May 17, 2023

Beyond trends: Why cultural insights is the hottest thing in social intelligence

Date & Time (GMT):
May 17, 2023 12:47 PM
Date & Time (EST):
May 17, 2023 12:47 PM

Trend identification is something we’ve all talked about, hoped for, or presented around but for many, it’s a big promise with a very vague prize. But there IS a way to do ‘trendspotting’ efficiently with powerful results that really impact business. It’s called Cultural Insights and it’s the next big area of development in social intelligence. I spoke to three digital ethnographers for their pointers on getting started.

Most of us started out with the intention to use social media data to provide our brands and businesses with insight into what people think and feel. Social intelligence is the key to unlocking that insight and, if things are going well, we’re getting buy in based on the potential of what’s behind the door.

And here lies the irony. While so many of us speak of (and pitch around) using social data to understand people, cultural context is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood areas of social intelligence. Mostly because, while it’s easy to speak about trendspotting, uncovering actual cultural truths can be one of the hardest use cases to deliver on.

NOW is THE perfect time to introduce cultural insights

Our cultural environment is shifting constantly, the times we’re living in are showing us more than ever how important it is that we look out into the world for insight and understanding and assume nothing. Has it ever been more difficult to predict the future? So while we’re asking questions about everything from the way we socialize to the way we work, cultural insights seem very relevant. I can’t think of a better argument for investing in true cultural understanding. And to be clear, this is not about creating another buzzword. Cultural insights really deliver on a clear promise, which is pretty simple - to use social data to understand cultural shifts.

So what are cultural insights and how is it different from trendspotting?

Culture and values sit behind everything we do as humans. In practical terms, cultural insights are the practice of analyzing research with the specific aim of understanding cultural shifts. The research can be made up of social data, fieldwork or any research, though social data is the perfect place to start but importantly, it won’t make the whole picture. Applied to brands, cultural insights can show how people think and behave, and highlight the way brands and products fit into their lives.

Trends, on the other hand, are about fashion and emerging popularities. They are shorter-lived and sit on top of culture. As a strategy, trendspotting applies well to short term campaign planning and other marketing areas that will benefit from ‘jumping on a trend’. Cultural insights are a deeper practice of understanding rather than noticing and the impact on the business, while sometimes harder to quantify, are intrinsic.

The good news is that even though it’s not practiced as much as it should be, that’s not because it’s too hard. The practice is an advanced field but it’s pretty accessible, once you know what you’re doing. It’s human-led and manual. There’s no fancy (expensive) tech that’ll do the job for us, all that’s required is some training and practice. And you’re probably already getting there. Even if your main work is still mainly social listening, chances are you’re planting seeds for cultural insights projects on a more wider scale.

How do you do cultural insights?

Cultural insights work requires looking at data in a different way. Confronting the mess, rather than trying to organize it into pretty reports and jumping into the conversations themselves.

We tend to ignore what we don’t understand and with social data that’s no surprise. It’s a mess out there! Looking at culture means looking beyond the rational tidy data and into what often looks like an abyss, aka real life.

SEEING INTO, not reporting from, data

The practice of analyzing culture actually lies in the unseen -  it’s about tracking, measuring, and highlighting the invisible forces which impact the perceptions and choices of people. We might think of it as painting in the blind spots of data, humanizing the data, and bringing often static metrics to life by understanding what is influencing and driving the results - what anthropologist, Tricia Wang defines this as “thick data”. Without experience or training in cultural insights, we can all too easily ignore completely that there is more to see. And crucially, ‘more to see’ doesn’t mean more data, rather seeing further into the data we have.

When it comes to social data, there is often a preoccupation with the volume of data - the more the better, but for cultural insights researchers, it's not about gathering reams of data but going ‘thick’ with what we have. Cultural insights require us to follow the principles of 'immersion' meaning that we need a deep level of personal involvement and to actively participate in subjects' lives.

