Digital & Social Media

A Little Glimpse Packs A Big Marketing Punch


The New York Times Magazine wrote a piece in 2011 on “a (relatively) new online genre called reaction videos,” describing it as “one of the more fascinating entries in America’s ongoing anthropology of itself.” The article explains:

Reaction videos are exactly what they sound like: footage of people reacting to things. You can watch kids on Christmas morning screaming about gifts, crowds in sports bars flipping out over touchdowns, teenage superfans crying at long-awaited movie trailers. You can watch a formerly deaf baby, with his cochlear implants just turned on, smiling for the first time at the sound of his mother’s voice.

A YouTube search for “reaction to” provides more than 13 million results. How did these videos come to be so popular? Perhaps it’s because they offer viewers a glimpse of a truly authentic behavior, a commodity harder and harder to come by in a world where we’re always “on.”

By seeing how people truly react and behave, businesses can engage authentically with consumers. In the world of marketing and communications, “ethnography” is the parallel to reaction videos. Ethnography, the systematic study of people, is a primary research technique for obtaining qualitative information about consumers’ behaviors, needs, desires and relationships. Like reaction videos, they provide a glimpse into how a person truly responds to or interacts with products, people or their environment.

By seeing how people truly react and behave, businesses can engage authentically with consumers.

Ethnographies are an important tool in primary research because people may not always give complete or authentic answers in surveys or focus groups – perhaps due to a foggy memory, a desire to appear in sync with certain social norms, or simply because the individuals aren’t fully aware of why they behave certain ways. Bottom line: People can’t always explain why they engage in specific behaviors or buy specific products, or judge how they’d react to a situation until it actually happens. FleishmanHillard has used ethnographies for multiple clients to find out consumers’ shopping behaviors, how consumers react to an idea for a new product, and if a target audience actually behaves the way they say they do.

For a client interested in how consumers make decisions while shopping in the produce aisle of grocery stores, we conducted “shop alongs.” These identified consumers’ shopping habits, such as whether they use a shopping list, and what they look for when selecting produce. In surveys and focus groups, consumers said they wanted the freshest produce, looked for organic varieties, or preferred certain brands or types of produce. However, this wasn’t always the case. By observing shoppers in a natural environment, our researchers discovered two clear groups of shoppers: The “no-nonsense shoppers” who quickly make decisions about the items they need and are price sensitive, and the “experiential shoppers” who like to browse and see what’s available and often value quality, taste and freshness more than a low price. By sharing these personas with the client, we were able to recommend in-store and on-line experiential marketing ideas.

Ethnographies can provide clients a glimpse into the power of true.

Ethnographies also can be used when clients are testing ideas for a new product. For a client interested in testing an idea for a superhero-themed TV show, we observed pre-adolescent boys to identify how they engaged with superheroes and their reactions to such a show. For this study, researchers spent a parent-supervised afternoon in the home with superhero fans and some of their friends. Researchers looked for what games they played, took tours of their bedrooms or play rooms and asked about their favorite superheroes. Interestingly, the subjects’ friends kept them honest, telling researchers that they still play with superhero toys even though they may have wanted to say they liked “big boy” stuff like their dads or older brothers. By seeing how these boys really engaged with superheroes, we found that the show could provide a transitional bridge from childhood to adolescence to boys who grew up with – and still love – superheroes.

As in the produce study, ethnographies can provide a way to validate what consumers say in surveys and focus groups. However, unlike the produce study, we found that what young adults said in focus groups about their partying and social behaviors – from the crazy to the downright goofy – was all true. This confirmed that stories shared in previous focus groups were grounded in reality, validating why young adults found this client’s campaign (which included depictions of some of these social behaviors) “real” and “relevant.”

Ethnographies can provide clients a glimpse into the power of true. By having some authentic insight into consumers’ thoughts and behaviors, agencies and clients can communicate in a way that really resonates.

Sue Jolly contributed to this post.


About the author

Annie Piasecki

Annie Piasecki works with FleishmanHillard’s research and analytics team, and contributes to primary and secondary research efforts for a wide range of clients. Her experience includes work in digital and social media monitoring and analysis, secondary research, traditional and social media audits, and qualitative research insights. Prior to her time at FleishmanHillard, Piasecki held a position on the project communication team at Metro in St. Louis, Mo.

A FleishmanHillard employee.