Using Social Anthropology To Create Resonant Campaigns

Alright!  Just when you thought my “social media and anthropology” series was more of a vapor-series than a real one, I’m back with part two!  In the first post, I was beginning to discuss the role of culture in new/social media, and how we can use anthropology and culture studies in order to produce better and more resonant media campaigns.

Why is this?  When applied to communication, research and knowledge of the target community helps communicators create more compelling strategies, solutions, and messages.   You need to learn how a group shapes its perceptions — and of course, how it expresses itself.  Otherwise, you risk striking a culturally off-key note.

After all, great communications always connect and strike a chord with people.  To me, the main ingredient in a real campaign is a compassion and empathy for my audience.  Think about Bill Clinton’s famous “I feel your pain” appeal.  Why did it connect with people?  Because a great communicator understands that the relationship between what he or she has to say and how it connects with others.

But say you need to appeal to an online community that you don’t really know all that well.  Or say you know about the subject that the bloggers talk about (say healthcare or politics or economics), but you know nothing about the actual online community.  What are you to do when you don’t know the “pain” that a group itself faces?  How can you understand, in-depth, how to appeal to a community?  Or how to even navigate it or get started?

Here’s where social anthropology has always come into play for me — namely one of the core methods of research, called an “ethnography.” (As a side note, in the workplace, I’ve always called this a “blog audit,” because “online ethnography” sounds really lame and really, really nerdy.)  An ethnography, simply, is a research method designed to “map out” a culture, group or community that you wish to learn more about.  Once you conduct an ethnography, you’ll likely know what to “do” and how to “do it.”

How? In anthropology, the ethnography itself is an account of a specific social system.  Included are generally a breakdown of roles, norms, values, motivations, symbols, and other social breakdowns.  The ethnography focuses on detailed observations of what the culture “actually does” — its social behavior, and reasons and motivations behind them.  It’s also extremely systematic, and insights come from a rigorous analysis of systematically collected data (cough, metrics, cough).  The best ethnographies are quite objective.

It’s also not just observation that gets the job done.  Ethnography is also based — and this is key — on a participatory model (are bells ringing in your head, my social media friends?).  Ethnographers take part in cultural events.  Participation lets the research “feel” what it’s like to be a part of the group being studied.  Participation works not only as a means of gaining insight, but trust.  Don’t forget — the social scientist (the “participant”) is also being observed and evaluated as the ethnography is conducted, so participation builds rapport.

The observer-participant model, together, lets social scientists — and in the case that I’m trying to make, us social media people — better able to understand and widen our perspectives on the culture we’re interacting with.  Because of it, we have better analytic insight and a deeper understanding of the culture and what makes it tick.  Once we have that, we can build better campaigns.

In my next post, I’m going to lay out the ethnographic model and map out the “social media equivalent” to these.  I’ll be going from the conceptual, theory-based stuff to the practical “this is how you do an ethnography with an online community.”  And no, don’t worry, it’s already mostly typed out, so expect it soon!

~ by Brad Levinson on April 2, 2008.

2 Responses to “Using Social Anthropology To Create Resonant Campaigns”

  1. Brad-
    Great to see that others are understanding why anthropologists are also great social media strategists. I am an anthropologist by academic training and I am a social media marketer by profession. Ethnographies, as you know, are especially important when entering into a community or culture, but the same applies to online communities. The similarities are astonishing. Did you already post the ethnographic model and its social equivalent blog post? I look forward to it! Keep up the great posts!

  2. I am catching up with all of this. You should have sent me a tweet. I will link this today in another article I am doing that includes a mention of anthropology ;-)

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