Business Today

A Retake on Research

The authors make a compelling case for digital ethnography and its significance in the Indian marketplace.
B. Narayanaswamy | Print Edition: June 18, 2017
A Retake on Research

Why are cycle rickshaws found mostly in towns to the North of the river Narmada? This is the sort of question a two-wheeler marketer may well ask, only to find that conventional market research (MR) does not quite come up with effective answers.MR is great to understand consumer behaviour at an individual level, and aggregate it up to the larger market as a whole. So, marketers rely on MR tools to track advertising performance, evaluate new products and advertisements, understand media consumption, etc. But we need a different toolkit to answer questions at the level of a culture or a society.

These questions are super important: they enable us to get a grip on trends, spot emerging needs and opportunities, create innovative products and services, and so on. Consider, for instance, the combination of an open kitchen and a pooja room that the newer flats come with. You need to know these trends far ahead of time, given the length of time it takes to put up a project.  How? Enter Ethnography. It is the tool of choice to understand motivations and emergent behaviours, and to derive insights at a more aggregate level. Here, the researcher pretty much embeds herself amidst the people being studied. And data gathering extends over days and weeks.

You get richness, but it cannot be carried out on any scale beyond a sample of a couple of dozen.The Internet and social media now provide access to explore rich data at gigantic scales. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest are all sources of rich data on consumers and context. We are not only able to track behaviours, i.e. what consumers do, but also get to eavesdrop into what they think. Big data analytics and, of late, AI (artificial intelligence) enable analysis of unstructured data at a scale like never before.This is digital ethnography. Web True.0 builds an elegant, strong case for it in a highly accessible, storytelling way, narrated over some nine chapters, each with a different case history. The book comes at the right time in India.

Many of the cases would ring a bell to a CXO operating in the Indian consumer marketplace. The C-Suite would do well to understand and take note of digital ethnography and its power.For instance, malls and apparel retail in the US are reeling under a combination of forces, notably e-commerce and a changing mix of consumers and their motivations. The situation in India is almost identical to the way it has unfolded in the US. There is a rich discussion on this topic in the chapter on how mid-tier brick-and-mortar retailers could build a new future. ('Wrist-mounted dart guns and how they can save the retail industry'.

Not just the book title, but the chapter headings and writing style, too, are seemingly inspired by Malcolm Gladwell!)The other chapters cover a wide canvas: from breakfast practices to personal finance, millennials, their values and how it impacts their political affiliation or their charitable giving, the doctor-patient relationship and patients' compliance with the prescription, and so on. All have parallels more or less in the Indian context as well, with varying generalisability. (Compliance to prescription is a major issue here, particularly with upscale seniors.)It's not just the fact that the cases and ideas discussed apply to India. Perspectives have to change at decision-making levels if managers are to successfully navigate the changing marketplace.

This book can help them take off for making that journey. What I miss the most is a finale that sets out a framework to see the linkages: beliefs, values and motivations and the intersections, and how they morph via aspirations and affluence to forces of cultural norms and social behaviour. In the absence of such a concluding theme, the book appears to end abruptly. The book's purported aim is to enable the reader to see not just research differently, but appreciate the power of the internet, see people through a new lens and view their own problems differently to see the world in a new light. The book achieves this aim more or less.

Coming back to cycle rickshaws and the question we started with in the heading. Can ethnography help us understand why? Yes! Cycle rickshaw prevalence is actually determined by the way TVS and Kinetic Luna focused their moped distribution. Neither of the companies really prioritised their distribution in the North and the East. A moped and cycle rickshaw both address similar mobility needs: short trips in smaller cities. Cycle rickshaws have continued to serve that need. So it's not always just the marketplace and the consumer; the supply side creates its own rhythms, too!

The reviewer is former Consultant, Data Science, at Ipsos Research


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