Participant-Observation Marketing Research

I find this new post by Melanie to be completely interesting!  I love the idea (more livable, modern hotels), the illustrations (I’ve been there!), and the post concept: to observe change as a participant and researcher!

Howie becker as jazz pianist

The thoughtful way this post leads me into these hotel rooms reminds me of a wonderful journey that the sociologist Howie Becker tells of taking the train into Chicago as a young boy, discovering much, and as he thinks this story offers great advice for those who would become sociologists, Learning to Observe in Chicago.  I think of Becker often when I am photographing, mostly recently on a walk through Posnan in the company of demonstrators and in a visit to an anarchist commune there.  I simply love putting myself into the way of discovery, and when I think of Becker’s story I think of how I might do this in a more disciplined way.

So, before going on the web to find others who have researched hotels I went on the web, to Wikipedia, and found a great article on participant observation sociology, including this fine little table from 1972 and where, in the last section on analyzing data, there is a listing of some of my favorite activities, after collecting whatever data I have been collecting — photos, websites, passages from books I’m reading — including: categorizing, finding common themes, and constructing a coherent story.

Howell’s (1972)[11]Participant Observation Phases Description
Establishing Rapport Get to know the members, visit the scene before study. Howell [11] states that it is important to become friends, or at least be accepted in the community, in order to obtain quality data.
In the Field Do as the locals do: It is important for the researcher to connect or show a connection with the population in order to be accepted as a member of the community. DeWalt & DeWalt (2011) [8][11] call this form of rapport establishment as “talking the talk” and “walking the walk”. Also mentioned by Howell, DeWalt & DeWalt state that the researcher must strive to fit in with the population of study through moderation of language and participation.[8] This sets the stage for how well the researcher blends in with the field and the quality of observable events he or she experiences.
Recording Observations and Data
  • field notes
  • interviews
  • reflexivity journals: Researchers are encouraged to record their personal thoughts and feelings about the subject of study. They are prompted to think about how their experiences, ethnicity, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and other factors might influence their research, in this case what the researcher decides to record and observe (Ambert et al., 1995).[12] Researchers must be aware of these biases and enter the study with no misconceptions about not bringing in any subjectivities into the data collection process (Ambert et al., 1995; DeWalt & DeWalt, 2011; Richardson, 2000).[8][12][13]
Analyzing Data Thematic Analysis:organizing data according to recurrent themes found in interviews or other types of qualitative data collection and narrative analysis:categorizing information gathered through interviews, finding common themes, and constructing a coherent story from data.

Connecting to Your Web Research

This is, of course, very much like what many of you are doing when you go on the web to research and write about it these days.  You become familiar with your data, and if you are ambitious you go out, meet, and interview the subjects of your posts, as Itai did beautifully(!) in his Strategic Decision Making post: he went to the trouble of finding someone to talk to, made an appointment, prepared some questions, and then compared what they had to say with what others were saying on the web: he categorized information, found patterns, and told a great story! Excellent, Itai!

It is so interesting to me how so many of us, including me, start off talking like we know everything, that our audiences know nothing, and that we have to explain things to them in simple terms — as if they could not, have not, or, upon checking our work, would not do exactly what we’ve done, much of the time: simply go onto the web and look things up.  What we have to learn in classes like ours, is to do what Itai did: we give up the old form for a new one: we go onto the road of discovery and let other people do most of the talking!

It reminds me of when I was in middle school and looked up at my history teacher — a Mr. Raymond, an otherwise very nice guy — and realized that he was just repeating out of the textbook what I’d in fact read the night before.  Even then, I understood that he was just “covering” the material and, following the textbook publishers and the school administration, he “tested” my understanding by passing out a bunch of questions prepared by the textbook’s authors.

Boylston public library floor plans

I thought this whole business completely dumb, because by then I’d been spending lots of time at my local library, reading all sorts of books about the natural sciences and history, and had learned a better way.  

What happened was that I’d asked the librarians about the town next to ours that, for some 70 years at that point, had been completely submerged under a huge reservoir built to supply water to the city of Boston.  I was curious in the way little boys are, about this whole town like ours — Sawyer’s Mills — that I could not see or get to: it was there, but underwater.  I asked the librarian’s about it, and since they knew me well at that point they dug up a bunch of boxes with all sorts of documents and smelling like dusty attic and damp cellar, including journals, photographs, pamphlets, newspaper clippings — the basic stuff of history — which I got to read for myself.  Each thing was old, precious in its own way, and tantalizing: a town’s history that just stopped.  

From then on I knew first-hand that books came from such stuff, and the stories people wrote up based on such original source materials, and so I treated books as secondary sources, which of course they are.  I realized that, if I had such materials and wanted to, I could write my own history books.  I learned that there was more to the story than the history books and that the way to get at it was to go out and find out for myself.  I later read, I’m pretty sure it was in the historian and poet Charles Olson, that the root of the word “history” was a Greek word, I think it was “istorin,” and that its meant: “go find out for yourself.”

