Thursday, August 18, 2011

Random crap for sale at Borders going-out-of-business sale

I stopped by Borders yesterday to see if there was anything worth picking up at their going-out-of-business sale, and couldn't help but notice the abundance of crap being purveyed as part of their going-out-of-business sale. I wonder if it's common practice to try and make an extra buck from bargain seekers by placing tables of random stuff that was never even sold at a store in the first place. Perhaps the thinking is that people are more likely to add to their purchases (the good deals they sought out in the first place) if they are convinced that these other items are also a good deal, even if they really don't need them. Of course, that's the nature of impulse shopping!
Who knew Borders specialized in fluffy blankets?! well as beach totes, duffle bags...and more blankets!
Piggy banks! Yes, I need one of those right now.
As if there weren't enough blankets!!! And at 30% off... what a deal!
Don't forget.......... fragrances!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hitler hates qualitative research...

...but he loves the cost-effectiveness and ease of moderating online focus groups! (of course he would...)

Hilarious dubbed clips from the 2004 movie Downfall, via Ethnosnacker.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Building the brand-consumer relationship through technology, social interaction and personalized experiences

In recent years, forward-thinking brands have become smarter about building interactive, personal relationships with consumers through the use of innovative technologies like Twitter and Facebook. I always enjoy reading tweets from the brands and personalities I follow, but I especially enjoy the personalized, one-on-one responses to tweets regarding comments, questions, or problems from individual consumers. This sort of banter can be fun and interactive, and can make consumers feel as though the big, abstract, global brands they follow really care about what they have to say.

The implications of this kind of marketing are great. Having such conversations on an individual level can create experiences and stories around a brand, experiences that exist outside the use of a brand's particular products. Like the experiences formed around products and services, however, online interactions have the power to build brand loyalty. There is also great potential for spreading this individual loyalty to others through social networks, both in the "real" world and online, as satisfied consumers share their stories and experiences with their friends and family members, convincing them of the merits of a given product or brand. If this results in the ideal effect of additional consumers, loyalists or converts, the strategy has done its job. What more could a brand ask for?

The reason for this post is not unrelated to one such experience I recently had with one of my favorite brands. Browsing through my Twitter feed yesterday evening, I noticed a post by Coca-Cola that asked followers what they think is the best sport with which to enjoy a Coke. I like responding to such posed questions every now and then, but don't usually expect to get a response back, especially from brands or personalities with lots of followers. Here is the conversation that occurred (if you can't read the image, click it to make it larger):

I should preface the rest of this post with a disclaimer about my love for Coca-Cola, specifically the classic version of Coke. Basically, it's my absolute most favorite soft drink in the entire world. And it always has been; all the others, especially Pepsi, just don't compare to the sweet, refreshing, satisfying, nostalgia-inducing, thirst-quenching bubbliness that is Coca-Cola. Like Sam-I-Am in Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham (after he changes his mind about the aforementioned cuisine), I love Coke in a boat, with a goat, in the rain, on a train, here and there, and really just about anywhere. Of course, I'm not the only one who feels this way about the iconic brand and its globally famous beverages. By the way, Coke is also hands down the best beverage for burping contests.

My friends can attest to my fondness for not only the classic soft drink but of the brand itself, hence the vintage-inspired Coke signage hanging in my kitchen and my small collection of glass Coke bottles. I also make it a point to visit The World of Coca-Cola whenever I'm in Atlanta. My friends also make fun of me for this, but it is probably no coincidence that when I'm drinking any tasty beverage, I will often exclaim that "it's very refreshing!" (the word "refreshing" was used in Coke's earliest advertising slogans). I've even turned a number of people onto the amazingness that is Mexican Coke, with its sleek glass bottle and lack of high-fructose corn syrup (it's sweetened instead with sugar... check out this NYT article by Rob Walker on the Cult of Mexican Coke.) (For the folks in Memphis, Mexican Coke can be found at most any Hispanic market as well as Cafe Eclectic and the Asian-Hispanic market on Cleveland.)

That's me at The World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia (2010)

But back to my conversation with Coke. When I first received a notification that they had replied to my tweet, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside, kind of like when I drink a Coke (as I referred to in my subsequent response). I messaged my friend Drew, who I thought would get a kick out of the tweet as well. I was right - he was quite impressed with what he described as Coke's "really f**cking good publicity."

