

Many of the sports involved extreme conditions: the right kit keeps you alive. I’d assumed function would be everything. Yet listening to these people, I was surprised about the subtle role brands play. Whilst function is vital (performance, fit and comfort) over time it became clear there are other things going on. Your kit signals who you are.

An obvious one: signalling to clients (what psychologists would call the outgroup). Instructors need to project a professional image to clients and brands play a role. When you’re mountainside all you have is your body, voice and reputation – and your clothing. It plays a differentiating role. Experts don’t want to wear the same gear as the “punters” or “weekend warriors. An item from a specialist brand – with identical technical capabilities to an equivalent item from another brand with a mass-market following – makes you stand apart from the people you are instructing.

Signalling to peers (what psychologists would call the ingroup). Each sport has subtle codes. A nice quote: “if you turned up with jacket with certain logos on it there would be raised eyebrows and comments… I have nothing against (BRAND X), I just wouldn’t choose to wear it to work… Status hierarchies need to be maintained as in any profession. Being given free gear by the right brands to test and review gives you the next level of bragging rights. You can always drop the “I didn’t pay for any of this” or “…these boots? They were never brought to market” line if you’re keen to impress.

Signalling to yourself. The gear tells you something about yourself, reinforcing your identity. It’s not always conscious. One example: it took me about 45 minutes to get the guided tour of the kit room in one participant’s house. There was one item at the back he didn’t mention, so I had to ask. The baggy black Outer Layer – shiny at the elbows, saggy and not quite so waterproof 10 years on – was the first specialist item he’d bought after working in an outdoor retailer for the summer. He’d coveted it, saved up for it and bought it with his staff discount. From a brand which the older more experienced peers were wearing, it was his entry to ‘the club.’ He hadn’t worn it for years: whilst its intended purpose was practical its actual purpose was emotional. A symbol, or memento.

I have two reflections.

Firstly, all of this speaks to general human experience. A glacier or mountain may mean life or death – but is still a social environment in which people seek difference and demonstrate status. Look closely at any other specialist area – fashion, music, IT, whatever – and similar things will be going on because we’re social creatures who construct our identities in relation to the context we find ourselves in. As psychologist Tony Crabbe says “We compete for status in almost every domain of our lives.” 

Secondly, our identities are more malleable than we care to admit. Brands are reference points. We internalise them. They reinforce our sense of who we are.

We perform ourselves to ourselves.

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Ad effectiveness: Les Binet / WARC webinar

Effectiveness in the digital age was hosted by Les Binet from adam&eveDDB, part of the WARC 2017 Toolkit series.

The content was so good I’ve been mulling it over for 3 months trying to work out all the implications.

Binet uses the IPA databank to understand ad effectiveness, essentially examining how 1000+ campaigns led to measurable business results. He’s spent 10 years isolating the role of creative & media so we don’t have to.

I love all this stuff as it gives you the meta level view of what works. It both confirms and develops hunches you’ve had from many years working project by project.

There’s loads of interesting stuff to go at, but for me Binet was most compelling on strategy: isolating cause and effect and the synergistic effects of media.

There are two distinct jobs for marketing

Binet framed effectiveness around two competing marketing paradigms: reach (tell everyone) and targeting (focus your efforts).

Two ways marketing works

Reach is about brand building

  • Who: the aim is to speak to all potential buyers not just those buying right now.
  • What: “Your goal is to make people feel good about you so more likely to buy when they next see you.” Brand building creative should be emotional, entertaining, memorable
  • Why: it makes firms grow (‘builds long-term equity’). Reach is biggest predictor of ad advertising effectiveness. “Marketing is a numbers game…you need to reach as many people as possible…”
  • When: It is future oriented, an investment. It’s about building up memory structures, preparing the ground. Time horizons are long. That means if you’re selling cars you should reach even those who haven’t learnt to drive yet.
  • Sales effects: slow burn. Effects are small in the short term, but they last a long time. There is a stepped effect: each exposure increases base level of sales.

