Ethnography with Allison Braund-Harris

by Mitch Turck

Our latest episode of the Question Authority podcast features Allison Braund-Harris talking to us about ethnography.

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Mitch (00:02): Welcome to Question Authority, a quick-hitting podcast where the best and brightest tease brands about the art and science of questions. Today, we're asking about digital ethnography with Allison Braund-Harris. Let's dive right in. Hey oh!

Allison (00:28): Hey!

Matt (00:29): Hey Allison.

Allison (00:30): Hi Matt.

Matt (00:31): Thanks for jumping on the pod.

Mitch (00:33): Allison, welcome to the show. Thank you for making an appearance to talk to us about digital ethnography, which is probably not only a term that you need to define for us, but you may even need to pronounce slowly for some of them.

Allison (00:48): You totally got it correct. Digital ethnography, I call them digital ethnos for short sometimes.

Matt (00:55): OK.

Allison (00:56): And it's really about having that mix of getting to customers in a digital way where they're comfortable. Honestly, people are more comfortable on their phones now, than they would be face-to-face. So, when they are talking to their phones on a message board, which is how we usually conduct digital ethnographies, they're able to say things in videos to their phone that I don't think I could hold from them if they were at a focus group. But they have been a really key part of what my path to discovery has been.

Allison (01:39): I've been in the branding industry for the past six to seven years. I worked in New York city at a couple of different branding agencies. First, starting off as a brand designer and then as I was building all of these brands, I kept on asking questions to the point where I ended up becoming a marketing strategist instead of a brand designer. It ended up being the career choice that was really right for me. So, I ended up working with some of the largest cosmetic brands in the world, some of the top four or five largest beverage brands at some point or another. And I've also worked with hardware, products, tech, those things.

Mitch (02:21): A fair number of folks in our listening audience are spending most of their time on Facebook and Instagram ads and that's the extent of marketing equals that. So, the notion of market research is maybe new to them in general, but what are some of the insights that you would get from this kind of research that you couldn't get from click and cookie data?

Allison (02:43): So many things, honestly, I couldn't imagine doing research only with click and cookie data because it's when you get just a ton of data points, you're getting the action, but you're not getting the why behind action. And the why behind the action is really the key in the decision-making the key in the purchase behavior.

Allison (03:08): I had a client around 2015 that was the largest cosmetics company in the entire world and they tasked us to figure out what was wrong with their shampoo and conditioner brand that was performing really well in Europe, but did not perform well at all in the United States. They tasked us to really talk to these women and figure out the why behind this brand is not resonating with them. And we did a one-two punch type of research with the first punch being, the digital ethnography is where we talked to 40 to 50 women with half in the target audience that is actually purchasing the brand and half outside of the brand purchasers. But they were all a part of the target audience.

Allison (04:01): And we delved into everything about their shampoo and conditioner for four days on a message board. We asked them to take videos of where they put their shampoo and conditioner, introduce themselves over video, and we actually asked them to write poetry about their haircare routine, because anything to do with creative exercises like collages or poetry, allow people the freedom to get a little bit more elaborate with the way that they talk about their decision making process. So, they will use more emotional words and delve deeper into their own thinking process when they have to, when they're forced into that creative mindset. So that's a fun exercise to do if you ever have some time with people, make them write poetry.

Matt (04:59): A question on top of that that's relevant to our product and our customer base too. So we all need our product right now really focuses on existing customers. So how do you, when doing research in this realm, how do you think about breaking it up of maybe half the audience should have already purchased the product half haven't? Where does that? And it obviously depends on what you're trying to solve, but how would you, how does that go into the equation?

Allison (05:25): Yeah, that's a really good question. You of course have to define your target first. And then within that target audience, we usually use a type of recruiter that will call people up, figure out that they are in our target and some of them will purchase the brand before. But the other part that should in another world be our brand purchasers, for some reason aren't. Their opinion on why they don't purchase the product currently is actually usually indicative of a broader brand problem or a reason why some of those people that are current purchasers might lapse in the future. So it's important to define your target audience and then really dig into the who is purchasing and who is not.

Mitch (06:19): Got it.

Matt (06:19): Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think it could probably also be carried over to maybe a customer who's already a fan of a brand, but isn't purchasing a particular product in that brand. It could be for a whole slew of reasons, but yeah that makes a lot of sense.

Mitch (06:34): Yeah. It's interesting to think about the shampoo thing, because now that I think about it, I'm a perfect example of how little a brand knows how little impact a brand has had on my behaviors. Because, I don't know why I remember this about my life, but I used to shampoo my hair every day and then I met a girl in college who said, "no, don't do that, just do it a couple of times a week", and that is the amount of education about shampooing my hair I've ever had in my life. I'm a guy, obviously, so that tends to happen. But the point is some brand out there is missing out on two or three X as many purchases for me because some girl in college told me don't wash it as much. Just that total ignorance as to how I'm actually behaving and my product preferences and usage of it and everything is just all out there to be had by talking to me and no brand has ever done that.

