Blinded by Numbers? Go For Ethnographic Adventure!

adventIt is a nice spring morning, and my son asked me, Can I go out and play?  I immediately checked the whether on my computer, and, said, Yes, it’s nice out there, wear a jacket and go.  Thanks to the technology advancement and information availability, life seems way more predictable; it seems way more certain with less ambiguity; and, that’s how, we get a tendency to rely on the numbers. And, that’s how, I think, I don’t need to open my window to make judgment about the whether; I very easily replace my judgment with a number. When I make judgment, I might go wrong, but the numbers are numbers! Thanks to the CRM systems, surveys, feedback systems, enormous information availability, managers also get a similar tendency to rely on numbers; and, they stop using their judgments.

However, when you miss to open the window, you might get blinded by the numbers; the business eco-system is hyper-dynamic, and life is not as predictable as it seems.
  I recently came across an interesting story about a Former P&G CEO, A.G. Lafley, while reading a recent isssue of Harvard Business Review. In 1990, as the general manager of laundry products, he had to decide, whether to move to compact detergents or not.  The compact detergents were transforming the market in Japan, and the new format would also cut the production, packaging, and transportation costs as well as retailers’ shelf-space needs, while maintaining revenues. However, analysis of consumer surveys suggested that only a small percentage of customers preferred this new format. There was an easy option for Lafley to blindly rely on the numbers and take a clear unmistaken and easy decision of not to adopt the new format! However, he did not relied on the numbers; he did not get blinded, decided to explore more, and use informed judgments.

Lafley decided to dive into the qualitative research methods, and read comments from hundreds of consumers, and found that although only a few customers expressed a desire for compact detergents, the rest were not negative, they were just indifferent.  He could make the switch after all, pleasing the small minority without upsetting the majority, and this decision was a big win for P&G. Lafley did not miss to open the window! He tried to obtained holistic, empathetic understanding of the customers; he used his judgments and informed the judgment with the numbers.  To get such holistic understanding of customers about how they consume the value propositions and generate value in their own context, and for actively getting involved in the customer’s value creation process, it is worth to try the ethnographic adventures.

Enthography is a traditional method of sociology and cultural anthropology, which involves the study of people performing activities and interacting in complex social settings in order to obtain a qualitative understanding of these interactions. Ethnographic research might involve giving consumers cameras and diaries to record their experiences, or even visit consumers’ homes. When ethnography goes online, it’s Netnography or virtual ethnography; while using this method, researchers use online communities and networks as research labs.

I am still researching and exploring the role of Netnography/ Ethnography in market research and social media analytics.  Therefore, I will let you know more of my thoughts about it later. How about you? Have you ever experienced situations where relying on numbers proved risky? Have you tried observing and participating in the online communities as a part of your research?
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