IRL With Clients

Crowd DNA’s Andy Crysell on how we get out on-the-road with stakeholder teams, immersing them in the lives and culture of people…

We’ve been on an impressive roll running client immersion sessions recently. In the last month alone this work has taken us to South Korea, China, Argentina, India, South Africa and Indonesia; as well as out and about on Crowd DNA home turf in New York, Amsterdam and London.

When set up carefully, there’s something incredibly powerful about this type of work (sometimes we call them immersions, other times safaris, consumer meet-ups, road trips or similar; we should probably fix that). Rather than listening to, reading about, or watching what we have to say, or peering from behind the glass in a viewing facility, the client is truly getting in there with people and with culture.

The benefits of this might sound obvious, but it’s incredible how often the potential for these sessions is overlooked. You can’t really sleepwalk through them, and that’s key. It requires client teams to lean in. There’s sometimes even a sense of friction to begin with, of people being out of their comfort zone, but that’s a useful ingredient. Played right, this leads to true alertness and receptivity to what’s going on around you.

There’s not really a one-size-fits-all method for this type of work. Sometimes we might just be connecting with ‘regular’ consumers; at others we will include influencers and experts; or base it more around visiting stand-out locations than interacting with pre-recruited participants. They can be all wrapped up in a few hours, or take place over a number of days. So yes, we’re big believers in custom design over off-the-shelf solutions. But nonetheless we thought it worth trying to get down a few notes on what we think are the important factors:

Planning

Planning does make perfect in this field. All participants – the public and client stakeholders alike – need to be given the right level of detail on what will happen and what’s expected of them. Sometimes we’ll produce a project intro video, talking through the plan. We also create profile packs so clients have good background info on the people they’ll be meeting – the more context and anecdotes they have, the easier it will be to start conversations.

We work hard to get the mix of locations just right. You want to be going to the places that the target audience in question really does go to and/or to the cultural hotspots that will change thinking and present powerful new stimulus. This takes meticulous upfront research and attention to detail.

You’ve got to be realistic, too. While there might be ten good spots to head to, if time doesn’t allow for it, don’t do it. There’s no point turning the whole exercise into a needlessly frantic dash about town – and people need reasonable time to share learnings and talk between each interaction. Oh yes, and it’s worth knowing exactly where you’re going – getting lost in Kyoto, Mexico City or Helsinki isn’t a crowd pleaser.

Not too much planning!

So all of this planning is essential, but you also have to leave some gaps in the process. The serendipitous moments along the way are often where the magic happens. If the client wants to check out a different store than the one planned, or has struck up a particularly good conversation that warrants more time, you need to build in scope for such things to happen.

Don’t write a discussion guide – this can hinder the experience of actually meeting people on their own terms. Instead, arm the clients with provocations about the topic of interest as conversation starters. These could be false facts, quotes from previous waves of research etc. This type of stimulus is great if conversation starts to slow down, but, as not too prescriptive in form, also doesn’t limit clients from feeling they have the license to go off-script.

Setting the tone

These projects are about experiencing an environment with all senses truly switched on, not just having a conversation. Tell clients to observe and take note of the spaces they find themselves in, body language, relationships between people, media, music, food, what others in the space are doing.

Encourage clients to be interested, curious, flexible and to have fun. It’s not always going to run perfectly. There will be awkward conversations, silence and even some boredom – but mixed with laughter, fun and great interactions. Let the consumer lead where possible and allow them to be the narrator of their world.

Expertise

If you’re dropping into a distant city with a bunch of clients, looking to immerse them in how people and culture works there, sufficiently deep expertise in the topic matter is vital. This might well come from previous waves of secondary or primary research that you’ve conducted. It can also come from working with on-the-ground contributors – people who can articulate the details of the experience and unlock scenarios that may otherwise be out of reach. For instance, we might work with local lifestyle journalists and bloggers, or even independent tour guides who specialise in showing people an alternative view of a city.

Sharing

Everyone will need a way to gather, disseminate and reach conclusions around the wealth of material they are exposed to. We’ve recently had great success setting up WhatsApp groups in these types of situation. Our client stakeholders get to share images, videos and noted insights as they go in a fluid and low friction fashion. Better still, we can use the channel for logistical purposes, following where everyone is and, for instance, whether it’s time to advise a particular team that they’ve probably downed enough shots in that location and should move on!