At the time of this exchange, Coca-Cola had approximately 344,500 followers on Twitter. But this simple acknowledgment of my existence as a consumer-follower, my participation in this brand, and of course, my loyalty to Coke, made me feel all the more special, and succeeded in what I think is the point of such PR efforts, which is to create or build on brand loyalty. The two seconds it took their social media specialist to respond to my messages solidified my loyalty to the company and instilled in me an enthusiasm to spread the word about my experience to my friends, family members, and the readers of this blog. It was in this moment that I acted as a brand ambassador.

Coca-Cola essentially created a personalized experience by engaging me as a consumer, listening to my replies with sincerity (and what I perceived as genuine interest), building a relationship by replying to me directly (not just once, but twice), and making me feel as though my loyalty to Coke is truly appreciated (which I know it is, because they thanked me for it!) It's also a nice feeling because brands and corporations often seem like unreachable, unknowable entities to the everyday person. Many brands have realized that they can no longer stay walled up in their corporate towers and ignore consumer needs and desire. These same consumers are increasingly interested in learning about and interacting with brands, not to mention holding them accountable for their environmental and social impacts.

Such an experience can mean a lot to someone who isn't such a loyalist, but for someone who is already devoted to a brand or product, it can mean a whole lot more, because it reinforces what the consumer has always believed to be true about that brand or product. For example, I was recently on the job market as a new graduate, looking for consumer research positions at companies around the country. During one phone interview with a brand consulting firm, the interviewer asked me to talk about one of my favorite brands and to discuss how it has achieved success in some way. Coca-Cola immediately came to mind. I talked about how it earned its iconic brand status through smart marketing and maintained this status by continuously catering to changing consumer needs. They did this for the most part without alienating loyalists or drastically changing their image (ok, there was the 1985 New Coke blunder), and by adding to their classic product line through innovation and acquisition. Finally, Coca-Cola has a fascinating history and one that it is clearly proud of. Needless to say, I feel like I answered her question pretty well.

As an anthropologist, I am fascinated by why people do, say, think, and buy what they do, and how their desires and needs relate to the cultural, social, political and economic contexts in which they live. I am extremely excited to begin my new position as a consumer research analyst at a major U.S. company later this month, where I know I will be truly able to be passionate about my work. I am going into this field not only out of personal and professional interest, but because I want to be a part of a forward-thinking company that prioritizes innovative approaches to research (mixed-methods, online research, ethnographic research, etc.) and emphasizes the importance of building genuine, lasting relationships with consumers.

Coca-Cola truly deserves its status as an iconic brand. In fact, it is THE most recognized brand across the globe (according to BusinessWeek and others). They continue to set an example for brands that strive to gain such a status, and their success has provided a treasure trove of examples of what to do and what not to do to maintain and gain customers and grow loyalty. My experience yesterday is just one shining example. As for a return on Coke's investment in social media and consumer engagement, it was obviously worth the effort. After all, I just spent two hours writing this blog post, which will be shared via my networks on Twitter and LinkedIn, and possibly by others across the internet. Because of two simple tweets, Coca-Cola has reaffirmed my trust in, loyalty to, and love for their products and their brand. Keep up the good work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tips for starting a new job: Play the role of anthropologist

Image courtesy Understanding Science

In my search for advice on starting a new job, I encountered this 2006 article on Yahoo! Personal Finance by Jim Citrin, which suggests that the new employee "play the role of anthropologist" to get a good assessment of the company's organizational culture (and ideas for how to change it if in a managerial position). He writes:
As most people know, organizational culture is one of the most intransigent things to change. So don't try to transform it in the first 100 days. Assess the culture, and begin the change process slowly.

The way to start assessing a culture is to listen to how people really describe the organization, bearing in mind that within most generalizations lie an inner core of truth. Ask probing questions relentlessly, not only among the most senior people, but to those who others cite as thought leaders. Visit not only your largest customers, but also the smartest ones as well. You can be sure that they will give you feedback.

