I liked this post from the Research Rockstar blog, making the point that there will be a lot of people in an organisation doing “research-like” activities that they won’t neccessarily characterise as research: scavenging for insight on google, running quick polls and surveymonkey surveys, etc.
As Research Rockstar says, it’s best to embrace this kind of thing - though as with all knowledge management activities this is far easier said than done! In the comments, Simon of Curiously Persistent suggests that the real problem is consumer reaction when exposed to half-arsed research activity - this is certainly another reason to try and bring unauthorised activity ‘into the fold’.
I’ve been thinking about DIY research a bit recently, and one thing I’m surprised no big agency has done is move into the space in a “freemium” style: offering a free DIY research tool via their web presence and using it for lead generation. This would have a bunch of benefits:
- A direct revenue stream by selling eg. advanced analysis, access to sample
- Raising standards by building educational information into the tool
- Building relationships with potential clients (always the hardest part of the biz!)
- Access to some interesting data!
Working with this function would also be a good learning tool for junior research executives, and the whole thing could sit within the marketing and sales umbrella (certainly you could argue that it would be more cost-effective than the conference circuit, where clients are an increasing rarity - but that’s a whole other, and far more controversial post!)
I’ve read a few posts recently talking about newish blogging platform Posterus, which compare it to Tumblr (on which Blackbeard Blog is hosted). What’s really struck me about the discussion of posterus and tumblr I’ve so far seen is how much it centres on the features of each site. This parallels the discussions I’ve seen in the past about MySpace v Facebook, Twitter v Facebook, LiveJournal v Blogging. All generally about the features and capabilities of each site.
Why’s that a problem? you might ask. Aren’t features important? Of course they are. But these aren’t just tools, they’re social tools, which means that any discussion should also be talking just as much about the cultures which evolve within a site. After all, when you use the tool you’re going to end up interacting with other people using it, and the norms of behaviour that have grown up around it. Of course these are influenced by the features, but features only set wide boundaries on culture, they don’t determine the exact form it takes.
In the case of tumblr, for instance, a rundown of what it can do doesn’t capture the way in which its most popular users approach the service: tumblr is young, visual, immediate, enthusiastic, indie, hip, into aggregation. The fact that some of the most popular blogs on it are “fuckyeah[x]” sites matters as much as its dashboard interface. Of course you don’t have to engage with that side of it (lord knows I don’t) but some of the people you socialise with will be. Posterus looks at first glance older, more sober, perhaps more thoughtful.
Culture can have a massive impact on the development and destiny of a service. I’ve linked before to danah boyd’s analysis of how class-based cultural factors influenced the take-up of Facebook in opposition to MySpace. From a personal perspective, when I started posting to LiveJournal (in 2005), the site already had a reputation for being full of teenage emo kids and slash-fic writers, and a lot of my most regular online communicants simply never felt comfortable there. The same thing’s happened with Twitter, though here it’s often assumptions about what a 140 character culture must be like that hold uptake back.
It can be hard to get a handle on the most vital cultures that use a particular social tool, and it’s tempting to ignore the issue because after all, they may not have any direct impact on how an individual uses it. But I’d argue they are always important to understand, they shape the environment and the kind of people who become attracted to a tool. You can’t get the full story just from looking at the specs.
This guest post on Marketing Donut is such a classic example of a genre I’m going to call Scareblogging.
1. Insult businesses (never by name, of course).
2. Hint darkly at the vast forces of change that will inevitably wipe them out unless they TAKE ACTION NOW.
3. Suggest strongly that the action they need to take is LISTENING TO YOU.
It’s marketing as evangelism, in the worst way - repent or ye shall be damned! - and rests on scaring your clients, not relating to them. This strikes me as crude, patronising, and probably counter-productive (assuming the people whose business you want aren’t idiots).
Of course it’s enormously unfair to single the Marketing Donut post out, since its shrill tone is entirely typical of parts of the digital marketing sector (and nothing new - it’s the “Mr Jones Effect” in action). You don’t just see it on blog posts: half the slideshare presentations I see seem to include an obligatory blizzard of stats on how today’s consumers might as well be Venusians for all the hope YOU LOT have of understanding them. Or how your business will be exterminated Dalek-style unless it transforms utterly in the face of the NEW REALITY of people talking to each other on the internet.
Is there a grain of truth in this stuff? For sure. Is trying to scare clients into hiring you the right way to communicate it? I’d like to think not.
Returning to my google reader feed after two weeks’ paternity leave I discovered that the biggest research and social media story while I was away is… a lot of Twitter users don’t actually use it much.