We also arm teams with Polaroid cameras in some cases – of course, people can take pics via their phones, but it can be useful to achieve a focus on what’s important by limiting the number of shots available to them. We might give them budgets to buy items as they go – inspiring and surprising material that they can then share and discuss later.

Something ultimately needs capturing out of all of this fine work. Talking over findings, post-day, at dinner, can be the way – though be mindful of burnout. It can often be just as beneficial to share the findings over breakfast, as the start of the next day – people are fresher and it primes everyone for the next set of adventures.

It’s the job of the stakeholders to gather and share ideas. But it’s ours to collate them and author, or co-author, the take-outs. The final record of this type of exercise varies – a blog, film or booklet; a simple Google Docs round-up; a workshop session to feed ideas into the innovation pipeline – but it’s vital that there is an end product.

We’d love to discuss ideas for how to make a project of this kind work for your team. Email hello@crowdDNA.com if you’d like to chat and hopefully we can take you some place exciting.

As the smartphoned world continues to go crazy for messaging apps, Anna Chapman, associate director in our business and strategy team, looks at how WhatsApp can power research...

At Crowd we’re always keen to work with new methodologies – and have a particular fascination with trying to appropriate the myriad, UX-lovely platforms and services that exist outside of the insight industry. Recently we’ve found ourselves using WhatsApp on a number of projects. So what’s so great about using a messaging app for qual?

Since we’re in the business of capturing natural responses, it’s a no-brainer to meet people in an environment where they feel at home. And people feel very comfortable using WhatsApp, because many of us are on it a lot of the time. The usage stats show that globally it’s trumping more conventional social platforms, with one third of WhatsApp’s 990 million users chatting on it daily and the average user sending 1,000 messages per month (42 billion per day, apparently). What’s more, WhatsApp is growing faster than its prodigious parent company Facebook did, even in its heyday.

WhatsApp is rather large...
WhatsApp is rather large...

Cost, or lack of it, is one of the reasons that WhatsApp is so popular. What’s not to love about an app that allows you to chat with your friends for free, wherever they are in the world, in a private space? And, the good news is that it’s also a free platform for research – at least for now.

WhatsApp beats using a community for a number of reasons, primarily because it’s far less hassle for everyone involved. Members don’t have to make an effort to register and recall a password, meaning dropout rates are much lower. Moderators can easily nudge people into action when they’re hanging out right there in the space (rather than having to prompt them with an email and redirect them to an unfamiliar community). One of our team admits to having a ‘chat’ from the gym on his phone. This accessibility is definitely a benefit for the client, if not for the time-poor researcher…

WhatsApp is highly adaptable and has worked for us across diverse projects, from celebrity futureproofing with 35-55 year-olds in the UK to a hefty global piece on childhood. Across the board, we’ve been impressed by the quality of responses. Communities can sometimes feel impersonal, causing nervous participants to hold back, wary of the strangers in the room. But people are used to sharing information with their friends on WhatsApp so they tend to be chattier and give bolder answers, smattered with emojis.

Increasingly we’re using images and video to communicate with our audience and it’s second nature for people to share short form media and links on WhatsApp. What’s more, screenshot conversations look great in presentations. Of course, much of the above can be applied to using social media in general for research and we’ve also had great results with Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest. Suitability is uppermost – it’s important to use a platform that resonates with your target audience in each case.

When you’re planning a global project, you need to consider market and audience variations. In the US, for example, Facebook messenger dominates for adults and teens use Viber. But in Latin America and the Middle East, two thirds of internet users are WhatsApping. Of course, it makes sense to use native platforms wherever possible, so in China choose WeChat, or Kakao Talk in South Korea. It’s also easy to use different messaging apps in one project.

Naturally, there are downsides (and we’re not about to completely ditch the more research industry-specific online tools we also often use just yet) – it can be overwhelming trying to maintain conversations with numerous people across the world at once, so we recommend using WhatsApp as part of the project; in a smallish diary task, for example. We tend to use it as one element in our overall approach, supporting it with more in-depth interviews, expert opinion or workshops afterwards.

As messaging apps continue to flourish, WhatsApp – plus no doubt future offerings that will emerge – will become an important methodology, offering us an alternative to more conventional communities and other mobile research tools, and a fluid, credible way into the conversations that get us to the heart of contemporary culture.