Play the role of anthropologist, searching for clues among the language people use and through physical evidence such as office layout, dress code, and the cafeteria. Once you finish your assessment, start experimenting with measures of success, incentive systems, and operating structures to find productive ways to get traction on the desired behaviors.
I think this is both a correct understanding of what an anthropologist does (or can do) and a nice way of incorporating the metaphor into an applied business setting. Here, the new-employee-as-anthropologist attempts to assess and understand the culture in which he or she is immersed by asking deep, thoughtful questions and talking with a wide variety of "informants" (to use the old-school term). The new employee also takes care to pay attention to every detail of the cultural context, from space/place and discourse to traditions of dress and social interaction. Finally, in an applied manner, he or she takes this information and processes it, and turns it into actionable insights in order to make changes within the workplace without disrupting the people and relationships that exist there.

Moving away from his direct use of the anthropologist metaphor, a lot of the other points he makes in his article resonate with the anthropological approach, including:
  • Do your homework/research about the company
  • Immersion (not total immersion in the sense of Malinowski, since you'll hopefully have a home to go to at night)
  • "...recognize that most will be listening through the lens of their own self-interest" (i.e. pay attention to positionality, hidden or overt agendas, etc.)
  • Don't make assumptions about the talent around you (in fact, don't make assumptions about anything, ever!)
  • You will need the buy-in of all stakeholders to move a proposal or plan forward
  • Establish relationships by understanding people's motivations, whether unstated or obvious
  • Communicate effectively
  • Understand how your decisions as a leader or employee will affect those around you

Nice job, Mr. Citrin!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Entrepreneurship and informal economies

Sighted in an East Memphis neighborhood. 

I'm very fascinated by the ways in which people supplement or create incomes through informal and underground economies. These are strategic methods used to create household or individual income and are untaxed and sometimes illegal. My curiosity centers around the questions of what causes people to go into these forms of business and how they decide what to sell (presumably this has to do with supply and demand economics). What needs, desires and structural forces are behind this crafty entrepreneurship? Are the profit margins worth the effort, and how are prices determined? How much is made on average, and what is done with the income? Are there neighborhood territories marked by vendors, goods hawkers or service-providers, as there are with some illegal drugs and services? 

I think my curiosity stems in part from my own lifetime of entrepreneurship, which started as early as the rite of passage undertaken by many American children - the corner lemonade stand, complete with cardboard box storefront and funded by investors who were willing to take a financial risk (a.k.a. your parents). Then there was middle school, when I sold candy on the school bus in the mornings. In high school, I also sold candy, but - get this - I did it in my 9th grade math class (my teacher allowed me to do this during the first five minutes, perhaps because he was impressed with my interest in business, but more likely because he was a lazy teacher who didn't really give a damn). From high school and on, there was never a moment in which I wasn't involved in some method of making money for myself, probably because it was a way for me to feel like I had power as a minor, and because I wanted things for myself. And this was aside from the "regular" jobs I had in retail. When I was in college, I worked at the library, for the student paper, as a writing tutor, and as an assistant in the anthro department. As for my informal income, I ran an Etsy shop, babysat, pet sat, house sat, tutored, cleaned offices, catered and served at private parties, did the books at a local mechanic shop, and the list goes on. 

Moving onto fieldwork, some examples I've encountered include a woman who was the "candy lady" on her street - she sold candy and snacks out of her front door to add to the income generated from her husband's wages as well as government assistance. In 2009, I tutored two twin brothers whose mom sold homemade freeze-pops made from Kool-Aid or fruit juices as well as candy, chips and snacks. The goods that were for sale were stored in a separate pantry and cooler, in a side room away from the kitchen. 

Another woman I met during a grad school project had what was comparable to a miniature drug store on a bookshelf, which was strategically placed by a side door where neighborhood customers presumably came to purchase goods such as nail polish, ibuprofen, and other cosmetics and medicine. 

One last woman, who was the mother of a young girl I knew personally, hosted pool parties/cookouts during the summer (and for back-to-school) at her home for the neighborhood children. She charged $2 per person to get in the door. The young girl I was acquainted with mentioned that another lady down the street sold snacks and cigarettes. 
These last examples have much in common - the entrepreneurs were African American women with household incomes on the lower end of the scale, and who lived in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What makes a good ethnographer?

What makes a good ethnographer? Members of the Ethnography Forum group at LinkedIn have been holding an ongoing discussion regarding this important question, and I found their responses to be insightful, useful and so spot on that I wanted to reproduce a summarized version, in list form, of their replies, with a couple additions of my own. I think these traits are applicable to ethnographers in both consumer/marketing contexts as well as more traditional contexts (academic, international, community-based, etc.)

