Ethnographic Research for Product Management

Ethnographic Research for Product Management Initiatives avatarEthnographic research for product management shows how to apply ethnographic research of social media to managing the life cycle of products and services. Ethnographic research of social media can revolutionize product management because it’s a very efficient way to study people’s behavior and motivations in each part of the product life cycle. Unlike traditional product 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.

This post outlines the product management use case of ethnographic research of social media. For more on ethnographic research, see its executive summary.

Use Case Goals and Rationale

Ethnographic Research for Product Management with social media goals & rationaleProduct management is a very broad field, and it’s expanding rapidly in most organizations because product life cycles have been falling for years, so product management manages those life cycles. The field is also exploding because most objects and services are computerized, and the products’ software is often managed as a product in itself. Ethnographic research is vital to product management because it enables teams to understand stakeholder behavior. Product management’s stakeholders vary widely with the stage of the product life cycle. I’ll include some examples to illustrate the point.

Ethnographic Research of Social Media in Product and Service Management

Ethnographic Research for Product Management with social media overviewEthnographic research de-risks product/service management in many phases of the life cycle. Stakeholders are people who have the biggest impact on your product within one or more stages of the life cycle. They have group conversations in digital public about the situations in which your product/competitors’ products are relevant to them. Stakeholders have desired experiences and outcomes for which they use your product. They pursue outcomes in a sequential process called a workstream.

  • Market disruption and invention—Since ethnographic research enables teams to dive deep into users’ behavior and motivations, it’s unbeatable for disrupting markets. Remember, its unique strength is that it’s a structured process for studying group behaviors in communities, where people are discussing their aspirations and frustrations in deep detail. It involves large numbers of people, and digital social moves as fast as people think. Most disruptors have insight to some pocket(s) of friction in business or society based on their observation and, often, their personal experiences. They are often more observant when they have core competencies that relate to their subjects of observation. Stakeholders are usually people feeling the friction, within certain contexts.
  • Product (re)design—Obviously this varies greatly with the type of business, but whether the product is mature or a disruptor just changes the context; teams must decide how to define the product in terms of form, functions and features, and how they think they can differentiate it for successful competition. Given how many variables are at play, it’s no wonder why most product introductions fail. Firms are caught in a vice: products and product categories commoditize quickly, and a high degree of innovation is necessary just to stay in the game. People on social media are relentlessly cutting product life cycles because they consume novelty overnight. At the same time, ethnographic research of social media enables product design teams to skate to where the puck is going—because they’re moving as quickly as users. It’s excellent for competitive research since users are talking about using all kinds of products and substitutes to attain their outcomes. Ethnographic focuses on the meaning of products in the context of groups’ and communities’ outcomes. It drastically reduces the risks of product design decisions. It’s best approached as a continuous process of product design. Stakeholders are usually various types of product users and influencers on the buying decision as well as user satisfaction.
  • Distribution—Ethnographic research of social media can change the game in several areas. Although your firm undoubtedly has defined distribution systems in place, studying users’ and buyers’ behavior can help you design packaging, prioritize distribution, select partners, create distribution agreements, create promotions, etc. Stakeholders are quite diverse: customers/users, retail staff, store buyers, store management, delivery drivers, etc. Services often have resellers.
  • Marketing—Ethnographic research has multiple uses in marketing communications: advertising, social media, pricing, promotions, etc. Based on studying customers/users as individuals within their group social contexts, teams can design marketing messages and decide what channels and promotions to use so they support users’ outcomes. Teams can decide to use experiential social media to reach marketing goals. Stakeholders are usually prospective or existing customers. Helping existing customers overcome problems and frustrations in digital public can be very effective at attracting new customers.
  • Service—Social media is rapidly becoming a preferred channel for customer service for all kinds of products and services. It’s one of the most potent places to use ethnographic research because service identifies friction, which can feed the entire product life cycle. By studying users’ interactions, service teams can become much more empathic and provide superior service, and their notes will be more useful to product development. Likewise, ethnographic helps other service channels to grow their peripheral vision because the numbers and diversity on social media are often greater than the call center, retail and other channels. Stakeholders are customers and influencers.

Ethnographic Research for Product and Service Management, Step by Step

  • Ethnographic Research for Product Management with social media step by stepDiligence stakeholders—Interacting with people over a period of time requires commitment, so make sure you understand who your stakeholders are. Who are the niches of people who affect your product strategy the most? In product management, think in terms of life cycle: 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 or 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.
  • Stakeholder profiles. If you’ve done persona studies of some of your stakeholders in the past, they can be a useful input, but most I’ve seen are too general. Otherwise, query people in your firm who best know the stakeholders, and this is best done in groups because people can riff off each other, and you’ll get better information. 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 product. 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 products/services that frustrate them and compromise their overall experience. Their desired experiences and outcomes drive their workstreams. For example, someone joining a health club wants to feel better about himself, 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. Retail customers, retailer buyers, distributors, etc., all have 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 discretely identify each stakeholder and workstream profile. 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 with one language). 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. If you’re a smoke alarm manufacturer, for example, you’ll find where their conversations are deepest and richest: in smart home communities, Twitter (complaints), YouTube (false alarm dances), home inspection communities, and myriad others. 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 you’ll know how you can support them in attaining their outcomes in the most distinctive way. In your analysis, also note stakeholders’ attitudes towards vendors like you. What are their biggest frustrations and dreams? You’ll see your stakeholders as you’ve never seen them before.
  • Ethnographic research’s unique value for product management—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 product and marketing 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 product.
  • Using ethnographic research to strengthen marketing 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. 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.

More Resources

I hope you can appreciate that conducting ethnographic research of social media is applicable to a wide range of products and services, which are designed for users/customers, so knowing their outcomes and workstreams dramatically improves your ability to add value. I’ve researched communities of gamers, CFOs, working moms, slotcar enthusiasts, breast augmentation clients, workout junkies, extreme athletes, home tech support draftees, liver transplant patients, medical tourists, and dozens more. To learn more, visit these links:

I invite your questions in comments below…

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