Targeting is about immediate sales activation

  • Who: give those in the market for your product right now compelling reasons to buy
  • What: You’re converting: rational persuasion, offers and a response mechanism – classic BTL DM/digital approach
  • Why: immediate sales effects. These are bigger and more immediate than those seen when brand building, but also more short term and decay quicker (e.g. 6 months)
  • When: now!
  • Sales effects: large, immediate, but more short term and quicker to decay (e.g. 6 months)

Targeting only works because of reach

  • Or to put it another way reach is what makes targeting work. You need to set them up (awareness, positivity, trust etc) before you can knock them down (offer, promotion, response mechanism).

Use the right media for the right job

Think synergistically

  • The evidence shows campaigns combining mass media and digital sales activation are more effective. Synergistic cross media effects mean the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Digital gives a “kicker effect” – boosting effectiveness.

The kicker effect of digital.png

Evaluate & prioritise your budgets (aka ROI is illusory)

  • The balance between long term building and short term sales activation should be around 60/40. Getting the time-frame for evaluation wrong means you over prioritise sales activation – and end up in a self-defeating short-term cycle of neglect. This is the illusory nature of ROI.
  • It’s about the strategy, the right job using the right medium.
    • When you’re brand building people are not particularly interested in what you have to say right now – they are busy doing other things. David Golding from adam & eve DDB talks about “creating culture through campaigns that generate fame, talk-ability and memetic power.”
    • When you’re converting you’re easing the path to purchase. Programmatic interventions online are a good example: identifying, micro-targeting and influencing people just as they are about to buy.

Binet also made great points on how the network effects of digital platforms have different rules and how millennials’ media choices are slightly different.

But it’s lunchtime and I’m hungry. Go listen yourself.

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5 takeaways from the MRS Conference

Another year, another MRS conference. Here’s five takeaways from the sessions I attended on the second day.

Imagining multiple futures

If the past 12 months have taught us anything it is that making predictions is difficult – or even foolish.

In his session Memories of the Future Mark Earls focused on the role of research in helping clients navigate strategic decisions. There is a natural human tendency to ‘impose linearity’ when thinking about cause and effect – A leads to B. Reality is more complex.

In his view our role is not to predict one future but several. We shouldn’t be making one precise ‘pass/fail’ prediction but mapping a range of possible alternatives, and using these to prompt open discussions with our clients. He used ‘the futures cone’ (the rather wonderful diagram below) to bring this thinking to life:

The futures cone

Ogilvy Labs was run on a shoestring

In the same session Nicole Yershon described her experiences setting up and running Ogilvy Labs (the R&D unit of Ogilvy group). Yershon radiates entrepreneurial zeal and had lots of tips about creating a new culture of innovation within a corporation of 1800 people. She had to be creative in generating revenue to fund the non fee-earning venture when it started in 2007. Hard to imagine now, but this was what kick-started Rory Sutherland’s paid public speaking engagements. It was also the genesis of his book The Wiki Man (a collection of his Campaign and Spectator columns) – conferences pay more if the speaker has a book. She also described the lab’s KPIs – which focussed on more than revenue:

  • Revenue (developing fee earning work over time)
  • Reputation
  • Retention (engaging work for colleagues)
  • Recruitment of new diverse talent (not the usual Oxbridge route in)
  • Relationships
  • Responsibility (giving back/paying forward)

Video selfies are a thing (but watch out for half naked participants)

The session on behaviour change Nudge or hint? Is behaviour change going far enough? had a couple of great new methods. Kindling Partner John Cohen devised an ingenious method of capturing split-second recycling decisions. Evidence showed young people in London recycle less than other age groups, partly because of the hassle, partly because of the confusion over what goes in what bin. In the week leading up to a paired in-home depth participants recorded daily video selfies at the moment of recycling/not recycling. The associated video showed moments of real honesty (and a couple of half-naked participants). The takeout: the method eased the path to telling the truth and allowed participants a way to map their own behaviour in a non-judgemental manner. This unlocked the insight which was the bedrock of the behaviour change campaign.

