Trendwatching.com has a good overview of what they call ”virtual anthropology,” or the observational research of consumer behavior that’s now possible on-line. They say:
As consumers around the world pro-actively post, stream if not lead parts of their lives online, you (or your trend team) can now vicariously ‘live’ amongst them, at home, at work, out on the streets. From reading minute-by-minute online diaries or watching live webcam feeds, to diving into tens of millions of tagged pictures uploaded by Flickr-fueled members of GENERATION C in Mexico, Mauritius, Malaysia and dozens of other countries.
The challenge of traditional marketing research techniques — surveys, focus groups, and such — is that they make several rather drastic assumptions:
- That consumers know what they value and how they choose to allocate their time and energy;
- that they can articulate that knowledge in a rational way;
- that they can accurately project that decision and value system to predict their future behavior (”yes, I would buy that product at that price…’); and,
- that the process of asking them about it doesn’t bias the response.
Focus groups and surveys are representative of consumers ”in captivity” — they know they are being observed. On the other side, the evidence of their actual choices, their public behavior on-line, and their personal expressions as conveyed through the web represent their behavior ”in the wild.” So, ”virtual anthropology” becomes a useful part of the toolkit for understanding your audience, and experiencing the world through their eyes.
The Trendwatching article quotes Saatchi & Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts on the subject:
”If you want to understand how a lion hunts, don’t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle.”
UPDATE of 12/2/05: An interesting related article in Business Week describes how some companies are emphasizing more informal and observational techniques over formal focus groups.