Defining a Social Network

The old adage “no man is an island” and “nobody lives in a vacuum” are true. We live in a complex network of relationships and communities that shape our worldview, behavior and influence our daily behavior.  A social network is the socio-cultural group made up of individuals or institutions called “nodes.” These are connected by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as profession, title, kinship, common interest, dislike, etc. They can also be constructed around relationships of beliefs, knowledge or power. Social webs help illustrate the multivariate roles people play across a range of socio-cultural strata.

So why exactly does it matter?  Simply put, knowing a target’s social network is the gateway to ethnographic insight. Remember, in a social network:

  • Subjects and their actions are viewed as interdependent rather than independent or autonomous units
  • Relational ties (linkages) between subjects are channels for resource flow (either material or nonmaterial)
  • Network models focusing on individuals view the network structural environment as providing opportunities for or constraints on individual action
  • Network models conceptualize structure (social, economic, political and so forth)

Beyond Mobility: What Businesses Can Learn From Ugandan Banking

Drive through any city, town or village in Uganda and you’ll see a multitude of buildings painted bright yellow. That yellow is the color identity of MTN, a self-described “mobile communications and network access company” that sells phones, SIM cards and phone accessories. At first glance, they’re a fairly standard regional phone and Internet provider.

What isn’t ho-hum, however, is their MTN MobileMoney service. This service allows you to walk into any MTN retail (I use that term very loosely for many of the outlets) and put money in an online account. This money can then be sent to any recipient via text, for a fee. The recipient need only take the text to another MTN outlet to redeem tangible currency.

This may seem fairly benign to those of us used to mobile banking via the Internet. But, then again, we live in a cashless society. In contrast to much of the West, Uganda is a cash society. Except for marked establishment in Kampala and Entebbe, where most westerners – and increasingly, the Chinese – are concentrated, you’d be hard pressed to spot a place that will accept your Visa or an ATM. Banks themselves can be few and far between. Phone stores? Everywhere. MobileMoney has become a surrogate ATM. What money you have, you put into your mobile money account, so you can pull cash out at leisure from practically any community.

The other way this mobile banking has come into play is with remittances. Like much of the developing world, transient or migrant fathers and sons keep many families afloat by sending part of their earnings back home. For the last 50 years, this transaction has been done only when the employed return home or by entrusting money in an envelope with a bus driver, who doubles as “courier.” Now, money can be transmitted safely and instantaneously.

So what does this say about mobile technology and different needs in different societies? And what can banking in the developed world take from it?  Quite a bit.  Innovation doesn’t stem from examining the obvious and we can learn a great deal about our own practices and beliefs by learning how others think about mobile technology, money, banking stability, technology as an expression of power, etc.  It can break down preconceived notions we have about ourselves and people around the globe.  And above all else, it can define new opportunities that your competitors have never even considered.

Ethnography Gone Bad

I wrote the other day about the misuse of the term “ethnography” and seemed to raise the ire of a few folks.  Ethnography, I was informed, is indeed the collective property of all researchers and it’s definition is subject to the chosen uses of the day.  Being the anthropologist and would be semiotician that I am, I would concur insofar as meaning changes through time, is subject to cultural interpretation, etc.  True enough.  However, I would also argue that before meaning can change, it still needs to be grounded in something.  To do otherwise is no different than me saying “Peaches are books because I said so.”  I may indeed make that definition, and on a grand cosmic scale it may be true, but if I choose to read a peach today or bite into a book when I’m hungry, I’m will to bet I will be sadly disappointed.  Thus so, it behooves us to think about what ethnography actually means and why it means it.  “Ethnography” has come to be equated with virtually any qualitative research project.

While an ethnographic approach to research is no longer “owned” solely by of the sociologist, cultural anthropologist or sociolinguist, it doesn’t mean we should tuck our tails between our legs and simply accept any definition put before us.  A more precise definition needs to be rooted in ethnography’s disciplinary home of anthropology. There lies it’s origin and therefore it has a place in the formation and definition, whether practiced by anthropologists or more general market researchers and product developers.  Thus, ethnography may be defined as both a qualitative research process and method (one conducts an ethnography, not a bunch of “ethnographies,” by the by) and product (the outcome of the process is an ethnography, as in a literary genre). The aim is cultural interpretation, not simply a series of anecdotes about individual behaviors. The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience.  Specifically, he or she attempts to explain how these details represent what Geertz called “webs of meaning.” It seeks to understand and explain the cultural constructions in which we live.