Using dashcams for ethnography and confronting undesirable behaviour

Another behaviour change brief – this time on using mobiles whilst driving – another ingenious method. BAMM and the Department for Transport used dashcams to record driving behaviour. Participants were recruited on the basis of a project looking at driving habits; this passive observation for 2 weeks exposed all sorts of shall we say… sub-optimal habits. The really brave bit was bringing the drivers together, showing them their behaviour in a group workshop, before getting them to co-create an intervention which addressed both unconscious behaviours (touching my phone without thinking) as well as undermining conscious justifications (I have to pick up, it’s my son’s nursery).

Quick framework: lapsed, dominant and emergent trends

Nick Gadsby’s whilstlestop tour of semiotics was too rich to summarise, but included an off-the-shelf analysis tool: classifying the lapsed, dominant and emergent trends relevant to a topic. His example related to luxury: contemporary visions of luxury living used to be all about excess and bling. These have now shifted and the aspirational living space is now sparse, open, with few things or people in it. A useful prompt for analysis, whatever the category.

 

 

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The challenges of media research

mriy

Introduction to my chapter on Media Research in the Market Research and Insight Yearbook, published by Kogan Page last year. 

Media owners use research to prove that their media channels work and are good value to their customers, the advertisers. Advertisers rely on research to show that advertising has worked both creatively and in terms of media choice. Both need to understand how people use media and receive messages. This sets the challenge for media research. It must overcome two issues in order to be useful.

First, there are many media channels and people are exposed to many of them either simultaneously (surfing social media on their phone while watching TV) or over time (the newspaper in the morning, the radio in the car, the letter on the doormat when they come home). Research needs to attribute effects correctly to each channel and observe when combined effects are stronger.

Second, people are prone to misattributing the role of advertising in their lives. Primarily they forget or dismiss most of what they are exposed to. What they do recall and remember they often wrongly attribute to what they assume are more dominant media channels. TV often gets the credit that press, posters, online and direct mail in part deserve[1].

The growth of both ‘traditional’ media (more TV channels, DAB radio, free papers) and ‘new’ media (news brands online, social media, online advertising, etc.) has created ever greater fragmentation. This only makes the task of market research harder. While some new media have metrics ‘baked-in’ such as the measure of clicks, views, likes, tweets etc., this can create a misattribution of its own where the easy to measure, but less effective, is favoured over the hard-to-measure but more effective[2].

New Techniques for Media Research

Media research will always rely in part on people’s recall of advertising. This remains a quick and cheap way of roughly measuring success. However, in recent years, approaches based on academic advances in neuroscience and Behavioural Economics have both helped move beyond this reliance on recall, and can help solve the problems of misattribution.

Techniques adopted from neuroscience and biometrics mean we can now say with confidence which messages are likely to form lasting memories and go on to influence future behaviour. Behavioural Economics has inspired experiments which isolate the underlying influences on behaviour, providing clear evidence of what participants are unable to attribute or struggle to recall. This methodological precision is made possible by advances in recording technologies that make ethnography, self-ethnography and observervation cheaper and less intrusive.

Case Studies

The two case studies outlined in this chapter both use innovations in methodology driven by neuroscience and Behavioural Economics to solve the problem of advertising misattribution – a core issue for advertising mail. The cases describe how Trinity McQueen worked with Royal Mail MarketReach (the part of Royal Mail that supports advertisers’ use of mail) to understand how mail, leaflets and catalogues work as advertising media.

The first case study shows how we used CCTV & ethnography to evidence what actually happens to mail in the home: where it goes, how long it lives and what it is used for. We have highlighted several learnings for qualitative research design, particularly when leveraging technology.

The second case study shows how we combined a controlled experiment and neuroscience to evidence the impact of the medium on the message. The quality of paper shouldn’t affect the desire to read something, but it does. We have highlighted several learnings for behavioural research design.

