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How to Use Digital Ethnography and Social Media for Market Research

Lily Nawara

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Russell Elliot

    In one way or another, we’ve all encountered social media spaces. Whether you’ve had a Facebook account since it first landed on the internet, created different accounts to keep up with relatives during the COVID-19 pandemic or heard about TikTok trends against your will, we’ve been exposed to the endless potential uses of social media. But, just as consumers use social media, so too can it be used by market researchers. These spaces give way to the evolution of plentiful subcultures and expansive global communities and, therefore, have been an asset to market research since their inception.

    This year, I had the pleasure of attending the MRS Digital Ethnography Conference. Coming from a background in ethnography, it was excellent to see how market researchers around the UK and globally used ethnographic approaches to add depth to their work and foster collaborative relationships with participants. The methodology discussed in the conference centred around deepening the online diary study and how interacting with our consumer base on a more intimate level provides greater exploration into their everyday decision-making. It is essential for researchers to explore how social media can be effectively used to better customer closeness and, therefore, gain deeper and more meaningful business insights.

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    Researchers need to explore how social media can be effectively used to create customer closeness and,  gain deeper and more meaningful insights.

    Consumers on Social Media

    Now more than ever, it’s easier for businesses to target advertising online toward their both their loyal consumer base and prospective buyers. As users scroll through pages of content curated for them, they’re exposed to products and businesses vying for their clicks. However, using social media to their advantage, consumers fight against new forms of advertising with their own trends, such as zero spending and de-influencing. 

    With social media, consumers have created their own tool to communicate with and influence the market around them. While I could go into depth about the ways both zero spending and de-influencing have disrupted the market on social media, I think it is important to focus on de-influencing specifically as a trend that fires back against our well-established understanding of the ideal consumer. We imagine the consumer we research to be willing to participate and ready to spend. However, if we watch closely, waves of consumers are becoming more and more unlikely to engage with notions of consumerism.

    In the act of de-influencing, users will typically “duet” or repost influencer content flaunting new items or Amazon wishlists, adding to it the prices and their exorbitant total cost to dissuade purchase. Another way users are reminding their peers and viewers to not be easily influenced by social media trends is by juxtaposing consumption content with images of landfills or commentary on single-use items. 

    Examining the practice of de-influencing allows us to better understand how consumers use social media to engage with the market in ways other than simply purchasing. It reminds us that consumers exist for more than just to consume. Through this online trend, users have created a space where they can feel comfortable ignoring and pushing back against market trends, revealing the need to get even closer to the customer. Therefore, when collaborating with both loyal and transient consumers, brands can benefit from approaching their customers multi-dimensionally, acknowledging their free will and meeting them for co-creation (see our previous blog on brand strategy). De-influencing is a brilliant reminder that the consumers we research are complex and ever-changing, thus, we need to change with them as researchers. 

    'Hopping on the trend' & social media as a tool

    Consumers guide our work and, in many ways, they are the experts. As researchers, we have a duty to meet consumers where they are at. This is necessary for many reasons, to avoid bias, to better our sample, and even to build rapport and increase participants’ desire to share. Social media is an excellent place to start meeting consumers on their terms. 

    As demonstrated in Sony’s recent study exploring young people’s behaviour surrounding music, aspects of social media can be utilised to effectively engage consumers over longitudinal studies and customer closeness projects. In this piece of research, a diary study was conducted with just 30 participants for over a month. Out of it came a collaborative product, a magazine, and a closer, trusting relationship with a hard-to-tap market: Gen Z.

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    Digital ethnographic methods often help stakeholders gain rich, valuable insights from direct and collaborative customer relationships - and social media is a great tool to help this.

    One of the greatest benefits of digital ethnography is the customer closeness it provides for businesses. Tuning into aspects of social media that get consumers excited takes this benefit even further by continuously engaging them with the research and with each other. For example, diary studies that use image sharing are a great way to emulate social media while getting your research questions answered. Having participants post images provides a new richness to your data whilst also keeping them interested in the research themselves. By playing with features of social media in your research, you are encouraging consumers to become invested and tuned into their own participation, creating a collaborative relationship and closing the gap between researcher and subject. 

    Although it comes with a variety of benefits, as it stands, the ethnographic approach to market research cannot be used in every scenario. It comes with a specific set of parameters and the volume of data involved in a detailed diary study can easily become overwhelming to even the best of researchers. But, by weighing these considerations against the rich and valuable insights you gain from direct and collaborative consumer relationships, you may find that ethnographic research is worth your time and investment. 

    Social media not only has the potential to be used by consumers to interact with the market and communicate their needs as customers but to be utilised by market researchers to gain a new depth in their relationship with participants. Market researchers need to continue to grow and change in order to better serve and collaborate with consumers. So, more than anything, this is a call to action. A rally to take a look at your methods, your aims, and your research communities. What do you need to change about your approach? Is there something that can be done to better connect and collaborate with the consumers you talk to, and what role will social media have in that? 

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