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B2B research does not have to 2B boring

Ethnography has its roots in the anthropological observation of tribal cultures. How can it help us to understand what makes businesses tick, and what can it add to the business researcher's tool box? You'd be surprised. At a leading conference, Alex Johnson (from Jigsaw Research) won best paper award for his appraisal of ethnographic research techniques in SMEs - in this case understanding how data and telecommunication tools are used.

By observing the daily routines of companies in scenes reminiscent of The Office, he learned they often use technology to mislead. Companies can seem bigger or smaller with the canny use of multiple emails, phone-extensions and multi-tasking. Text messaging is on the up amongst younger executives and no one who claims they have a 'wacky' or unique office culture actually does. This approach proved to be very revealing in spotting new service opportunities for technology and telecoms companies. As this example shows, ethnography reveals a rich understanding of situations and behaviour that cannot be accessed with traditional techniques.

Another example of how to get inside business customers' heads was a recent BPRI project on Forklift Trucks. We followed up an extensive quantitative telephone research exercise by asking respondents to document their work by taking a series of photos for us, using a disposable camera. We wanted to get under the skin of drivers and find out how they really felt about their trucks. It's a common ploy in consumer research, but one we had not used before in B2B.

The response was overwhelming. The drivers took the task very seriously and provided images of their trucks and their environments which were detailed and at times very surprising. We uncovered clear advantages and disadvantages of truck design, and about the way the environment influences use. Above all, the emotional attachment these men feel for their trucks shines through. This bond would never have been evident from a telephone or paper survey, and it provided a powerful shortcut to a strong set of male emotions. 

How far can creativity be pushed, while still maintaining professionalism and the ability to penetrate the most complex business issues? Can we realistically move from discussing the impact of reputation crises in the oil sector to "if this multinational was an animal, what would it be?" and get away with it? In B2B research, particularly at senior, corporate levels, we need to talk with people time and time again on strategic issues. We can't risk causing offence or patronising the intelligence of our most important stakeholders with a lame or wacky experiment in the name of creativity.

But carefully selected projective techniques can work well, and even win round the most hardened boardroom cynic in an interview or a group context.

Visualisation techniques can initially come across as ‘Californian new-age'. Nonetheless, their effectiveness is surprising. One method we use is the imaginary boardroom. The group shuts their eyes and the moderator sets the scene: you are walking down a corridor with a wooden panelled door at the end. Approach the door and open it. Inside is a boardroom: a table, 12 chairs, and at each place setting, a pen, a notepad and a name plaque. You read the plaques, on each is the name of a major B2B brand, each of them best in their realise that this boardroom is set for a meeting of the world's strongest B2B brands. Read the names. Leave the room and open your eyes. Now write down the names of the brands you saw.

This is a great ice-breaker on a branding study. You can explore why certain names are there, who's missing, why sectors are over-represented and what makes a strong B2B brand. The possibilities are endless, and you've achieved this in no more than 10 minutes.
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