Ethnographic Research of Social Media for Social Media Initiatives

Ethnographic Research for Social Media Initiatives avatarEthnographic research for social media initiatives shows how ethnography can change the rules of social media programs in marketing, customer service, product development, recruiting and others. Ethnographic research enables teams to understand the people who are most important to your firm so they can relate to them at a completely different level. Moreover, interacting in digital public activates the network effect and the annuity effect, so it’s very scalable. Since your teams interact in digital public, where a far larger group of like people observes the interactions, they influence a large group of people and build relationships with them. People start trusting your firm, preferring your firm, and doing more business with you. See the Trust Business Chain Reaction and infographic for how it monetizes.

Ethnographic research for social media initiatives is a game-changer for customer experience and digital transformation programs in multiple phases. It’s faster, less costly, and scalable. It provides an unprecedented combination of qualitative and quantitative research.

Use Case Goals and Rationale

Ethnographic Research for Social Media Initiatives goals & rationaleWith few exceptions, firms have approached social media from a marketing perspective, and customers have dragged them into using social media for customer service. Marketing carries several legacy assumptions that prevent social media from producing business value. First, teams interact with demographics, not individuals. Second, teams want to maximize efficiency, so they use social to distribute content and interact responsively. Third, most teams interact with minimal depth because they want to avoid offending anyone. Ethnographic research of social media enables teams to understand stakeholders, so they can interact with unusual empathy and efficiency.

Distinctive unusual interactions with stakeholders influence their behavior much more than impersonal content because such interactions show your care and relevance to stakeholders.

Ethnographic Research of Social Media for Social Media Initiatives

Ethnographic Research for Social Media Initiatives overviewStakeholders (SHs) 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 (WS). Social media teams consistently build trust and relevance by helping SHs attain their outcomes without promoting themeselves. Since that combination is so unusual and distinctive, teams and firms break through and earn trust, preference, and business. The act of empowering SH outcomes without self-promotion is a powerful combination for building profitable business.

As explained by the Trust Business Chain Reaction, businesses become more profitable when their stakeholders (customers, employees…) trust them. Their relationships have more energy and less friction, and since social media can interact to build trust with people, it has limitless applications. To get you thinking, I’ve outlined four common business applications of experiential social media:

  • Earn new customers (marketing)—You can change the rules of customer acquisition, customer retention, and customer success by using ethnographic research of social media to study SHs’ deepest dreams and frustrations, and how they relate to your firm, products and services. When your teams understand SHs, they can empathize with them, and that empathy is a game-changer. Everyone feels it, and “everyone” is a lot of people in digital public. Empathy, consideration, and care are very reliable for building trust and business, and when you do it in digital public, it’s terrifically scalable. More details in How Trusting Customers Drives Profit.
  • Serve stakeholders (customer service)—As with marketing, the customer service function is built on several legacy assumptions that diminish its effectiveness and impact on business. Ethnographic research can reframe customer service by changing its goal and ethos. Today, teams do the best they can to serve people reactively, but operations are designed to minimize costs and to minimize interaction. Moreover, when customers are unhappy or frustrated, social media best practices call for taking the interaction offline. Ethnographic enables teams to understand and empathize with SHs throughout their experience journeys. Empathy defuses the “us and them” mentality that pervades most customer service teams and SHs. When you solve customers’ issues in digital public, it can become a revenue generator because prospective customers, when they see your empathy and sincere support, they want to buy from you (I’ve even predicted that customer service is the new marketing). Ethnographic-powered service is different from the old platitude, “the customer is always right.” Every person wants to be heard, and observers are very sensitive to the difference empathy makes. Customer service will become a profit center for firms that transform its ethos and operations.
  • Co-create with stakeholders (product development)—As the Social Channel App explains in detail, product development teams can significantly improve their products’ (and services’) market acceptance by orienting themselves around SHs’ outcomes. This means shifting away from product-first thinking toward outcomes-first thinking. This shift is only possible due to social media, since it makes information about SH outcomes, behavior and journeys virtually free. When teams build their experience with interacting with SHs about their outcomes, the “throw it over the wall” practice that still prevails in most product development teams is unnecessary. They understand in detail what their best SHs want when they use the products they’re developing. They co-create products, features, policies, etc. This builds tremendous excitement among SHs; moreover, it de-risks product development and spreads excitement in digital public. Also see Ethnographic Research of Social Media for Product Management.
  • Attract rock star employees (recruiting)—So-called employee engagement is a crisis in many developed countries, notably the USA and the UK, because a trust crisis has enveloped many firms. Generations of profit-first thinking have eroded firms’ sense of mission. Although many employees aren’t aware of it, most thirst for meaning and significance. Of course, this is a personal matter for each person, but firms that have an authentic mission beyond profit have a huge advantage when attracting and retaining highly motivated employees. Considering recruiting, the marketing adage also holds true: it’s more efficient to retain employees than to recruit new ones, so consider employee experience as the context for recruiting. Ethnographic research of social media changes the game because when employees are interacting among themselves, their true outcomes (for working) emerge, and you can respond to them. Not only that, you can mentor your employees to engage and interact in digital public, where their feelings and experiences can inspire prospective recruits. More on how this works, step by step, in Using Social Networks for Recruiting and Sales.