Matt (07:25): I have a story on that too. So we have a customer called Modern Mammals and it's similar to what happened to you, Mitch, but they created this product that doesn't strip the oils out of your hair. So, I was told not to shower all the time either, and I try to work out four or five days a week, and after you work out, you want to shower, you want to wash your hair. You obviously just sweat it. So what Modern Mammals does is solves that exact problem. And I discovered it a year ago before they were a customer of Inquire Labs and have been just a huge fan. And in my head, I'm just like, there's billions of dollars going into probably shampoo research and no one has been able to figure this out, except these two guy? A hundred percent goes to that, you have to talk to your customers and they obviously weren't getting feedback in the way they should have been.

Allison (08:13): Yeah, definitely. And there's another layer to that of just the autopilot that goes into a lot of these decisions. And it's a very natural way of decision-making for our brain to go on default mode or autopilot mode and a lot of commodities and a lot of personal products like shampoo and conditioner are the biggest victim of this autopilot mode, because what better time to go on autopilot than when you are doing something you do every single day of your life.

Matt (08:48): Right, yeah.

Allison (08:49): And just like what you mentioned Mitch it's you had one person tell you that you shouldn't wash your hair every day. Well, she's definitely right, but that completely changed the trajectory of your purchasing habits for probably the rest of your life.

Allison (09:10): So really in order to solve this problem of the shampoo and conditioner, we had to take a step beyond the digital ethnographies that we had already done. We had to sit outside of women's showers and talk to them. It was that personal because we had to dig into the process of shampooing and conditioning your hair. And if we pulled women into a focus group or had them take a survey, or any of those things that you would do after they get out of the shower, they're not going to be able to go back in their mind and really uncover what they think is happening during that shampoo and conditioning process. So we had them put on bathing suits and I literally sat outside of their shower with them showering and ask them questions around, "what do you think the shampoo is doing to your hair right now?". And I had them describe the process of cleaning their hair.

Mitch (10:15): That's crazy. What's funny too is what story would you rather be telling internally at your brand, right? That you were so dedicated that you had someone sitting outside a shower talking to potential customers about their input, or we just spent 50 grand on Instagram. It just seems so obvious, the knock on effects of actually being that dedicated as a brand, which actually, to your point, is interesting because you've since gotten out of the agency space and you're now working on your own product and I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I assume, that a lot of this product is guided by asking the right questions to potential customers.

Allison (10:58): Definitely, when COVID hit I was in Antarctica.

Mitch (11:04): As we all were. Yeah, of course yeah.

Allison (11:07): My husband, Roger, and I had just packed up our entire New York city apartment and basically narrowed down to two suitcases worth of stuff that we were going to take around the world for a whole year. So the process of narrowing down to two suitcases really allowed us to prioritize a lot of things for remote work and really understand what we really needed to survive and work outside the US for a whole year, without necessarily having to come back and get more things.

Allison (11:41): And it ended up that process of really figuring out what was gold and what's just access. It became a tech company, as we were asking people questions. And that process really happened through digital ethnographies that I conducted back in September. And I recruited four to five remote workers over the course of a week. And I just put them each in their own private slack channel and just ask them questions. I had them do creative exercise, I had them do videos, take pictures of their desk. We wanted to make sure that we were addressing a true problem. And everyone was super happy in remote work. Then there wasn't anything there that we could do for them. Good news is that people liked remote work, but there were many problems with remote work. So we did that survey and then followed up with the digital ethnography in order to figure out that why.

Allison (12:44): And I showed them pictures of sensors to the left and the right of their computer, and they just went nuts. They were like, "oh my God, this is so cool". I went hotkeys that, that had that feeling to them. Of course the form of Hardly has shifted over the course of the past six months or so since we did that, but the form really shifted because we kept talking to people over and over again and asking why. I probably have talked to 200 plus people since we did that digital ethnography just about why they find something interesting why they don't and every single conversation gets us closer to a product that people are truly excited about and is truly going to solve their pain points.

Mitch (13:33): Yeah. I was going to say, it's so blatantly obvious the transferable skill there from doing market research for the sake of understanding the customer and then going out and building a product. And obviously if you were working within a company, then just the alignment between marketing and products and uneven engineering teams, right at that point become so much stronger. Again, when you're looking at it from that perspective, rather than the perspective of like, "how do I spend my digital ad dollars today?" So can you school us a little bit on kind of the nuance of asking questions? Because obviously you're an expert here and you do it for a living. So, what kind of questions do you look at and say okay, I know why this is going to give people the answers they want, but not the answers they need, and things like that.

Allison (14:21): Yeah. I can definitely go through some of my process when I'm figuring out what the questions are that I need to ask. And it's really starting off from the beginning. You have to figure out what goals you're trying to achieve. You can't just start asking questions without really understanding the problem. First, you need to dig into that. So there's a discovery phase to all research and innovation. You kind of just let people involve in the conversation. There's some objectives that you really need to get to and you, and you do need to pull them back a lot, but it's really fun to just kind of let people speak and see where it goes. I'm sure you're very familiar with this as a podcaster.

Allison (15:08): But in order to decide what type of questions you need to ask, you need to understand if you are going after an expert interview, if you're really wanting those facts. You could do street interviews, if you're kind of wanting to get the average opinion, or you could do a target profile where you've already really defined your, your target and your understanding, the why of your target audience, which is what we talked about with, with the shampoo and conditioner.