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[1] The TV advertising industry body thinkbox commissioned econometric modelling to examine the direct and indirect effects of different media: https://www.thinkbox.tv/Getting-on-TV/Planning-and-Buying-TV/TV-and-other-media

[1] Les Binet and Sarah Carter provide a detailed analysis of the issues in the WARC blog entitled Attribution Fraud: http://www.warc.com/Blogs/Mythbuster_Attribution_fraud.blog?ID=2227

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The unreasonable consumer

Adam Morgan’s presentation at IAB Engage 2016 Winning in the age of the unreasonable consumer is well worth 15 minutes of your time. He does a great job of summarising how the consumer mindset has changed. Across categories ‘Uber’s Children’ have been educated that it’s no longer necessary to make trade-offs (e.g. convenience, performance, price) – you can have it all:

 “We thought we wanted fine foods would go to fine food shop and paid fine food prices… and then someone comes along and gives us a sustainably farmed lobster for £5.99.

 We thought if we wanted a fast a sexy car it would be a gas guzzler… and now you can have the greenest car in the world that when you press the ludicrous button it will do 0-60 in 2.5 seconds.

 We thought that if we had to go into a fast food restaurant we shouldn’t really question the ethics of the food or how it got there too much… but now we can go into a fast food restaurant pay a reasonable price and still have a side order of sustainability.

 We thought that if we wanted to look as fabulous as Jennifer Lawrence we probably had to have the salary of Jennifer Lawrence… but now actually we can look that fabulous then simply take it back (to the rental store) the following morning.

 …All those old trade-offs that were the basis of strategy… they no long held. And the more that we educate the consumer to be unreasonable and to change their expectations the less they are going to hold them, and the more unreasonable we have to become ourselves.”

the-unreasonable-consumer-adam-morgan

Some of the brands changing our expectations

Morgan argues that it is not brands but consumers that have become disruptive – the expectations of ‘Uber’s Children’ are the biggest challenge. The unreasonable challenger who progresses the category has an advantage, developing a niche which starts to deposition you – and so the cycle of competition progresses.

The way to succeed? To be even more unreasonable than they are. He cites the example of One Toyota in California who take just 6 minutes to complete the first service on new cars. This ‘signature moment’ then goes on to change expectations for all other car dealerships.

Morgan’s talk neatly articulates how expectations are shifting: it’s a compelling watch.

What we see in the field

Speaking to consumers on a regular basis I’m rarely confronted with the archetypal ‘unreasonable consumer.’ The trend is more revealed in aggregate. I tend to see:

  • Dissatisfaction with the main providers in a category
  • People learning there’s an easier way somewhere – and this is the reference point, no matter which category it’s in
  • People giving a new competitor a go because it’s easy to sign up for a free trial

Financial services are a case in point. We’ve seen on recent projects how retail banks are facing competition from Fintech entrants who are disrupting sectors such as mobile payments, money transfers and forex. Revolut is a good example – making foreign exchange quicker, cheaper and more flexible.

It’s clear how a fleet of foot tech firm can make quick progress in the traditionally conservative world of retail banking. As McKinsey point out:

  • They don’t have to worry about legacy technology;
  • They are agile, often focusing on individual segments of the value chain;
  • They are only partially subject to the regulatory constraints that apply to conventional banks;
  • They can often substantially undercut the fees charged by incumbents.

Unintended consequences

It’s certain that the discipline of commercial pressure benefits us all. It’s how the market economy works.

When it comes to user experiences online or being easy to do business with, I’m all for it.

But as a strategy being even more unreasonable than the unreasonable consumer can’t get you all the way – especially offline.

Competitively you soon run out of room. Toyota One’s competitors aren’t realistically going to be looking at a 5, 4 or 3 minute service. Mapping the customer experience, exceeding expectations on the most important touchpoints, and setting expectations clearly for remainder seems more feasible.

