Ethnographic research for business innovation shows how to apply ethnographic research of social media to managing controlled disruption within organizations. Ethnographic research of social media can transform the entire innovation process because it’s a very efficient way to study the behavior and motivations of the people that the innovation proposes to serve. Unlike traditional innovation and ethnographic 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 business innovation can dramatically improve the depth and breadth of business and corporate strategy, business design and service design research since it allows teams to consider more users and to assess their behavior and motivations, which can improve the value of more costly research.
This post outlines the business innovation use case of ethnographic research of social media, and it includes examples in banking, professional services, consumer products, and B2B marketing. For more on ethnographic research, see More Resources below.
Use Case Goals and Rationale
“Innovation” refers to uncommon change or invention, and context changes its meaning significantly. Business innovation radically changes business form, structure, processes, services or products, so it’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition that usually requires extensive collaboration among diverse teams. As practiced in business, innovation projects usually have detailed business cases that argue the economic benefits of the proposed innovation, and most firms have defined processes for evaluating and selecting which innovation projects to support. Since innovation is relatively extreme by definition, and projects require extensive collaboration and time, failure rates are historically higher than 90%. Although each case is distinct, most innovations fail for the same reason that most product introductions fail: proposed users don’t like the innovation, so they don’t use the new disruptive enterprise software, customer service organization, merger with a competitor, etc.
Ethnographic research can transform business innovation because it enables teams to develop unprecedented understanding of stakeholder behavior.
Ethnographic Research of Social Media in Business Innovation
Ethnographic research removes much of the risk of business innovation because it studies people’s behavior within the context of the proposed innovation. This is why it de-risks innovation; it offers deep and broad insight into stakeholder scenarios when the proposed innovation is most important. Stakeholders are people who have the biggest impact on the adoption of your innovation. They have group conversations in digital public about the situations in which your proposed innovation is relevant to them. 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 innovations. Since business innovation is such a broad activity, here are some examples of using ethnographic research of social media to mitigate innovation risk:
- Digital bank branch for small businesses—National bank brand wants to tap into entrepreneurial trends in one of its country markets. Management thinks it can grow profit by nurturing the growth of entrepreneurs because they are becoming a larger part of the national workforce, and several segments of all entrepreneurs grow companies that require various financial services. The bank explores creating a fusion between a digital social network and office space in underused branches. Stakeholders are entrepreneurs, business bankers, and their influencers. Workstreams involve starting, expanding, closing, and selling businesses. Ethnographic research studies all stakeholders’ behavior around workstreams. The team learns how they already collaborate on workstreams and outcomes.
- Smart shoes for business casual workplaces—Shoe manufacturer observes commoditization of all of its shoe lines in step with falling physical activity in many of its stagnant “rich country” markets around the world. It explores embedding technology in soles that give their wearers continuous feedback on their activity, no extra gadget required and super easy to use. Stakeholders are people who want to track their activity pertinent to various workstreams. Ethnographic researchers study proposed stakeholders’ interactions in digital public, learning their frustrations and delights.
- Employee engagement program for professional services firm—Global firm wants to increase connections among its current employees and its large global group of former employees, so it wants to create a private social network. The network would automagically import profile information from social networks (LinkedIn, Xing, Viadeo) and address employee and alumni workstreams focused on the firm’s competencies as well as personal ones like job search, launching businesses, helping their children build careers. Stakeholders are employees and alumni. Ethnographic researchers study employees’ and alumni’s interactions about these outcomes and workstreams to identify points of pain and ways their innovation can uniquely address them.
- Digital laniard for trade shows—Startup concepts a digital laniard for trade shows that it aims to rent to event/conference producers. Attendees answer a five-question survey about their goals and interests at registration, or they can choose to have the larniard maker to autopopulate the survey based on their LinkedIn profile keywords. The digital lanairds light up when attendees are physically located by someone with complementary interests, removing the hassle of spending valuable conference time looking at smartphones. Stakeholders are conference attendees, conference sponsors, and conference producers, each with its related workstreams. Enthographic researchers study stakeholders’ behavior and collaborations around their respective outcomes and workstreams to validate or iterate the concept.
- Enterprise collaboration platform for global research community—Global enterprise with diverse product portfolio wants to create a “digital research campus” to increase collaboration of its ten research centers around the world. The enterprise has a dozen research sites around the world who end up duplicating efforts because they’re disconnected. By connecting researchers via a unified mobile and web platform, the firm hopes to increase dail tone among the researchers and innovation throughput while reducing duplication. Stakeholders are various researchers and their internal customers. Workstreams are research processes that show the highest friction—and frustration among stakeholders. Ethnographic researchers study researchers’ behavior in internal and external social networks, emails and texts. They identify areas of friction and desire, which the development team uses to design a pilot.
- Customer experience program for fitness equipment manufacturer—Firm wants to drive sales by improving customer experience of customers who build home gyms. It knows that many people who buy equipment are disappointed in their results, rarely due to the brand’s shortcomings, but disappointment dampens sales when people share it online. Stakeholders want to get more fit, lose weight, etc., but they want to do it at home for various reasons. They have outcomes as well as emotional motivations behind the outcomes, and ethnographic research discovers both by studying online communities where stakeholders interact. The firm discovers barriers that prevent stakeholders from reaching their outcomes, and it’s positioned to help overcome them in digital public. Notably, workstreams address stakeholders’ entire experience journeys, from discovering the desire to improve their wellness/fitness, through disposing of the equipment.
Ethnographic Research for Business Innovation, Step by Step
- Diligence stakeholders—Launching an innovation, whether a business process, a new product/service, the transformation of a business function, or some other requires prolonged commitment, so make sure you understand who your stakeholders are, and rank them in importance to your business strategy. 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 life cycle of the innovation: who affects your success in each part of the life 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. Customers buy more of your products/services when their outcomes are well 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 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 plastic surgery wants to feel better about herself, to look better, to find a new romantic partner, 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 business innovation—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 innovation research, asking people directly. 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 innovation research—Ethnographic research is biased toward stakeholder experiences and outcomes, so when you start with it, you understand their context. Use the results to inform the design of surveys, user tests, and focus groups, so you get more stakeholder-focused results. Many brands 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.
- For background on how I developed CSRA’s approach, see the Ethnographic Research of Social Media executive summary.
- I contributed the chapter on social networks in the Global Innovation Science Handbook, which is a much longer treatment of this post, and is available individually.
- Also see Ethnographic Research of Social Media for Product Management, and for Social Media. For more use cases, see the Social Network Roadmap‘s use cases.
- More how-to information on using stakeholders, workstreams and iterating profiles in the Ecosystem Audit.