This means that ethnographers generate understandings of culture through representation of what we call an emic perspective, or what might be described as the “‘insider’s point of view.” The emphasis in this representation is on allowing critical categories and meanings to emerge from the ethnographic encounter rather than imposing these from existing models.  An etic perspective, by contrast, refers to a more distant, analytical orientation to experience.  Both emic and etic factor into the final product and require triangulation or data and a theoretical framework.  It also means taking into account more than interview data and considering the totality of the setting, the context and the interplay between people in the encounter. An ethnographic understanding is developed through close exploration of multiple sources of data. Using these data sources as a foundation, the ethnographer relies on a cultural frame of analysis. In other words, it means having an holistic approach to understanding how the human condition unfolds and an finds expression.

So yes, “ethnography” is, like all language, defined in the act of communication.  It will no doubt change again before all is said and done as a broader range of disciplines adopt it as another method, another writing style and another way of understanding the world. Hopefully it won’t be watered down to the point of uselessness in the meantime. It is sometimes important to take a stand on what things mean and how they come to mean them.  Not just for ourselves, but for the people who hire us.

 

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Four Elements of a Successful Brand Extension

While executives rightly proceed with caution when considering brand extensions, the rewards of success are substantial. Although Apple’s is, rightfully, the darling of the hour (the iPod, iPad and iPhone are shining examples), Apple is certainly not unique. Other powerful brands that have created enormous equity by extending into unlikely categories include Amazon and Virgin. Customers give some brands a great deal of permission to extend into unlikely places, provided the extension can readily create a symbolic frame that goes beyond the product to what the brand represents holistically.

So how is it done?  It’s not as simple as slapping your logo on a new product in a new category.  There are several considerations to keep in mind.

1. Do you have the guts to take the leap and stick with it?

Like any new venture, remember that brand extensions are risky. “Know thyself” is a tremendous factor in deciding whether or not to extend the brand, so take time to honestly assess how much risk you’re willing to take on. If you stretch too far, customers may well reject the brand extension.  Understand how you will manage failure as well as success.

2. How well loved is the brand?

The more customers like the brand, the more likely they are to be loyal.  If they love the brand it isn’t that far from a state of near-religious devotion. Step one is for brand managers assess metrics such as awareness, familiarity and current market share – yes, I am advocating the use of numbers to evaluate human behavior. However, the metrics are only part of the equation. Metrics often do little to determine the viability of a brand extension because they focus on things that reflect anything but the emotional connections and cultural meanings brands take on.

It is in the face of culture and practice that the quantifiable looses meaning. Take Mini Cooper, for instance. Ten years ago, it was not the market leader. In fact, it was seen as a less than reliable car that cost little – but it was also a beloved reminder of all things quirky about British automobiles and the unpredictability of youth.  Its “cool” factor created a cult-like customer following.  Add to that the credibility provided by BMW engineering and you get a transformed brand that shifted from an image of being cheap to the status of a sports car.

3. Does the brand promise really deliver?

Brand promise serves as the foundation for everything that the brand does. It also has to be more than a slogan for the customer to believe in the brand. When extending to a new category, a brand promise has to be powerful, realistic and easily articulated.

In this instance the “why” is far more important to address than the “what.” Brands promises built around a list of attributes (the “what”) have a harder time extending their brand because they provide no direct connection to how the brand impacts a person’s life.  Brands promises that focus on the people exploring the brand (the “why”) are able to gain traction because their meaning can be transferred from one condition to another.  It’s not the attributes but how the brand positively shapes a range of conditions in daily life.

Returning to Apple, its success has grown because it focused on “why” it built computers. The position moved away from technical specs to how its devices fit into daily life – the computer, the iPod and the iPhone all talk to pleasure, looking cool, etc. Things like quality and RAM are simply givens. This promise Apple makes is both broad and powerful enough to be meaningful in other categories.

4. Does the brand fulfill a unique need?

For beloved brands, expectations are extremely high. It isn’t enough to follow a “me too” way of thinking.  Getting it right is paramount because extensions not only can fail, but can damage overarching brand equity. Think about Blockbuster’s failed attempt at streaming video and mail-order DVD rentals.  It was just another service that someone else was already executing beautifully.

Before a brand extension, think about whether it exceeds market expectations or if it’s just a “me too” plan. Think about what doesn’t exist or isn’t being addressed adequately – in other words, rethink the problem and spend a little time reflecting on what is really needed. Think about how you can provide meaning and value.

Coffee Culture in Asia and What It Means to Product Development

Coffee shops are 
more than places to get a beverage or pick-me-up. Coffee shops play an 
important role in socializing. They convey a different meaning in the 
collective psyche than do taverns, restaurants and other places of shared 
food and drink. From the independent shop to the corporate behemoth, coffee 
shops provide a space of comfort.

