Ethnographic Research for Cross-Border Business

Ethnographic Research Cross Border BusinessEthnographic research for cross border business shows how to apply ethnographic research of social media to reducing the risks and costs of doing cross border business and deals. Ethnographic research can transform the value proposition of international business because it’s a very efficient way to conduct due diligence, to study the behavior and motivations of the people that the deal proposes to serve. Unlike traditional research methods, which are relatively slow, costly and qualitative, ethnographic research of social media combines qualitative richness with quantitative analysis. It’s faster and less costly, too.

Ethnographic research for cross border business can dramatically improve the depth and breadth of research for business and corporate strategy, market entry strategy, customer development, human capital strategy, product management, and others since it allows teams to consider more users and to assess their behavior and motivations, which can improve the value of more costly research.

Imagine that you can get deep qualitative and quantitative data on what your proposed clients, customers, employees and partners are discussing among themselves, specifically about the business scenario you propose to address. Ethnographic allows you to validate, with real people, market entry strategy, at a fraction of the cost and time of any other method.

Use Case Goals and Rationale

Ethnographic Research Cross Border Business Goals & RationaleInternational business usually refers to entering new markets across borders, cultures and regulatory environments, so it’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition due to the myriad unknowns involved. The business context usually refers to extending an existing business that’s seen success within its home environment and expanding it to another geography for sales and/or production. Although each case is distinct, many deals fail to reach their potential because the business cases relied on assumptions that turned out to be false or inaccurate. And most business cases ultimately depend on understanding human (“stakeholder”) behavior in terms of purchasing, collaboration, working and regulation.

Ethnographic research can transform cross border business because it enables teams to develop unprecedented understanding of stakeholder behavior—before they make costly investments.

Ethnographic Research for Cross Border Business

Ethnographic Research Cross Border Business OverviewEthnographic research removes much of the risk of cross border business and deals because it studies stakeholder behavior when they are discussing the business problem within the context of the scenarios that the cross-border firm aims to address. This is why it de-risks innovation; it offers deep and broad insight into stakeholder scenarios when the proposed product or service is most important. Stakeholders are people who have the biggest impact on the new market participant. They have group conversations in digital public about the situations in which your service or product is relevant to them. Notably, stakeholders include potential customers, employees, contractors, channel partners, etc. Stakeholders have desired experiences and outcomes for which they use processes, tools, products or services. They pursue outcomes in a sequential process called a workstream. Ethnographic research of social media studies the online communities and their stakeholders, workstreams, and outcomes to understand stakeholders and their needs for the proposed product or service.

The uses of ethnographic for cross border business are many and varied, but here are some common examples.

  • Product distribution strategy—a common way to test a market is to mitigate risk by distributing through channel partners who are already established in the new market. To mitigate risk, conduct ethnographic on the channel partners as well as end customers/clients.
  • Service delivery partners—service firms contract with established partners to test out demand for their services and the feasibility of delivery.
  • Software development group in new market—hiring and managing development in another country. When the firm aspires to enter a market with far different infrastructure, customs and other user/customer constraints, it can embed a development group within the proposed market; it often hires local talent and pairs them with some of its home country developers.
  • Branch office network—a step up in risk and cost is establishing offices in the new market for direct sales, service, recruiting and brand building. Use ethnographic to study results of competitors and substitutes when they attempted analogous moves.
  • Research & development lab in new market—conducting research within another market. When the firm aspires to enter a market with far different infrastructure, customs and other user/customer constraints, it can embed an R&D group within the proposed market; it often hires local researchers and pairs them with some of its home country researchers.
  • Product/service/site research—use ethnographic to learn, in customers’ own words, frustrations with home market product, services, policies, etc., before you enter the market. Moreover, you can continue to monitor customers’ views in real-time, so you have a constant pipeline of knowledge. This also pertains to prospective business partners, employees, and office site selection in the new market.
  • M&A/Acquisition of a local firm—here, the market entrant buys into the market, in terms of customer lists and brand or an acquihire in which it buys talent/employees. Conduct ethnographic on employees of the proposed acquiree and similar businesses/cultures to anticipate employee and productivity issues.

Note that seeding R&D, software development or product development in a new market usually has the additional benefit of learning the market and selling the product or service there as well. The firm is usually afforded some native recognition since it can claim that it was made in-country.