This takes more than a cursory look at social data, hence the distinction from trendspotting. The process is more involved and is likely to focus on smaller data sets to look for rich, deep insights. Cultural insights strategist, Billy Greville reckons that this is only possible when we: “hang out with online groups and communities, learning about their unique beliefs, values, rituals, pain points, conversations, and behaviors”.  This is one process of joining the invisible dots.

Semiotics practitioner Dominika points out an unexpected aspect of cultural insights work; "how natural it feels, once trained, but how often it offers you fascinating insights that other people relate to but find difficult to voice themselves. It's how we all interpret meaning usually without putting much thought into it. However, once seen it cannot be unseen; it becomes like a Matrix vision that allows you to notice and point out to others how culture shapes all aspects of communication and interpersonal relationships".

A different way of seeing

But it’s more than looking into the data, we need to look in the right way. So much of our work is looking deeply into things, but what lens are we looking through? We tend to either look too widely or not widely enough. The same goes for depth. For example, we look at numbers in isolation, without giving the context driving the conversations.

Or we look intensely at one or two conversations and forget there is a wider story. Sometimes the online conversation that’s the loudest is not the most useful. Take attitudes towards the environment, for example, the loudest voices are those looking for change. Digital Behaviour Scientist and Founder of The Social Intelligence Lab, Dr Jillian Ney, uses the example of a supermarket; "looking at the numbers of social conversations in isolation may lead you to think that you should be plastic-free and totally vegan. Without understanding the origins of the conversation and balancing other areas like how people make decisions about the products they buy, you could make potentially damaging assumptions".

Instead, we practice looking at the data deeply, and from different perspectives. Benjamin Long, Consultant at CrowdDNA says that when looking for cultural insights, the more angles you can get the better.  This means that social data won’t always be the only source for cultural insights, but it can play a supporting role. Long believes that in larger research projects that require multiple methods, it’s useful to find a definitive role for social.

In larger research projects that require multiple methods, it’s useful to find a definitive role for social. Long provides an example of what this might look like in practice. Taking a topic like streetwear, you could focus on the verbal and visual language people use online to discuss the topic. A trends analyst could then provide a future-facing perspective on macro and micro shifts happening within streetwear, whilst a semiotician would unpick the changing meanings behind the brands and styles themselves.

Asking questions about what you see

For the social intelligence professional, we need to look beyond the data to understand context and make use of practices from anthropology, digital ethnography, and semiotics for pointers on using our data to uncover cultural insights.

Culture is part of the amalgamation of the wider context of a conversation. In order to see those patterns, we need to add a layer of thinking to our ‘seeing’. Critical thinking is essential - you need to question what you see. We often take the data that we find online for granted, especially visual data. Many social listening tools, like YouScan have visual analysis functionality that helps to identify logos, scenes, and objects. To generate cultural insights semiotician, Dominika Noworolska, says that we need to build on this analysis by taking a moment to really look at the images and start asking some simple questions:

1. Where is the image posted?
2. What’s the context?
3. Why do you think the person decided to show this particular image over others?

Once you’ve covered the content, you then need to go deep and start looking at the details in the image:

1. How do all the details work together to communicate the message intended in the image?
2. What’s not shown in the image?
3. How does it differ from other images that are shown in a similar context?

It’s all back to thinking thick, going deep, and being critical.

Culture work is long term

To understand cultural moments, shifts, and changes in behavior you can’t run a short-term project, you need to go long-term. The process of immersion is a qualitative research strategy that can take months to perform. Greville advises that you’re: “often on the cultural edges, that allows for the unexpected to emerge which is so important when looking to discover new opportunities and innovation or for spotting emergent cultural shifts”.

We think of ourselves as researchers looking to answer questions or as social intelligence professionals using social data to inform strategy. Cultural context should be making it into all our projects, bringing in a mindset of receiving the complex reality of the world as a crucial component.  

So perhaps it’s best to think of cultural insights work as a new way of working entirely.  Taking culture seriously requires a culture shift in many businesses. The whole business needs to be thinking about the world as something complex and uncertain that needs to be investigated. Brands cannot assume they have a clear, useful understanding of the way people think and behave. Cultural insights give us a dedicated methodology to track and tap into cultural movements.


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