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Using Ethnographic Research To Get From Digital Trends To Consumer Behavior

White Lies playing Seattle

I have this uncontrollable habit of people watching, especially when it comes to how they use technology. Some call it an occupational hazard, I call it ethnographic research.

Ethnographic research is a research methodology used by anthropology and other social sciences that’s more qualitative than quantitative. I observe, I take photo’s when I can and I often write up what I observe.

This weekend my wife and I went and saw White Lies in concert. It was a great concert and Jen and I had a great time. But like most outings, I can’t help but to notice a few things:

  • There were far more Android phones than iPhones. I even saw one Galaxy tablet being used.
  • Facebook and Yelp were being used by several, late teen - early twenty somethings to checkin at the concert. I wasn’t sure how well Facebook Places was catching on, but it seems to be doing well, and Yelp was kind of a pleasant surprise.
  • I actually saw more Windows Phone 7 phones being used to capture pictures and video than iPhones but I’m sure there were a lot more iPhone’s in pockets I didn’t see.
  • Overall, I was really surprised by the lack of iPhones as compared to even a few months ago. It will be interesting to see what happens when the iPhone hits Verizon.

So what does this bit of data tell you? It tells you that this is what one person saw at one concert at one point in time. I couldn’t see the whole concert and I don’t know what the people up in the bar were doing. It was just one data point. But multiple correlating data points make a trend.

Hanging out with the fringe to predict the future.

All trends start in subcultures. I constantly tell people that if you want to know what’s going to be popular in 2-3 years hang out at a “core” skate shop. Not one of those faux skate shops they have in the mall but a real skate shop. There are certain subcultures that are ideal for trend watching.

Indie/post-punk/alt rock has proven consistent a harbinger of trends. Similarly, inner-city teens are also known trend starters. Any niche group with a high degree of individualism will filter out the week trends and incubate the strong trends. This is why pop music and country create “fads” not trends. They capitalize on trends created by other groups but they don’t create lasting trends of their own.

Groups that view their activity as a lifestyle is a key factor. Ask any hardcore skater and they will tell you that skateboarding is not a sport, it’s a lifestyle. Sporting events are not good predictors of future trends.

Last year I went to go see the Smashing Pumpkins with my wife (her favorite band) and while I would not classify the Pumpkins as fringe they still draw a crowd that’s not far removed from the fringe. This screen grab of my Foursquare checkin at the event helps illustrate the point. The concert was held the same night as the concert and despite the thousands of seats Safeco Field hold vs. the few hundred the Showbox holds there were twice the users of Foursquare at the concert than the football game.

(For those of you questioning my indie status and my validity as a member of the fringe by admitting to still being a fan of the Pumpkins, I would like take this opportunity to defend my indie status by point out that I have been listening to them since before they reached mass popularity and have stayed a fan since they fell out of favor).

Crossing the Chasm from Trend to Consumer Behavior

This doesn’t mean that mainstream groups like fans of football and <shudder> country music, aren’t still important ethnographic groups. They are just more illustrative of trends that have already caught on not future trends.

I’ve written before how two of my favorite stores are Target and Costco. I love these stores not just because they’re cool stores and not because they help me with predicting trends (they don’t) but because they help see which of the trends I’ve been watching for a few years are catching on right now and which trends I missed.

What these stores are ideal for is consumer behavior. As trends and technology catch on, which are impacting consumer behavior. This doesn’t help you predict a trend but instead shows you which companies are capitalizing on consumer behavior.

If you’re familiar with Geoffrey Moore’s work Crossing the Chasm, you know that early adopters are horrible people to watch for technology trends. What Web services, phones or other tech Louis Gray or Robert Scoble are using tells me nothing about what’s going to catch on. Early adopters are great for pointing out what’s available and they’re crucial for helping to build early acceptance of a product but they’re not the ones that are going to carry the trend across the chasm.

You’ve got to get out in the wild and see for yourself what’s working and what’s not. See what real people are doing, not just your friends on Twitter. And if nothing else it gives you a really good excuse to go to some great concerts.

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

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  • Jen

    Sweet! I’m always looking for a good excuse to go to a concert with you, and after all these years aren’t you glad I’ve finally learned not to be annoyed that you are “ignoring me” while you do your Ethnographic Research.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Yes, I greatly appreciate your patience. I’m also looking forward to this weekends research at the Say Hi concert.

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this post.
    Children normal behaviors depend on various natural and environmental circumstances in which a child grow and observes the way for his best possible conduct within his reach and interact amongst those who respond his gestures and body talks.

  • http://twitter.com/apsheehan Anthony Sheehan

    I guess it makes sense that the iPhone would eventually become so mainstream that it would no longer be cool. Will be a really interesting to see how the market share wars shake out.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson


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    [...] project and I’d like to ask for your help. I’m a big believer in doing informal ethnographic research. I always get a ton of great insights when I do it and it’s proven hugely valuable. The [...]