From open sourcing to 'always in beta', Eric Shapiro, senior consultant in our creative delivery team, explores what insight can learn from the agile ways of digital development...

There’s no hiding from the fact that the most important products of the last 20 years all have zeros and ones in common. As the entire world has moved digital, the way we build, test, refine and consume has had to adapt. More than ever, the pressure is on the process: translating ideas into action – and at speed. The results, from Facebook and Google to Angry Birds and Minecraft – can be spectacular successes at relatively minimal upfront cost, and rarely a day goes by where a piece of development work isn’t in the news.

It’s therefore no surprise that insight, along with most other industries, view technology startup culture with equal degrees of admiration and envy. And while lip service is often paid to the link between insights and tech, we’re too often slow, or reluctant, to apply digital thinking to research processes. With this in mind, here’s how understanding digital can help make our insight a bit more Minecraft and a lot less Microsoft Vista.

1. Start with a sentence

Great products have an extremely clear vision and a solid base which can adapt to change and grow. Twitter is a micro messaging platform. Facebook connects you with friends. From a simple and solid base, you can build – which is why summing up your start up in a sentence is a big deal. While clarity at the outset helps with the later process of building, testing, and refining, it also helps when your product goes ‘viral’. The best and most successful products can deal with this – ones that fail often can’t (anybody remember Ello?). The insight learning: distill briefs and their responses to their core to get everyone on board at the beginning, and then revisit the process at the end to ensure your findings have a consistent and solid message.

2. Plan more, do less 

In the context of quick turn-around briefs and instant insights, it’s often the scoping phases that get pinched in favour of more time in field and the hope of more analysis and output building later on. However, if we switch this on its head, and spend more time identifying what we already have, and putting into place a watertight and signed off plan of action there’s far less likelihood of running into problems at the analysis stage, which as a consequence can be faster and more focused. This is where digital thinking wins out. This may be borne out of technological necessity in most instances (there’s no point building a perfect square peg if in can only fit in a round hole), but it shows how trading off more thinking for less doing leads to better outcomes.

3. Consider agile

For the last few years, ‘agile’ has been the buzzword of the digital industries. In a nutshell, it’s about producing a bare minimum product offering, then iteratively adding layers by building, testing, and refining the basic concept. It’s a brilliant, user-centric way of creating that keeps things simple and uncomplicated. As the name suggests, it’s also quick; projects are measured in days rather than weeks. What’s more, it links perfectly with research and focuses the role of insight. A team of researchers, creatives and product owners work together closely to repeatedly build and improve a concept until you end up with a final ‘phase’ that’s taken to market. At Crowd DNA we’ve successfully use this approach to build a set of creative guidelines and look forward to introducing it to other areas. Agile methods are also a key element in design thinking, a similarly innovative approach that involves building products using human behaviours as a starting point, rather than a proving ground in the later stages.

An agile product cycle involving insight
An agile product cycle involving insight

4. Use collaborative tech

Digital project management requires a high degree of attention and quality control to ensure things are built properly and bugs can be quickly squashed. This has led to a raft of innovation in project management tools and software to help make the process seamless. At the heart of tools like Basecamp, Gliffy, Google Docs, and many others, is a collaboration ethos where responsibilities are clearly defined, shared and work together towards a single aim. Like any product, a piece of insight needs to be bug proof in order to be effective and do its job, and embracing collaboration can help us ensure our products are of exceptional standard.

5. Pivot your ideas

Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and blogger, is responsible for defining a lot of the characteristics of what he terms ‘the lean startup’, a model which digital and non digital companies are increasingly associating themselves with. One of the central definitions of the lean startup is the ability to change a product’s primary use, rather than scrap or rebrand it if it fails to make an impact in the market. While this method – known as pivoting – often refers to entire companies or large products, the principles are applicable to research. The lesson here: consider the insights beyond the primary aim. If they don’t prove the hypothesis or the argument, what else do they prove? Is there more than one story angle in the data? Which story is going to be the most compelling to the intended audience? If you need inspiration, look no further than great pivoting examples like Pinterest (originally a shopping app) and Groupon (originally a crowdfunding platform) to show how changing direction can lead to success.