A Good Ethnographer...

Is curious
Is open-minded
Has a sociable personality
Is flexible and can adapt to changing situations
Is good at delving deeper into cultural phenomena
Knows how to translate insights into action
Appropriately probes for deeper meaning
Does not rigidly stick to discussion/observation guides but uses them as just that: guides
Has empathy
Is adventurous and is not afraid to take risks
Is able to establish rapport and relationships
Asks good questions
Is a good listener and observer
Is self-reflexive
Has excellent data collection and analysis skills
Can sit back and let others talk or ask questions and solicit information when necessary/timely
Is a good story-teller
Understands the implications of findings within organizational or other contexts
Can explain their methods to others (especially clients)
Can pull the meaning out of the mundane

Here are a few I would add:

Is well-prepared before fieldwork, having done the necessary research, but does not let this preparation cloud the research or any opportunities for discovery
Enters situations well aware of positionality, biases and assumptions
Considers both emic and etic perspectives
Iteratively analyzes data and reflects on process
Is respectful of and grateful to those who are sharing their time, knowledge and other human resources
Goes into situations as an observer with minimal influence on participants
Incorporates both theory and application
Is good at describing not only the who, what, where, when and how, but also the WHY

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lessons learned: the challenges of moderating non-English-speaking focus groups

image by eyewrisz

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to moderate my first ever Spanish-language focus group as part of a current project on community revitalization in three Memphis neighborhoods. For this project, my partner and I are conducting two to three informal focus groups (we are calling them "discussion circles" so as to make them less threatening when working with marginalized communities/populations) as well as individual interviews in each of three target areas that are considered to be economically disadvantaged or poor. We are basically collecting information, including people's perspectives and perceptions of their neighborhoods and where they feel resources should be directed to, to supplement a new mayoral anti-poverty initiative as well as the efforts a grassroots program called Community LIFT. It has been our goal since the outset to make this a more participatory project in that the neighborhood-based groups will eventually become connected to Community LIFT, which will focus on leveraging resources within those communities, as well as on the issues identified by residents and on bridging neighborhood networks of active, action-oriented stakeholders to build neighborhood capacity.

This particular focus group consisted of 13 participants (and their children) who are originally from Mexico and who all live in the area. It was convened at a popular grassroots community center, which many view as the center of this culturally diverse neighborhood. Participants were each paid $20 in cash for their participation. (We have realized that people are much happier when you can pay them for their time right away, rather than making them wait a week or two for a check from the University).

Moderating the discussion was an intense and difficult yet useful experience in many ways. First let me say that my many years of studying Spanish (from 6th grade through my third year of undergrad, including study/travel abroad, for a total of 10 years) really came in handy. I consider my speaking and comprehension skills to be at a proficient enough level for normal conversations, presentations, and speaking with individuals and groups, but I am definitely not completely fluent, or as I told the participants, "no soy completamente fluida". Hence, the challenges of this language barrier would make themselves apparent throughout our discussion.

Even though we did get some good input from participants on their concerns as well as improvements they would like to see in the area, and even though it wasn't a total flop, I don't feel it turned out as well as it could have. This is because I really couldn't get as in-depth as I wanted to with most of the topics. Language was really the crux of why the focus group was only moderately successful (perhaps a 6 out of 10, if I were to rate it on a scale). The quality and quantity of the information collected was greatly affected by the language barrier, which sometimes made it difficult for me to keep the discussion going smoothly, probe for details/solicit further responses, and to completely understand people who spoke rapidly or quietly, or who used slang. I translated the questions into Spanish ahead of time (this really saved me, and made it so that the translator didn't have to moderate the entire thing), but the difficulties I encountered were mostly with follow-up questions and probes as well as establishing a true connection to the participants. I was able to get people to speak who weren't actively participating, and was able to probe for more information using words like "why?," "how many?," "when?," and other phrases, as in a normal conversation, but it didn't work out so well when I did not completely understand what was being said or when multiple people were talking at once. There were a couple moments at which I had very to little sense of what was being said, but for the most part I kept up with the discussion and could ask appropriate follow-ups. Again, the translator came in handy for clarifying both my questions and participants' responses.