There is room for confidence, brand leadership & distinctiveness too. Zigging when the world zags. There’s also kudos in integrity. The café where I’m writing this charges diners e3 for every change people make to their breakfast dishes as it puts the chefs off their stride. The customer isn’t always right.

eataly-courtesy-of-psfk

The customer is not always right – Eataly NYC – courtesy of PSFK

More broadly, there are many unintended consequences to giving ‘Uber’s Children’ exactly what they what. Historian Yuval Noah Harari:

“For the capitalist juggernaut, happiness is pleasure. Full stop. With each passing year, our tolerance for unpleasant sensations decreases, whereas our craving for pleasant sensations increases. Both scientific research and economic activity are geared to that end, producing each year better painkillers, new ice-cream flavours, more comfortable mattresses, and more addictive games for our smartphones, so that we will not suffer a single boring moment while waiting for the bus.”

Behavioural science tells us that we adapt to our circumstances. Today’s exceptional is tomorrow’s expected. If all our whims are miraculously catered to, we may never reach nirvana – just ever greater expectations. Harari again puts it far better than I could:

 ‘If we told our great-great-grandmother how we live, with vaccinations and painkillers and running water and stuffed refrigerators, she would likely have clasped her hands in astonishment and said: “You are living in paradise! You probably wake up every morning with a song in your heart, and pass your days walking on sunshine, full of gratitude and loving-kindness for all.” Well, we don’t. Compared to what most people in history dreamed about, we may be living in paradise. But for some reason, we don’t feel that we are.

…our happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations. Expectations, however, tend to adapt to conditions. When things improve, expectations rise, and consequently even dramatic improvements in conditions might leave us as dissatisfied as before. In their pursuit of happiness, people are stuck on the proverbial “hedonic treadmill”, running faster and faster but getting nowhere.”

 

 

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WARC Brainy Bar 3

brainy-barIt was standing room only at the third Brainy Bar event.

Run by Walnut in conjunction with WARC, the idea is for clients, vendors and agencies involved neuroscience (the “brainy” part) to get together in Creston’s bar (the “bar” part) to share case studies and best practice.

It’s an admirable shared vision: people from different fields working together to create more effective communications.

There was lots of good stuff, but my main take-outs from the evening were:

1) Ads that evoke an emotional response are more effective

Dr. Cristina De Balanzo from Walnut introduced the evening. I was too busy drinking my G&T to take many notes but did biro down that Emotional campaigns yield better long term results, as Binet & Field proved in their IPA meta-analysis in 2015.

2) Work with natural human tendencies to ensure your ads are memorable

Heather Andrew from Neuro-Insight explored techniques to create effective TV advertising, based on work from a range of clients including ThinkBox. Many of the studies involve getting people watching TV ads whilst wearing EEG headsets and measuring emotional engagement and long term memory encoding. Granular feedback of what works within a 30 second TV ad is really useful when creating future executions:

  • Great ads should not only to evoke emotion but build long term memories. The latter part is vital if you want to influence future behaviour – not just create great entertainment.
  • Great brands develop associations in your brain over time. She used the “brand room analogy” – your brain has “rooms” – brands you know well are “completely furnished”; brands you know less well are “sparsely furnished”. The aim is to build associations (furnishings) then trigger these at relevant times (switch the light on).
  • Triggers can be quite subtle – shapes, colours, smells, music can then trigger these associations and “turn the light in the room on”
  • Andrew focussed on how her research had revealed that subtlety is a surprisingly powerful tool:
    • Showcasing rather then overt selling means people are more open to your messages;
    • There is a human tendency to respond to stories, puzzles, people. Make your brand part of one to encourage long term memory encoding. The example was the Diet Coke Break campaigns which bring together a similar cast of characters and situations;
    • Human interaction always encourages a reaction in any ad: correlating with better recall. For example peak point for long term memory encoding was the kiss in the John Lewis “growing older” execution.
  • A great technique: picking elements proven to correlate with long-term memory encoding from pre-tested TV ads and using these “flashbulb” images to lead outdoor campaigns Increasing effectiveness based on real data, not intuition.

