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MRS Conference: Virtual Ethnography

March 25 2009

The afternoon’s online research session explored a number of areas around the theme, generally running over familiar ground. The exception was a paper on the use of ethnography to create connections between emerging trends in both the real and online worlds.

Intrepid Directors Patrick Massey and Liz High set the scene with a summary of their own online activities. Massey defines himself as reasonably tech savvy, with a networking profile on LinkedIn and a now redundant one on Facebook; but High, Intrepid’s MD, claims an altogether deeper immersion in Web 2.0: she regularly uses LinkedIn for her professional communications and Facebook for her social interactions, while taking on a separate persona through her 3D avatar created in Second Life.

The pair used these personal examples to argue that social media is of growing importance in the lives of consumers, and that we need to uncover how people express themselves both on and offline.

Building research communities and drawing insight from community conversations is an excellent step into the new world, they say, but they also believe that this is imposing ‘old world’ methodologies on a ‘new world’ reality.

Instead, Massey and High are applying ethnographic techniques to the area between on and offline realities, to offer insight for brands. While they are not, for example, suggesting that clients’ future strategy should be based on Second Life, they propose that combining new virtual research techniques with the strength of traditional dialogues will open up avenues which classical research skills no longer can.

The virtual ethnographer’s toolkit is broad and includes a system for selecting and recording artefacts such as data drawn from online search, screenshots, transcripts of community conversations, published content, online identities, sentiment metrics, web heuristics, qualitative coding and data analysis, and much more.

Armed with this multi-sourced consumer feedback, analysis can then be applied which will provide a future looking perspective on a business issue, when exploring sensitive subjects, or when trying to create connections with an elusive customer group.

Massey and High don’t believe that virtual ethnography will replace conventional market research practices, but are confident that by embracing the ‘new truths’ that consumers demonstrate online, they are ready to enter this world to help brands stay connected with emergent behaviour.


The X Factor

The conference ended with the challenge of finding the best communicator in the research world through a spoof production of the X Factor. Previously whittled down to three finalists, the contenders were tasked with creating, branding, and naming a new retail bank, and presenting their findings to a panel of judges from Vodafone, eBay Europe and BSkyB.

While Dan Foreman of Opinium Research believed the new bank should be named Banana, and Andy Burns of rdsi (whose presentation was flatteringly described by one of the judges as being ‘as rare as a client at an MRS conference’) thought Quid Pro Quo might sum up the values of the new institution, it was Erminia Blackden from MESH Planning who won with 52% of the audience’s vote.

Tottering on killer heels, Blackden’s enthusiastic, unique, crisp and compelling presentation concluded with the formation of the new ‘Touch Bank... in touch with your banking needs’.

As with all X Factor winners, Blackden is guaranteed massive media exposure – well, she’ll appear again in our article tomorrow about mastering the art of storytelling. MRS Conference has finished, but there will be more write-ups of Wednesday sessions appearing tomorrow on DRNO.

MRS Conference reviews in full:

TV Scientist Kicks off MRS ‘Unconference’ - Sir Robert Winston’s keynote interview
Lies and Statistics - social research; getting the truth from respondents
Nerd-Free Zone? - in-game advertising; consumer engagement, YouTube vs TV
Research in a Recession - winners, losers and strategies
Glasses Half Full and Half Empty - social scene; threats and opportunities to the profession
This page: Virtual Ethnography - multi-sourced consumer feedback from social media and elsewhere
On Human Behaviour - views from an anthropologist, a zoologist and an economist
MR as Storytelling; and Conference Conclusions - how was it for you?

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