Ethnographic Research for Social Media, Step by Step

  • Ethnographic Research for Social Media Initiatives step by stepDiligence stakeholders—Interacting with people over a period of time requires commitment, so make sure you understand who your SHs are. Who are the niches of people who affect your business strategy the most? If you’re a commercial business, they might be business/channel partners or the most profitable customers, or star employees for recruiting. Prioritize them.
  • Stakeholder profiles—If you’ve done persona studies recently, they can be useful, but most I’ve seen are too general. They’re still a good input. Otherwise, survey people in your firm who know SHs the best. Include colleagues who have been SHs themselves. Describe their characteristics as best you can. Create SH profiles. Aim for 4-8 profiles.
  • Workstream profiles—You have selected stakeholders due to a powerful connection between your firm and their outcomes. Customers buy more of your most profitable products and services because they have outcomes and WSs in which your products/services are especially valuable. They want to get more value than what they paid you. 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 a process. Create a WS for each SH profile. Outcomes roughly correspond to jobs-to-be-done, which is often used by design firms.
  • Test/iterate profiles—SH and WS profiles should be a “minimum viable” effort that only serves as your starting point. 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 profile discretely. I have conducted hundreds of these processes, and it’s impossible to predict the outcome, except there are always surprises. SH and WS profiles unfold like time-lapse photography because they get clearer with each iteration. You’re filtering the entire Internet within a language, and sometimes across multiple languages. At this point, however, I recommend starting small and addressing discrete markets, however you define them. Aim for simplicity because you want to pilot and iterate and scale based on real-world results.
  • Locate and rank communities—WS profiles will show you where in the world (literally) SHs are talking about their outcomes and WSs that are most relevant to you. If you’re a health club that’s a rare value to moms or retirees, for example, you’ll find where their conversations are deepest and richest. Select 6-12 communities, and study them. Note people’s aspirations, worries, and behaviors. 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 carefully catalogued interactions that reveal SHs’ profiles and WSs, and you’ll know how you can support them in attaining outcomes in the most distinctive way. In your analysis, also note SHs’ attitudes towards firms and products like yours. What are their biggest frustrations and dreams? You’ll see your SHs as you’ve never seen them before.
  • Prepare pilots—To activate and build the Trust Business Chain Reaction, it’s most efficient to focus on optimal digital social venues in which there’s minimum noise and the highest portion of the SH and WS interactions in which you have biggest impact. In practice, this usually means forums and very interactive blogs. In most cases, the best approach is to interact where people are having the most detailed, relevant interactions, and to share links to these interactions on the big platforms. To prepare pilots, you’ll need pilot charters for each (the plan, resource requirements, measures, etc.) as well as detailed interaction/content templates for each role. Each role works on supporting and engaging a SH and WS combination. It’s best to start small, with 3-4 WSs and test. More information on pilots, plans and iteration.

Some examples of forums are:, (medical community), (CFOs), (health and weight loss), (high performance game machines), (smart home).

  • Mentor people—When people join teams, most will need mentoring in developing empathy in a business setting and interacting to support SHs. Mentoring is terrifically scalable in experiential social media because every interaction is a teaching moment, and each is transparent. Although empathy is innate to people, in business settings, people need support to encourage conversations that can be critical of the firm and its products. There’s no “right and wrong” because the goal is to listen and help people get what they want. Remember, when large audiences see your teams putting people like themselves first, they are inspired and will prefer you after a proving period. Here’s how it worked for a smoke alarm brand.
  • Measure results and iterate—Each group of SHs has its wall of skepticism that you must get over. Of course, each person is individual, but group dynamic influences each member. Expect groups to be suspicious at first because members have experienced generations of interactions with firms that have been utilitarian, not empathic. Each social venue (site) has its own hierarchy of social actions, that progress from least to most trusted, so you can measure changing trust quantitatively. See the Short Guide to Forum Outreach for more detail on the entire process.

More Resources

I hope you can appreciate that conducting ethnographic research for social media initiatives can significantly boost the business value your social media initiatives produce. These links can help you explore further.

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