3) Use the neuro toolkit to test, learn and optimise – just like you do with any other method

Thom Noble (NeuroStrata) gave a detailed overview of how he triangulates different methods in the neuro toolkit to add value for clients. He combines measures of standout (aka salience – where the eye is drawn to when you look at an image) and emotion (aka implicit response – a timed measure of the strength of associations you have when exposed to a product/brand) to evaluate comms.

He talked us through a programme of research with CGI design agency, Saddington Baynes establishing the parameters of good car advertising, establishing “what good looks like” for static and CGI car ads. Using a series of controlled tests – he investigated parameters like car colour, trim level, car facing left/right, the car being static or in action, with a driver or not etc.

Some evidence was surprising. For example, it is better to have the car image on the left, and text on the right as our brains process this combination more intuitively.

The outcome was database evidence relating to what works relating to car imagery. This moves beyond gut reactions, providing a new understanding of cause and effect. You can imagine how useful this is when creating a new campaign – reverse engineering rather than starting from scratch.

In summary

As a former comms agency researcher I was pleased to see how these methods were used to augment intuition: empowering creatives – not side-lining them. Thanks to all involved.

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5% of my waking hours

Like many people I spend too much time on my smartphone.

As a researcher I like to think I’m relatively aware of my behaviour. I consciously limit my time staring at it, stroking it or waiting for it to bring me jolt of joy in the working day. If you’d asked me a couple of weeks ago I’d have said smugly “It’s under control”. In the spirit of understanding I downloaded the Moment app which tracks phone use.

Surprise surprise: I was far more reliant on it than I thought. I averaged over an hour a day of screen time, picking my phone up 30-35 times a day.

Moment smarthphone tracking

It’s a useful reminder that our perception is unreliable: actual behaviour is different to self-reported behaviour. When it comes to new tech, I’d argue we are particularly prone to error. We’re learning on the go.

It’s also a prompt to think about the social context of phone use. I don’t intend to be rude. But – like anyone having a conversation whilst scrolling through a feed – I probably am. The technology which connects you to others can also isolate you from them.

There are other unintended consequences. Professor Mary Aiken referred to an ethnographic study on the Today Programme last month as she launched her book The Cyber Effect. Researchers observed parents and their kids in a cafe. Parents were looking at their screens 60% of the time: neither speaking nor making eye contact. She made the obvious point here: the way our children behave depends on the example we set to them. The question parents should be asking is not “at what age should kids be exposed to smartphones” but “at what age should kids be exposed to their parents’ smartphone use.”

As Sherry Turkle and others have observed: phone world puts you first. It promises you’ll never be bored, you’ll always be heard and that you can put your attention wherever it suits you. Is it any wonder most people have more screen time than they intend? Something which I managed to live happily without for the first 30 years of my life now accounts for 5-7% of my waking hours. Joy.

Given I was limiting my screen time already, what is the solution? If unplugging or exercising self-control aren’t options, there’s plenty of paid solutions to help us to use tech more wisely. Browser blockers which limit access to the web; paid versions of apps like Moment give you tips to reduce phone use based your patterns of behaviour.

If all else fails, we can outsource virtue.  It just doesn’t feel like much of a solution to me.

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A Lament for the Millennials (2): UK house prices vs. average student debt upon graduation 2000-2015

A previous post looked at the challenges young people face when trying to make a start in life.

I looked into how house prices and student debt upon graduation have changed over the past 15 years.

In the period 2000-2015:

  • Average UK house prices increased 2.4x – from £80k to £194k
  • Average student debt upon graduation is projected to increase 14.9x – from £2,960 to £44,035

Student debt vs house pricesCombined with stagnating wages and limited pension provision there is an ever increasing wealth gap between the generations. This surely must rise up the political agenda as young people realise the profound implications of economic trends and government policy.

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Sources:   Nationwide house price index: http://www.nationwide.co.uk/about/house-price-index/download-data

Student loans company: http://www.slc.co.uk/media/5420/slcsfr012014.pdf

Sutton Trust: http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/payback-time-report.pdf

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Reference bias: what does “good” look like?

