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Offline Research for the Online World

By Jul 21, 2006

David FriedmanChief marketers seeking to understand their customers’ online behavior should not ask them what they want; instead they should watch how they behave. Only by watching can you arrive at deep insights capable of guiding the effective design of digital marketing programs.

At Avenue A | Razorfish we use two primary methods to understand online customer behavior: watching offline behavior through ethnographic research and monitoring online behavior with Web analytics. This month’s column focuses on uncovering offline behaviors that guide online development; next month we’ll examine Web analytics.

When marketers contemplate the behavior of online consumers, many focus on determining what consumers are doing, paying little attention to why they might be doing it. Unfortunately, the answers to many online problems cannot be found through analytics. Though analytics is great for identifying problems in technology or site design and the way consumers interact with these tools, it cannot help you understand the forces driving online consumer behavior, which should be a key consideration prior to designing any kind of Website or application.

This is one of many instances where marketers can extract methodology from a long-established textbook marketing tactic that has proven its effectiveness again and again in the offline world: ethnographic research. Although underutilized by marketers, ethnographic research conducted offline can go a long way to explain or predict consumer behavior in any setting, including the Internet.

Consumer packaged goods companies have used ethnographic research for years. Vacuum-cleaner companies visit consumers’ homes on cleaning day to see how vacuuming fits into the larger cleaning context, determine ways they might be able to make the product fit into that context more conveniently, and ultimately build a better product for those consumers to buy and use. Beer and liquor manufacturers visit bars. Fashion designers visit malls. The list goes on and on. To maximize results of major online investments, marketers should leap into the offline world more often to better understand what motivates consumers and drives their behaviors.

Ethnographic research is more art than science, a much more subjective and less scientific tool than any type of analytics package. When applying ethnographic research to better understand online consumer behavior, you need to literally sit down with consumers to observe how they interact with technology and products and the types of environments in which they do so.

When a major retailer wanted to create a Website for putting together one’s wardrobe, for example, the first step we took was to obtain permission to visit with customers. Questions were posed. Fictional situations were constructed. Notes were logged, and photos were taken. The field research produced a number of key findings about how consumers really approach organizing their clothing and getting dressed.

By understanding how consumers perform a task in the offline or “real” world, you can design more-appropriate online tools or site navigation structures to help consumers perform the same task online in a manner that feels natural to them. It seems like a simple concept, yet many marketers expect to find answers to online problems through analytics—which fails to provide the much-needed behavioral or motivational perspective.

Employing ethnographic research as step one of the design process enables you to gain a deep and rich understanding not only of what consumers are doing but also of how and why. In the offline world, this research takes many shapes and forms but is consistently the first step in new-product design. After all, how can you design a product if you don’t know how and why it will be used?

The same is true of online applications, tools, and experiences. Marketers who understand what motivates their target consumers can do a much better job of pleasing them, attracting them, and keeping them as customers.

Dave Friedman is president of the central region for Seattle-based interactive services firm Avenue A | Razorfish and a monthly contributor to CHIEF MARKETER. Contact him at Dave.Friedman@avenuea-razorfish.com.