Digital Marketing Strategy

How anthropology can drive insights from your customer data

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

Anthropologist? Like those people who go off to far off lands to study remote peoples living their own way? Kind of.

Any organized group of humans will have a culture, beliefs, rituals and shared outlooks that can be observed and described. But they need not be remote 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 to 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 to the buyer, offering them a product, a belief or a change in behavior. “What is marketing but connection?” Simon noted. “Anthropology is better at understanding cultural norms and values of the people you are connecting with.”

Why people buy a particular brand of good can go beyond the utility offered by the purchase, said Professor Anand Kumar, who teaches marketing at the Muma School of Business, University of South Florida. Data allows you to spot a pattern and gain an insight. “You’re able to observe and work backwards,” he said. But “’why’ is not answered by data alone.”

So how do you get to “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 immerse (you) into the lives of the target you are studying.”

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

Data can be “thick” as well as big

Anthropological observations may seem “soft” and approximate, compared to the hardness of data. Although the disciplines typically work at different scales, they can complement one another. One example Porter gives is that of anthropologist Tricia Wang, who had done work for Nokia on the cell phone market about, a decade ago (see her TED Talk on “The human insights missing from big data”).

Wang was doing field work in China and had picked up a consumer preference — people wanted to move from flip phones (which Nokia dominated) to iPhones. For the Chinese consumer, moving up to a smartphone had aspirational value, and a low-priced knock-off iPhone would be “good enough.”  Wang termed her observations “thick 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 advised Nokia that their business model was floundering, pointing out that high-end mobile phones markets would soon be a thing of the past and that producing low-cost mobile phones for emerging markets such as China at the time was the way forward.” Nokia ignored the signal, rapidly lost market share in its largest foreign market, finally falling to three percent when bought out by Microsoft in 2013, Porter noted.  

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

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

Words and numbers

Anthropology is not humanism’s riposte to the math-heavy arguments of data science. Rather, the two fields should complement each other under the umbrella of digital marketing. “There is the potential for the two working together,” Kumar said. More companies are getting used to data-driven decision making. Yet “We have to find ways to bring the anthropological method to help us interpret the data.” He said.

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

Data science is quantitative and can paint the picture, but not 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 isn’t. “If the coder doesn’t understand culture and how it shapes behavior, the algorithm will carry those biases,” Porter said.  “If you’re not asking the right questions, you’re hardly going to be able to objectively make sense of your data.”

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