A recent study by Heckman & Kautz ranked nations according to their self-reported conscientiousness. They then cross referenced the average number of hours a worker in that country actually works each year (see below).

National rank in conscientiousness vs. average number of hours worked annually

Reference bias_Heckman & KautzOverall there is little correlation between how conscientious people in each country think they are, and the reality of how much they work. As the authors state: “The results are surprising. South Korea ranks second to last in terms of conscientiousness but first in the number of hours worked.” France on the other hand put in 40% fewer hours each year than the South Koreans yet rate themselves as far more conscientious. Thanks to the Stirling Behavioural Science Blog sharing the paper.

It’s a reminder that measuring abstract concepts in surveys can be a challenge. If participants have to interpret what a concept like ‘conscientious’ ‘happy’ or ‘lazy’ means they will all reference different norms. This “reference bias” makes comparisons misleading.

What’s needed is a common frame of reference. Academics use “vignettes” (short written descriptions) to help anchor responses and give more standardisation across cultures. There is a great list of these here for anyone interested. “Ken” for example, is the anchor point of 5/5 happiness on a happiness scale – and sounds like great company:

“Ken loves life and is happy all the time. He never worries or gets upset about anything and deals with things as they come.”

Whilst commercial constraints are going to prevent the average market researcher developing vignettes for every survey, when you’re measuring abstract notions they reduce subjectivity. I’m resolved to giving them a go.

 

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Are we all anthropologists now?

Anthropology – the study of humanity using observational techniques – is an inspirational, thought-provoking subject for researchers. February’s Radio 4 series “From Savage to Self” was a good primer on its origins and history. Thanks to Dr Nick Southgate for recommending it.

I learned most from the episode which focussed on commercial anthropology. It argued that practices taken from anthropology have seeped into everyday life – hence the title We are all anthropologists now. Quite a bold claim when you think about it.

Host Dr Farrah Jarral interviewed ReD Associates’ Claire Straty after a long day’s fieldwork.

As she described her work, Straty described the all too familiar gap between what participants say and what they do, illustrating the role of ethnography. Her purpose as a commercial ethnographer?

“We seek to find asymmetries. Between how a client sees the world and the lived realities of the people that these companies serve. There usually is a big gap between those two things and it is my job to go and find what that asymmetry is.”

Jarral pressed her on the rigour of her practice. Straty’s typical fieldwork period is 2 consecutive days, which is slightly more practical than the 12-15 months required for typical PhD thesis. Whilst narrower in its focus, in her view applied ethnography is no less valid: she describes it as more productive and more gratifying than academic practice.

There’s a theme here. Read any academic commentary on ethnography and it soon becomes apparent that there is hostility to commercial market researchers claiming to use ethnographic methods. Professor Danny Miller from UCL is clear: there are no shortcuts to understanding. You should enter your study with no hypotheses so not to bias your observations. You understand the community you are embedded with holistically, and this generates understanding of your topic of interest.

Whilst no comparison can be made to being embedded within a community for a year or so, any market researcher used to conducting both qualitative and ethnographic methods will know the nuanced understanding that spending extended periods of time with participants brings. Even spending a day with a participant – about five times the length of a focus group – gives much more than five times as much depth. For me the benchmark therefore isn’t academic ethnography but “in and out” techniques typical of market research which used in isolation provide limited context or immersion.

The tension between the academic and commercial world is unlikely to recede soon. We might find academia overly rigid, but we should understand their objections and use the word ethnography with respect.

For anyone interested in what academic anthropology can achieve, a team from UCL have just published ‘Why We Post’ – a global research project looking into the cultural norms of social media usage across nine countries. The findings are a challenge to the notion that people use technology in the same way – norms seem to differ wildly within and between countries. UCL have done a fantastic job in making their work accessible, with a great website compete with video, downloadable ebooks and lay summaries. Kudos to them.

Figure: Social media platforms used by English school pupils, from the ‘How the world changed’ ebook published for the ‘Why We Post’ research project

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