Ethnographic Research for Cross Border Business, Step by Step

  • Ethnographic Research Cross Border Business Step by StepDiligence stakeholders—Entering a new market requires varying commitment based on how you invest, so make sure you understand who your stakeholders are, and rank them in importance to your entry strategy. Traditional due diligence processes feature little data and educated assumptions because, before digital social, there was no practical means of getting good quantitative data on human behavior. Who are the niches of people who affect your area of business the most? It’s often useful to think in terms of the adoption of your product or service: who affects your success in each part of the adoption cycle? Which parts of the cycle have the biggest risks and opportunities? List and prioritize 3-6 stakeholders in two-three phases of the life cycle. It’s best to have a long list from which to choose; some of them won’t be discussing what you want in digital public; adoption is uneven among people. Note that your stakeholders are probably online, but they may not be talking about the workstreams you want in public. If they’re not in digital public, you can use ethnographic research to study internal data like texts and emails.
  • Stakeholder profiles. If you’ve done persona studies of some of your stakeholders, they can be a useful input, but most I’ve seen are too general. Otherwise, query people in your firm who know the stakeholders the best, and this is best done in groups because people can riff off each other, and you’ll get better info. Include colleagues who have been stakeholders themselves. Describe their characteristics as best you can. Create stakeholder profiles. Aim for 4-8 profiles (for two or three phases of the life cycle).
  • Workstream profiles. You have selected stakeholders due to a powerful connection between them and your business in the new market. Customers buy more of your products/services when their outcomes are well and uniquely served by your products/services. They want to get more value than what they paid you, even though they can’t often explain the value if you ask them; much of their experience of using your product has little to do with product functions and features. For example, they might use your (or competitor) product along with other things that frustrate them and compromise their overall experience. Their desired experiences and outcomes drive their workstreams. For example, someone considering a medical device may want any combination of: improving clinical outcomes, gaining adoption among physicians, driving brand/company valuation, or building a new practice area, and reaching the outcome requires the workstream. Create a workstream for each stakeholder profile. Outcomes roughly correspond to jobs-to-be-done, which is often used by design firms. All people who are involved with your innovation have their own outcomes and workstreams, and most are talking about their workstreams online. Stakeholder and workstream profiles should be a “minimum viable” effort that only serves as your starting point.
  • Test/iterate profiles—Next, engage a colleague who is adept at working with keywords and SEO. His/Her role is to translate the profiles into complex searches that can filter digital social public and identify each stakeholder and workstream profile discretely. I have conducted hundreds of these processes, and it’s impossible to predict the outcome, except there are always surprises. Stakeholder and workstream profiles look like time-lapse photography because they get clearer with each iteration. You’re filtering the entire Internet within a language (sometimes across multiple languages, but I recommend starting small and addressing discrete markets/languages). Aim for simplicity because you want to pilot and iterate and scale based on real-world results.
  • Locate and rank communities—Workstream profiles will show you where in the world (literally) stakeholders are talking about their outcomes that are most relevant to your products/services. Stakeholder and workstream searches will lead you to where conversations are deepest and richest. Select 6-12 communities, and study them. Note people’s aspirations, worries, and behavior. What do they say? Observe how they mirror and challenge each other. Use a social bookmarking system like Pinboard to save and tag individual interactions. Use mine as an example.
  • Analyze findings—At this point, you’ll have hundreds of catalogued interactions that reveal stakeholders’ workstreams and outcomes, and you’ll know how your innovation can support them in attaining their outcomes in the most distinctive way. In your analysis, also note stakeholders’ attitudes towards innovations like your proposed one. What are their biggest frustrations and dreams? You’ll see your stakeholders as you’ve never seen them before.
  • Ethnographic research unique value for cross border business—Ethnographic research of social media produces breakthrough results because it studies experiences and outcomes of your most valuable stakeholders, but it avoids the trap of most due diligence, asking people directly and not considering human behavior in sufficient depth. It studies people when you’re not in the room; even though they know you’re there, they have created the community themselves, for their own reasons, so you’re a visitor there. Stakeholders by default are focused on their experiences and outcomes. Think of outcomes as the “what”; workstreams are the “how.” The how is more changeable, and it involves your proposed innovation.
  • Using ethnographic research to strengthen traditional due diligence—Ethnographic research is biased toward stakeholder experiences and outcomes, so when you start with it, you understand their context before you invoke the costs of traditional due diligence. Use the results to inform the design of surveys, user tests, market sizing studies, and focus groups, so you get more stakeholder-focused results. Many firms build their own online user/customer communities to solicit customer feedback, and these can be very useful. However, since the firm sets the context, such communities are biased toward the firm. Go to where stakeholders talk among themselves for emerging information; it’s the most stakeholder-focused information available, and it’s real-time, continuous, and scalable.

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