Allison (15:34): And with the questions that you ask it's really about not leading, of course. So this is one of those points where I really like to have visuals when I'm teaching. I taught a question class at SVA a few years back, but I had a really sad kitten on the screen and I said, "why is this kitten getting sad?" And I had the students re organize the question to not be leading. So instead you say, "what emotions is this kitten experiencing"

Mitch (16:12): Right.

Allison (16:13): And you have whoever you're talking to all of a sudden isn't having a yes or no question they're really having to dig deep into the kitten's psychology.

Mitch (16:24): Well, that's a great point too, because cats are jerks. So I don't trust a cat that looks sad. I know they're up to something.

Matt (16:32): So I know companies, a company we work with just paid like a half a million dollars to McKinsey to help conduct customer research. And according to their team it was just like, how do we write these? I don't know how to write a non-leading question. I don't know how to do this stuff. I just know how to optimize ad creative and bidding, on Facebook's platform.

Allison (16:53): But a few examples of questions that are really good about digging deeper is: could you explain blank more? Tell me more about blank. How would you do blank differently? How do you see this working and how do you feel about blank? So those are some good go-to is just to always have in your back pocket.

Mitch (17:15): If your goal is to understand your customers better than your competitors, then it's laid bare pretty much by the stuff you're saying here, Alison, that going the extra mile beyond just demo breaks and whatever's available in Facebook ad targeting to actually identify what the emotions are, the patterns are, the motivations are behind before you even get to the brand preference or usage. But even some of that core stuff, you have to go there and there aren't three buttons on the internet that can do it for you, at least not yet.

Allison (17:53): One day, maybe. I think Matt's working on that.

Matt (17:57): I feel like a brand can also do that. Not even in the question. More so from just a brand perspective of this brand is very engaging holistically and now I'm getting asked a question on the order confirmation page they're already been, they do this publicly. It's very transparent how they talk to customers. Now they're talking to me. So there's definitely a lot of ways in which you could do that. I'd argue that isn't just trying to create that instant one-on-one, but it's more or less the more you talk to customers, there's probably a compounding effect of the more you talk to customers, the more customers know you talk to them and the more they might be more receptive to give feedback.

Allison (18:33): Definitely. Make it easy for people. If you can't make it feel like it's a one-on-one, you got to make sure that you're coming to them. And if it's a text message or at the end of your order, confirmation page, as long as it's easy, then people will be way more likely to do it. Then if you're bugging them to sell outside of their shower. Yeah.

Matt (18:57): I think there's, to your point too, there's a lot of value that can be had with starting with an open-ended question to suss out certain things before you move into more of a multiple choice or whatnot. And that just because we see all the time, people will add the word like press is a good example, into their "how did you hear about us?" survey and a consumer might not press might not mean anything to them, but in a brand it does. So it's more or less like, how do you get that? The only way to actually know how your customers are inferring, certain things is to just ask more open than into questions and then use the copy and use the way they're wording stuff to then maybe ask a larger scale of customers.

Mitch (19:33): I think a lot of it is like mapping, right? And it's kind of like that the adage, that the map is not the territory. So if all you have internally is like, well, we have these 20 advertising channels and we want to direct toward, we want to map them towards this ROI. That's what we think of as the whole landscape. Right. But like the reality is to Alison's point and to your point, there's this territory that's unmapped. That is, how do people interact with your brand? Whether that's a channel that you've never heard of, or don't have in your list or one that exists, but they think of differently than you do. And being able to understand that territory is kind of like, I was going to use some corny term about being like a sharper or something. I decided I'm not going to do that. But yeah, so that mental model for me makes a lot of sense. And I like it.

Mitch (20:24): Alison, any parting words, guidance for any of these marketers that are running these brands as, and now you are one?

Allison (20:32): I think my biggest overall guidance for marketers as a whole is just to respect your customer. They're the people that are actually paying your paycheck.

Matt (20:45): I think another way we would word that. And I think Mitch might have come up with this, but people over pixels. So I think it's right in line with what you just said, just around respecting your customer and try to actually build a relationship. And the relationship is a two-way street. So how do you, how do you communicate and how do you collect the type of data that allows you to understand that? So, yeah. No, I can't agree more.

Mitch (21:07): Alison, thanks so much for joining and yeah. Congrats on building Hardly and excited to see what goes on there, but... favorite beverage while in the shower, what do you have?

Allison (21:19): Oh, goodness.

Mitch (21:21): Do you drink in the shower?

Allison (21:23): I have had beers in the shower. Yes. Shower beers are great. I would say probably Blue Moon is my favorite shower beer.

Mitch (21:34): That's a good shower beer.

Allison (21:35): It's refreshing.

Mitch (21:35): See, this is a whole use case that these brands don't know anything about cause they never bothered asking us.

Mitch (21:53): Yeah. That's a wrap on this episode. Thank you for listening, subscribing and rating the show. If you want to see what Allison's working on to solve for remote work, just text Hardly to 66866. Want to chat with Fairing? Check us out at See you next time.

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