This seems to have caused an enormous amount of excitement so I feel confident that the exclusive consumer findings I am about to present will set the blogosphere alight in similar fashion:
GASP! Most people who form bands never end up recording anything!
HORROR! The median number of visits to gyms made by people who put “Join a gym” on a new years’ resolutions list is one!
SWOON! 10% of professional footballers earn 90% of the total wage bill!
Was there really anyone who didn’t think Twitter was subject to the same kind of participation inequalities as the rest of social media? Or the rest of the web? Or the rest of real life? Apparently so, given the fuss this has caused.
I reckon it’s because people in marketing circles often have a somewhat weird view of social media. They spend so much time thinking about how this brand or that one can use it that they see social media only through a frame of usefulness.
But usefulness isn’t the point of social media.
Social media is fun. It’s enjoyable for its own sake, like hanging around in the park or the pub is. It enhances other leisure activities (by making it easier for people to come together, talk and do stuff) but it’s also a leisure activity in its own right - sometimes creative, sometimes competitive, sometimes just….social. The clue is in the name!
Let’s think about what considering social media tool as a leisure activity - a hobby - does to our perspective on it. What would it have in common with other ones? In fact, let’s go further, and think about each tool as a hobby - in the same way that the enormous grab-bag of “sport” includes everything from cricket to kick-boxing. Here are some parallels I find useful.
Most people who try a hobby don’t keep it up. The barriers to trying leisure activities are usually low, but only a minority stick with an activity - usually they drop it because they don’t find it particularly satisfying or don’t feel they are good at it. Same goes for social media tools: high churn rates are far more likely than not.
Most people have more than one hobby, and go through several in a lifetime. Social media discussion tends to focus on competition - can Twitter kill Facebook? Can Wave kill Twitter? Who killed
Bambi MySpace? In some ways this is helpful, in other ways it’s like assumng baseball and basketball can’t co-exist, just because they’re both sports. Consumers are likely to pick up on, and drop, different social media services at different times according to how much fun they’re getting out of them. They may also have several on the go at once.
The hobby supports participation at a variety of levels. In the UK, the Football Association isn’t just structured to administer the professional league and cup competitions - it exists to support the sport at every level from pub amateurs to £100k-a-week superstars. The superstars and the pub team get a similar kind of pleasure from the game on one level, but have a completely different experience of it on another. Social media is the same - the satisfaction of creating and publishing content holds steady no matter how large your audience actually is.
The individual’s enjoyment of the hobby is largely independent of the hobby’s overall health. If I enjoy playing chess, and know other people who enjoy it too, then whether the sport is thriving or declining, and how big it is, isn’t of much direct interest to me. Similar things apply to social media - the patterns of participation you get looking at a ‘big picture’ view (as in the Harvard article) actually have very little impact at the micro level.
It’s actually quite hard to understand the appeal of a hobby unless you’re involved in it. This one - and its social media parallel - speaks for itself I hope. I would dearly love not to have to argue about Twitter or blogs or anything else with people who’ve got no actual experience of using them.
Hobbies do you good. I said the point of social media isn’t to be useful - but of course it is useful. Its usefulness is a side benefit, like keeping fit or intellectually agile or making friends might be side benefits of other types of hobby.
Because social media makes group organisation so easy, and network effects so dramatic, we tend to focus on that element of it, and so it’s easy for articles like the Harvard one to shock the community when they should have been predictable. But it’s just as fruitful to spend time thinking about the social media experience at the individual level, and hobbies provide a useful frame in which to do that.
Fun anecdote from the Freshminds research blog about Sony and boomboxes. As people point out in the comments, the way the anecdote’s told doesn’t actually suggest people lie about their own preferences: it merely says that in this case they’re poor second-guessers of other people’s.
In fact the story makes you want lots more detail: were these mainstream consumers being asked about other mainstream consumers, or were they early adopters trying to think their way towards what “the masses” would go for? If the latter, it’s a fool’s errand: most early adopters have little sympathy for and no empathy with the people who come upon things after them.
The idea that asking people about the behaviour of others (not themselves) is the road to insight is a hot one right now. Here’s Brainjuicer’s Orlando Wood making the case for “We Research” at the MRS Conference - the most stimulating 5 minutes I spent at conference this year. Wood’s “Swedish drivers” example - 90% of Swedes say they they are better drivers than average - illustrates where this kind of work might be really useful: at illuminating bad choices, undesirable behaviour, and simple incompetence. The Sony anecdote - in the way Freshminds are phrasing it, at least - points towards some possible risks.