How anthropology can generate insights from your customer data


Digital marketing is great for analyzing what customers want and how they buy it. But for every data scientist who does the numbers, you might also need an anthropologist to hone your marketing knowledge.

Anthropologist? Like those people who go to distant lands to study distant peoples living in their own way? Sort of.

Any organized group of humans will have a common culture, beliefs, rituals, and views that can be observed and described. But they don’t need to be away at all. They can be found locally, probably on the other side of this screen, looking for something to buy. If you understand them, you can sell them.

Commerce is human

“People buy from people they trust,” observed Andi Simon, a corporate anthropologist who heads Simon Associates Management Consultants.

Humans have been exchanging goods for currency (or other goods) for ages. Marketing connects the seller with the buyer, offering them a product, belief or change in behavior. “What is marketing if not connection? Simon noted. “Anthropology is better able to understand the cultural norms and values ​​of the people you connect with.”

The reasons why people buy a particular brand of product may go beyond the usefulness offered by the purchase, said Professor Anand Kumar, who teaches marketing at the Muma School of Business at the University of Florida. from South. The data allows you to locate a pattern and gain insight. “You are able to observe and work backwards,” he said. But “why” is not answered only by the data “.

So how do you get to the “why”?

Surveys “are a great way to confirm what you know. But it’s hard to find out what you don’t know, ”Kumar said. “Anthropology and ethnographic research (you) immerse yourself in the life of the target you are studying. “

“This is the kind of information that interests businesses and organizations these days. Lived experiences. How do you market a product or service to people if you don’t understand what they think, what they like, or what they need? Said Kevin Porter, founder of Anthropogenesis, a Brisbane, Australia-based consulting firm. “All of these things are shaped by culture, which means you also have to understand what culture is. “

Data can be “thick” as well as large

Anthropological observations may seem “soft” and approximate, compared to the harshness of the data. Although disciplines generally operate on different scales, they can complement each other. An example given by Porter is that of anthropologist Tricia Wang, who had worked for Nokia in the mobile phone market about ten years ago (see his TED talk on “The missing human knowledge in big data”).

Wang was working in the field in China and had discovered a consumer preference: People wanted to switch from flip phones (where Nokia dominated) to iPhones. For the Chinese consumer, switching to a smartphone had ambitious value, and a cheap counterfeit iPhone would be “good enough”. Wang called his observations “big data,” but the sample size was small.

This was supposed to complement big data “by adding cultural contexts and meanings to the data through ethnographic research”. Porter recalled. “She informed Nokia that their business model was collapsing, stressing that high-end cellphone markets would soon be a thing of the past and the production of low-cost cellphones for emerging markets such as China at the time was the path to follow. “Nokia ignored the signal, quickly lost market share in its largest overseas market, ultimately falling to 3% when Microsoft acquired it in 2013, Porter noted.

Anthropology offers an understanding of how people perceive reality. Simon made this point when recounting a marketing campaign undertaken by a colleague for an art museum in Detroit. Research revealed that people never thought about going, so the campaign would reframe visiting the museum as “fun for the family.” (The museum board was more serious, Simon said, recalling the story, so you had to sell them “fun” without trivializing the visit.)

Observational marketing research comes closest to ethnographic research, Kumar said, especially when looking for the “why”. In a class project, a student was assigned to observe a single mother cooking a particular brand of chicken. The mother would call her child to the kitchen to help him bread the chicken. Cooking, in this context, had more to do with mother and child doing something together – and an emotional ritual for this family – that went beyond whether the chicken was tasty or a healthy alternative, said Kumar. “Where does the product fit in this person’s lifecycle? ” He asked.

Words and numbers

Anthropology is not humanism’s response to the mathematical arguments of data science. On the contrary, the two fields should complement each other under the umbrella of digital marketing. “There is potential for the two to work together,” Kumar said. More and more companies are getting used to data-driven decision making. Yet “we have to find ways to use the anthropological method to help us interpret the data.” He said.

Read more: You smiled, so we think you like this product

“Behavior is digitized” as consumers interact with the online world, Simon said. “If there is no behavior, there is nothing to capture.” People log in (or ask Alexa or Siri) to provide a solution when needed, but those actions generate data that can then be analyzed to look for patterns – or outliers, she said.

Data science is quantitative and can paint a picture, but doesn’t tell you why something is happening, while qualitative methods add context and meaning, Porter said. “An anthropological lens allows you to see patterns of behavior that are shaped by culture. These are patterns that most other people aren’t trained to see, so they go unnoticed. “

Data science seems objective, but often is not. “If the coder doesn’t understand the culture and how it shapes behavior, the algorithm will carry these biases.” Porter said. “If you don’t ask the right questions, you’ll have a hard time making objective sense of your data. “

About the Author

William Terdoslavich is a freelance writer with extensive experience in the field of information technology. Prior to writing for Martech Today, he also covered digital marketing for DMN. A seasoned generalist, William has covered employment in the IT industry for, big data for Information Week, and Software as a Service for He also worked as a feature editor for Mobile Computing and Communication, as well as a column editor for CRN, where he had to cover 20 to 30 different technology topics during an editorial year. Ironically, it is the human factor that drives William to write about technology. No matter how much people try to organize and control information, it never works the way they want it to.

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