6. Be ‘always in beta’

Finally, digital industries are embracing the notion of the ‘never finished product’ – that a service can be continually improved and adapted towards perfection, rather than ever claiming to have reached it upon launch. We’ve long championed the idea that research needs to be socialised and adapted if it’s to have an impact; that no single finding or deliverable can ever be said to nail the problem forever; therefore it’s great to see this idea becoming increasingly put into practice. Innovations such as YouTube’s fantastic 360 service show how even the most established and successful products can always be re-evaluated and added to.

When I Used To Be A Planner

Our Amsterdam-side strategic initiatives director, Lydia Jones, is a planner no more. Oh, hold on, she's more a planner now than ever. Think we'd best let her explain...

When I first uttered those fateful words, ‘when I used to be a planner’, in my second week at Crowd DNA, I had a little moment. Am I really not a planner anymore? After eight years in advertising with that job title, it felt weird to relinquish it. But with three months now at Crowd getting stuck in all over the place – from toothbrushes to cheese – I realise I’m might be more of a planner now than I was at any ad agency.

Gone are the days when agencies had in-house research departments with a team dedicated to moderating groups, setting up surveys, doing your desk research, and running TGI reports. Gone too are the days when every project had two months of planning time, where planners shut themselves away in a room and stroked their beards, noodling over the precise articulation of a proposition. These days, you’re lucky if you get two weeks. So planners now have to do their own research and mostly that means turning to their trusty friend Google. Trouble is, everyone else also has access to the same free but never-the-right-markets, never-the-right-target, or perfect-but-from-2005, reports that you do. So a planner ends up making do and extrapolating, ie, ‘making shit up’. Many planners are highly skilled at Making Shit Up. They have to be. I know I was. My strategies were a thing of beauty!

In my ad career, I’ve worked at many different agencies: direct, digital, above the line, old school, new school, old dinosaur, and shiny new start up, And apart from a handful of groups, a couple of surveys, and a few hastily put together vox pops for pitches, I never did any primary research. Never. In eight years. Most of the time, I didn’t even have access to proper secondary research (Mintel subscriptions were cut along with the free fruit). So it’s no wonder most planners nowadays are expert storytellers and deck crafters, but pretty terrible when it comes to talking to real people.

That’s partly the reason why I joined Crowd. To actually do some proper primary research, a skill I should’ve been well versed in by now. But secondly, I joined Crowd because they get those challenges faced by agencies today. They work fast, they tell stories, and they don’t make planners wade through hundreds of terribly ugly powerpoint charts. And they’re nice.

We are an agencies’ research department. We are their planners. Bonus being they don’t have to fork out for breakfast for us every day.

Frank Sinatra Has A Cold

Gay Talese's 1966 Esquire feature, 'Frank Sinatra Has A Cold', is one of the greatest studies of celebrity ever. With insight and innovation in mind, Crowd DNA managing director Andy Crysell explains that it also demonstrates the power of observation over interview...

‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’ ranks as a defining piece in so-called new journalism; a painstakingly detailed, powerful and fascinating under-the-skin read. It was, however, a state of affairs forced on Talese through Sinatra – recoiling at soon being 50; experiencing a number of career pressures; indeed suffering from a cold – refusing to talk to him. Celeb gawking aside, it serves equally as a prime example of the benefits of observation over interview (or, in ‘…Has A Cold”s case, in observation alongside only questioning those on the periphery of the scene, rather than the target ‘audience’).

Ethnographic-style reporting, next to visual documentation, brings a richness and a discursiveness to stories that regimented interviews don’t always allow for. Vitally, the broader cultural context becomes clearer and, often, less anticipated and potentially more advantageous ground gets to be covered – something that it can be a struggle to achieve when there’s a lengthy set of highly granular questions to crunch through in a discussion guide.

We’re not prescribing project method designs that are devoid of interviews in all work (sometimes highly granular questions really do need answering through very direct interviewing) – rather to highlight that, when well considered, there can be rigour and process in observation, too. And returning more particularly to the example of ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’, while skilled ethnographers practice observation as a matter of course, exploring the journalist skill-set as well opens the doors to bringing better reporting techniques and a storytelling mentality to ethnography.

It’s this blending of social science and journalism – ethnography with a more potent sense of interpretation – that’s particularly pertinent to how we work at Crowd DNA. Better thinking, being agile, ensuring impact – we like to think that we cover off all three of our guiding principles via this type of primary method.

Gay Talese’s story for Esquire begins as per below. Click the link thereafter to read the full piece

Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday.

Frank Sinatra Has A Cold