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Digital Ethnography and MotivIndex – An Interview with Ujwal Arkalgud

Last updated on December 30th, 2016 at 02:34 pm

Ujwal Arkalgud is a Cultural Anthropologist, and a pioneer in the field of Digital Ethnographic Research. He started his career as an in-field researcher conducting immersive ethnographies in the entertainment and travel sector, where he discovered his love for understanding human behavior and the underlying motivations that drive the decisions people make every day. He dedicated the last decade of his career to the study of consumer culture online, working for agencies and the brands they represent.

Ujwal’s passion for understanding people and their unspoken motivations drove him to launch, one of the fastest growing research companies in the world today. MotivIndex supports global innovation teams at Fortune 500 companies in their quest to understand and predict trends in consumer culture.

ujwal arkalgud

We asked Ujwal some questions about MotivIndex, and digital ethnography.


What is digital ethnographic research?

Digital ethnography is simply a form of observational research where trained social scientists study people as they naturally interact with one another online, and go about living their lives. It’s based on the premise that these days we all basically live online, and we inadvertently reveal our beliefs, values and underlying desires and motivations as we engage with one another, by posting comments on news articles, posting photos about our lives or reacting to the various situations we face on a day to day basis. This means, as researchers, we can now learn much more about someone by following their lives online, rather than offline, in the real world. I’ll take that one step further, because online data is basically always available, we can actually go back a few years to really understand how someone’s beliefs around an issue take shape. Something that just isn’t possible in the real world (well, not unless someone has invented a time machine that I don’t know about).


Why is digital ethnography powerful? 

As human beings, we all make decisions based on a set of shared beliefs. But, when asked about them, we struggle to talk about our beliefs. And that is simply because biologically we are wired that way. So when asked, “why did you buy the iPhone over the Android?” for example, we provide a barrage of rationalized reasons – the battery, the quality of the apps, the design etc. The problem is, though this kind of rational data is great when you’re trying to optimize a product experience, it’s awful when you’re trying to design it from scratch. That’s where digital ethnography becomes extremely powerful.


What makes you a master at understanding customer culture?

On my first job out of university, while on a research project, I discovered a simple truth that changed the path of my career. I discovered that people make decisions based on shared beliefs, not rational needs. And every marketplace is made up of people with a bunch of these shared beliefs. If we can understand what those beliefs are, we can start to make sense of consumer culture – why people buy – and build products and services that cater to people’s beliefs first, and then their rational needs.

Over the next decade, I continued to experiment and improve the craft of digital ethnography and saw the impact the research had on the organizations I worked for. In fact in 2014, I became the only anthropologist to have used the online community reddit to examine consumer culture and predict the evolution of business and politics. In that study, my team predicted the emergence of “fairness” as a key trend influencing voters and consumers in the next 12-24 months. And sure enough, in the last many months, we’ve seen “fairness” become the central theme of the American election.

But I wasn’t satisfied. While a study of a few hundred consumers can be very effective for a brand, it wasn’t enough to satisfy my hunger for making sense of consumer culture. I was obsessed with the idea of finding a way to understand of why people really do the things they do, because no one had really attempted to do that. And I didn’t just want to do that in North America. I wanted to do that in key markets around the world. Enter my current business partner, Jason Partridge.


What was the catalyst to start MotivIndex? Where did the idea come from?

When I was sharing some of these thoughts with Jason in the spring of 2015, he had an audacious suggestion. And it led to the creation of MotivIndex. He suggested that we assemble a team together and study 1 million consumers around the world, through digital ethnography. The data we collect would fundamentally change the way digital ethnography could serve organizations. The result of that exercise was that not only did MotivIndex become the only research company in the world that really understood the meanings consumers associate with the people and things around them, MotivIndex also became the only company to be able to conduct large scale digital ethnographies for our clients in a matter for 3 or 4 weeks. Today, a typical study involves us studying 8000 people, delivering a greater depth of insights than any ethnography ever has been able to. More importantly, our clients hire us to help them see the future – predict changes in consumer culture.


Can you describe your methodology?

Our methodology is split into three phases.

Phase 1: We collect tens of thousands of data points – i.e. conversations and engagements amongst consumers in the context of the business problem we are looking to solve. So, if we were studying how American millennials use mobile devices for example, we’d start with twenty to thirty thousand data points of engagements amongst a representative sample of millennials in the U.S.

Phase 2: A team of PhD social scientists will then parse through the data, and study the profiles of up to 4000 consumers. This is publicly available information that they’re looking at. During this process, they’ll note down everything – the consumer’s social and political values, their affiliations, where they live and work, what their family units are like, what makes up a majority of their personal identity – is it food, art, their work or something else altogether.  All of these data points and much much more are collected and analyzed qualitatively.

The net result is a hypothesis and a model built on these 4000 representative consumers.

Phase 3: Then, we throw out the data and bring in a new team of social scientists. Their job is to stress test the model through random sampling. They basically quantitatively test each and every insight until it hits saturation. If an insight doesn’t hit saturation, it’s evolved or thrown out.

The net result is, at the end of 4 weeks our clients have a model that takes the best of qualitative and quantitative research and finally tells them why their consumers do what they do.


Are there other anthropologists or ethnographers building digital tools?

Yes. There are many interesting companies trying to use online data to identify patterns. But, to the best of my understanding, most of them are focused on the analyzing the actions of consumers to predict their behavior. We are focused on making sense of the consumer’s beliefs, to predict their behavior. There’s a fundamental divide in the purpose served by each of the two camps.


What sort of information does the MotivIndex database include that isn’t considered by other researchers?

I can tell you that there’s a relationship between men in the U.S. that love women’s soccer, use a straight razor to shave, and consume plant based proteins. Our database not only understands thousands of such relationships, but can also tell us everything there is to know about each such relationship – who these people are, where they typically live, how much money they make, what their fundamental beliefs are, how they project their identities to the outside world, their emerging consumption habits around food, entertainment, technology, personal banking and much more.


If there’s one thing you’d like to leave the reader with, what would that be? 

There’s a way to significantly reduce the risk in innovation, and digital ethnography can get you there. More importantly, it can help you identify the small things that can have a big impact on your business. Innovation doesn’t have to mean something drastic. The best innovations are those that are staring us in the face, we just don’t know how to recognize them. That real reason we should all be studying consumer culture is to identify such opportunities.


If you’d like to connect with Ujwal, follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.



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