Stepping outside cultures where coffee has been part of the dialog for centuries, the beverage is finding new meaning yet again.  Coffee culture is emerging in Asia and it is fascinating. The socio-cultural role the coffee shop plays seems tied to a sense of modernity and international sophistication, not unlike the role of the sushi restaurant found in every town over 250,000 in the US.  Like all cultural transferences, it takes on new meaning and new elements of material culture.  Almost one third of Chinese for example now consume coffee outside their home. As in many other countries, Asian coffee shops are more about the gathering of friends for a social event than about the coffee itself – the coffee is a facilitator and a symbol of a postmodern world. Add to that the fact that few Chinese households own a coffeemaker and it adds another layer of complexity, both in terms of products and the places coffee is consumed.

Coffee shops are opening rapidly, but many cannot afford the large brewing equipment needed for commercial sales. Some of the roasters are making the brewing equipment available to the specialty houses in return for agreeing to purchase a certain number of pounds each year.

In Indonesia, one of the major coffee exporting countries in the world has a strong and well-established coffee culture. Most of the fresh coffee is consumed by the older generation who has grown up using the product and enjoys the taste. And it’s worth noting that coffee is as much an ingredient as it is a drink in and of itself.

So what?  It’s all very interesting but why does it matter?  Because it exemplifies the complexities of developing products and messaging strategies for any product on a global stage.  We often work as if our worldview is the starting point, or we forget to look beyond the product to its use and meaning in a broader cultural context.

Linguistic Shortcomings of Social Media Monitoring – notes.

It is difficult to get an accurate reading on how commonly a word is used in a given society. In fact, the task of measuring word frequency fully objectively is inherently impossible. The results will always be affected by the size of the corpus and the choice of the texts entered in it. On a global scale, where words take on subtle new meanings as they are appropriated into the semiotic structure of the actor and thereby changed, the problem becomes even more obvious.  Frequency means nothing without cultural context.

This is not to say that frequency isn’t important. It is important and revealing. Frequencies are only broadly indicative of cultural salience and they can only be used as one among many sources of information about a society’s cultural preoccupations. But measurements only tell part of the story. And when they are decontextualized or proscribed meanings based on the person developing the algorithm that assigns sentiment. They give a potentially false understanding. To be correctly interpreted, figures have to be considered in the context of an in-depth analysis of meanings.

If four thousand people call a product “shitty,” it is fair to say that four thousand people reacted negatively to it. But that measurement can’t tell us about the culture of those people – are they engineers addressing it from a technological angle? Are they Venezuelan students reacting to a larger political issue? We assume that a word can be easily categorized along a linear trajectory – negative/positive, etc. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Words can be studied as focal points around which cultural domains are organized. By exploring these focal points in depth, we may be able to show the general organization principles which lend structure and coherence to a cultural domain as a whole, and which often have an explanatory power extending across multiple domains.

The underlying principle lacking in current social media monitoring processes is allolexy. The term allolexy refers to the fact that the same element of meaning may be expressed in a language in two or more different ways. Just as one word can be associated with multiple meanings, one meaning can often have two or more different lexical exponents. For example, in English, I and me are allolexes of the same primitive concept (In Latin, Ego).  Often allolexes of a semantic primitive are in complimentary distribution. So in English, a combination of the semantic primitives someone and all is realized as everyone or everybody. In these particular contexts –one and –body can be seen as allolexes of someone; and –thing can be seen as an allolex of something. This notion of allolexy plays a particularly important role in social media monitoring because it allows us to build inflectional categories. For example, the forms  am doing, did, and will do used without temporal adjuncts convey different meanings, but when combined with the temporal adjuncts now, before now, and after now, as in the sentences below, they are in complementary distribution and can be seen as allolexes of the same primitive DO:

  1. I am doing it now.
  2. I did it before now.
  3. I will do it after now.

When we apply an approach derived from an allolexical perspective, we can start to determine where sentences or words “match,” semantically, across languages, even though inflectional categories can differ considerably from language to language. In other words, if a word is taken out the process of discourse, it loses meaning and is therefore subject to interpretation that lacks a way of accounting for either semantic variance or semantic stability – it is nothing short of a guess.

In a sense it is true that words have no “fixed” meanings because meanings of words change. But if they were always fluid and without any “true” content, they could not change either. Words do have identifiable, “true” meanings, the precise outlines of which can be established on an empirical basis by studying their range of use and articulating the contexts that subtly repurpose them. The key point is that social media monitoring today does not account for semantic deviation and language as fundamentally tied to discourse.