Another thing about barriers. I am about 98% sure that the participants were all undocumented immigrants, which also presented a few obstacles in terms of establishing the rapport that is so crucial when speaking with people who don't know you, let alone people who speak another language. When we began, most of the participants were hesitant about signing the consent form, especially because it was not in Spanish (this was a big mistake on our part and something I felt extremely embarrassed about not having planned for ahead of time). Even though our assistant was able to verbally translate the consent form, and although I explained the project thoroughly before we began (I also prepared a Spanish version of this to read to them), I firmly believe that it's just wrong to ask people to sign something that they cannot actually read. Period. One woman really illustrated the issue at hand when she half-jokingly asked if signing this would make her go back to Mexico. Others shared her sentiment. On a related note, those who are undocumented may also not want to sign their full name, put down their (non-existent) Social Security numbers (this was required for the University's files but there was obviously no way we could collect this information), or their addresses. These are important factors that moderators should expect with this type of group.

The very understandable lack of trust also reared itself in other forms. For instance, here I am, a middle-class, white, American, college-educated woman who works for the University and who doesn't fluently speak the language. Yes, I explained the project, who I am, who my partner is, what we are hoping to do with the information, that names and information are confidential, etc., etc., but this didn't matter. They had never seen me before, so I was asking a lot. I could still sense a level of mistrust and misunderstanding about what we were up to; my positionality as researcher and the positionalities of the participants in terms of the obvious power dynamic played a big role in this. Toward the end of the discussion, the same woman who made the comment about the consent form also remarked that she was basically tired of people (outsiders, researchers, government officials) coming into the community and asking people for their opinions but not actually doing anything with the information they collect (or worse, making and breaking promises). This too was not surprising, and I have come to expect comments like these from groups who have been misused and abused by researchers in the past. In turn, I told her we respect and agree with her opinion and can understand her frustration. I also tried to reassure her that we were here to try and help but that the ultimate use of the information would be out of our control and up to the City and Community LIFT. By this time I was so overwhelmed with the challenges of moderating this group that I probably didn't do such a good job explaining these details.

This experience has further solidified my opinion that non-English-language focus groups really necessitate having a fluent (preferably native) speaker as moderator so the linguistic connection is not an issue. This is crucial if you want to work with marginalized or vulnerable groups, such as undocumented immigrants, who live in constant fear of deportation and who rightfully mistrust those in power. If you don't have someone on staff who speaks Spanish (or whatever language is needed), then you need to hire one as a consultant, because it is absolutely essential if you want a successful session. It is even better if the moderator is familiar to the community or to the specific group of participants, or has some sort of cultural connection (such as being from the same country or region of a country). This way, you can ensure even stronger rapport between moderator and participants, and therefore a higher quality and quantity of information shared. Second, it is extremely important that every aspect of the research project is explained to the participants so they are fully aware of what they are participating in, if there are any risks involved, if their names and information will remain confidential or anonymous, etc. (this last point is especially important for undocumented populations). On this note, if you are going to ask people to sign a consent form or any other sort of paperwork, it must be translated into their native language (not to mention read/explained to individuals who may be illiterate).

It was my fear initially that having the translator moderate the focus group would be a bad idea because she had no training or experience in this area. Now I realize that meeting up for a couple hours beforehand to discuss how to moderate groups with her would have been a great way to avoid most of the problems I encountered. That way, I would still have been able to ask follow-up questions and be a part of the conversation, but as a secondary participant. Perhaps the participants would have opened up more to her because she spoke their language and was familiar to the community. It would also have been a chance for her (a senior undergrad in criminal justice) to gain experience in focus group moderation, and for me to aid in the democratization of research by sharing/relinquishing the power inherent in such a role.

One last thing. I mentioned above that many of the participants' children were around while we conducted the discussion. My suggestion is to be flexible and tolerant of noise, talking, playing, etc. that can be loud enough to be disruptive and distracting. It's just one of those things you can't really avoid unless you have arranged for childcare in another area of the facility, and even then some parents may prefer to have their children nearby. Also be prepared for late-comers and people who might have to leave early. If you are providing cash incentives, make it clear at the beginning that the individual must stay for all or most of the discussion if they want to get paid. I cannot emphasize it enough: clarify, clarify, clarify!