Rahul checked to make sure no one could see his laptop screen every time he wrote a new message. He was telling a stranger about his porn habits.
Logged in to a private community used for research, he was chosen because he was someone a big tech brand wanted to get closer to – the urban Indian lower-middle class.
Researchers had asked him to take part in what they called a ‘confession group,’ where he and a few others could write anything they wanted, virtually anonymous; only his first name displayed. It made him feel safe enough to volunteer his porn preferences in a country where talking about this stuff can quickly make you a social outcast.
But today, he and the others in the group were free to say what they really thought, about everything. And if he could talk about porn without a problem, then he knew he could be candid about other things too.
Stories like Rahul’s show how qualitative research in India is going through a sea change. Traditional methods just don’t produce deep enough insight and, because of the size of the country, it’s likely we have only been researching the top 3-8% of people.
Brands have historically built relationships with the elites because they hope things will trickle down, but in terms of money and volume, the real market is with the hard to reach lower-middle classes. If you want to be relevant to a wider market, you need to be able to build relationships with all kinds of people, and to get to those relationships you need intimacy.
Barriers to entry
Sounds straightforward enough, but researching in emerging markets comes with its barriers. Take our work for a client in India. At the very start we had to question our ability to form the kinds of relationships with people in the lower classes that lead to the best insights. In India, researchers are typically in the top 8% themselves. Could we truly empathise with someone leading such a different life?
I myself had to check my assumptions. I thought that Game of Thrones would be a very niche show in India, but it turned out to be the most pirated show in the country. You don’t get to that ranking just appealing to the top 8%.
Then there were the cultural norms like hierarchy to overcome. India is a society where people put pleasing one’s superiors above honesty. People often do not want to displease or challenge someone they think is wealthier or from a higher class, so you have to give them permission to talk freely and say exactly how they feel.
The confession group Rahul was a part of is just one of several tools we’ve added to our belts for working in India. Using different techniques like these to get intimate has helped us get past the superficial and delve deeper into what people in such a rich and complicated emerging market truly feel.
Could you live without your phone for a week? Could you live without your deodorant?
If all you’re hearing is fluff, because people are trying to please and not say anything too harsh, then ask them to go without a product and see what they truly value about it. What sticks with them? What is it they are really giving up? Could another brand fill that hole?
To learn how to form habits, rituals, traditions, we use things like ‘accelerated usage’ where we get people to use a product for a short period of time and see what actually changes in their lives and what doesn’t. We set them up with challenges, little experiments, and get them to talk to their friends to get deep insight that you just can’t get with regular users.
No Questions Asked
Sometimes it’s good just to have a nice back and forth. We use online communities as an always-open cultural window, and listen to the streams of consciousness coming out about consumers’ lives. These unguided conversations bring up all sorts of juicy things. What they’re buying, what they’re watching, what they’re believing, who’s so hot right now etc. Using a community like this helps us to have more open minds towards consumers.
New kinds of methodologies help us get much deeper insight than we were ever getting before in a country like India. We haven’t solved all the challenges. Women still need safer spaces to be able to tell us what’s really on their mind; there is still a class issue that hinders connecting; and we still need to find a way to get the client to really live in the consumer’s shoes. The answer is to get intimate. And the route to intimacy is to innovate.