So, to understand Melanie’s story I went on the web to find her sources and, look for my own categories and patterns, and begin to tell my own story.  It’s nice what she did, and what everyone else does for that matter, but still — and the web nowadays makes it easy — I wanted to find out for myself.

I looked up “ibis hotel marketing” using Google Blog Search, because that’s as much as I understood about what she was looking for, and I found articles like Brand Positioning Case Study: ibis Hotels, which starts off with a first-hand account like Melanie’s, but then does something very different — so, right away, I got to compare what she said to what others saying about the same things.

Melanie’s article does two very important things.  First, she embeds a video, so we can learn more about the hotel’s service, and she connects us to another blogger who, like Melanie, describes the hotel service from a consumer’s point-of-view.  That’s always good to have: to see that we are not alone and to find patterns and categories.  

So far, so good, except that she was connecting to someone who at first appears to support her argument and I was connecting to someone else who does it differently.  That is, by checking out someone’s topic you will likely right away find different stories.  This is not disrespect, but the opposite: it is a method that offers comparisons so that one might see choices and, seeing choice,  the begin to respect someone’s work as an appreciation of the choices they have made.  That’s what I look for in your work: how you have made your choices.  I say: sure, the facts are important, but I’m not giving a grade for simply your digging up of a bunch of facts: I am grading you (see the evaluation rubric) for what you have done with the so-called facts.

But while this new post starts off with a first-hand account, it also goes two steps further.  First, the author interacts with the hotel personnel and discusses the issues with them, and second, he generalizes on what he learns to give us some “know how” about hotel marketing.  He also talks to us as one manager to another interested in both the details and the higher-order managerial/branding thinking.  That is to say, he engages in a conversation with his material and engages us in a conversation about this material.  

Ronald reagan as the gipper

To be sure, in my search I found all sorts of garbage.  For example, Google Blog Search offered a very curious result, what I’d guess we’d call “out-sourcing of our brains and curiosity”: an essay on our topic that, according to the website, you could give them money and then submit to your high school teacher, presumably without the receipt, as if it were your own.  The essay is dumb.  It reads as if it came out of a can, like my middle school teacher’s textbook.  It lacks life. It is definitely NOT the way to go.

Changing my search terms to “ibis hotel strategy” I came across a very interesting post that explains why Ibis is spending so much money on beds:

Changes to the brand followed a recent survey which showed that some 70 per cent of guests ranked comfortable beds as “the single most important factor when they choose an economy hotel”, and as a result the group consulted a team including sociologists and doctors to create a brand new bed from scratch.

And then I found another post explaining their using Facebook for marketing and another explaining odd gadget that traces your thoughts while you sleep, and at that point I must confess that I actually began to despair of ever finding anything interesting on this topic.  Like many of you, I am not really familiar with the materials, so basically I was on a fishing expedition until something fantastic showed up.  

Something fantastic did show up.  I worked my down two dozen or more links until I found CEOs answer tough questions about hotel brands, with a dateline of March 2012 in Berlin!  This was quite exciting, because here I was giving all this advice about preparing to address a well-informed audience of professionals discussing the relevant issues of the day, and to the end of joining them, and evening, going to a conference hotel, hanging out in the bar, and then trying to meet people (borrow a conference badge to get in, snoop around, meet more people, … etc. ).

Well, I soon discovered that the next conference by this group will also be in Berlin, in March 2013, the Hotel Investment Forum 2013!  OK, ok, the early bird registration costs 1,900 British Pounds, so you’d need to find a sponsor, but this could be done — especially if you did your research, and for the following year maybe an internship ….  So, now I’m cooking’!  

One Good Way to Find Out What the Pros are Talking About

Well, CEOs answer tough questions about hotel brands reports on a rather detailed, candid discussion among hotel executives of their branding strategies, and if you are into such things and have as your goal that level of understand it seems to me this post, and website, would be a great starting point for research!

For instance, the program of that Berlin conference announces the titles of panel discussions, and looking for keywords or phrases I found in a panel title something I could Google, “innovation in hospitality what are the new business models,” and suddenly I found LOTS of articles and posts on Google and Google Blog Search! Bingo!  The boring list had been replaced with an exciting one!

Gone with the wind

What happened?

As this is not my field, and starting with an anecdote, I had developed what proved to be a very limited search term: “ibis hotel marketing”. But by opening two dozen links and discovering patterns (beds, more beds, pictures of people dreaming of beds) I was on the lookout — as a detective — for something more informative: I found a report on a discussion of last year’s conference. I then followed this lead — thinking that a conference of top managers likely means a networking opportunity as well as a survey of what’s “hot” in this field — I then looked up the conference program to see what they were talking about.

From there I went looking for conference program topics and found a discussion title — “innovation in hospitality what are the new business models” — that uses keywords I did not know how to use but thought might be good leads, tried them, and found GOLD!

That is, instead of merely repeating what someone else has already said, I went looking for smart people having interesting conversations that I knew nothing about.

I also gave up a rhetoric of authority and adopted instead a rhetoric of discovery and learning, which means I could afford to be curious, to hit dead ends, to be open to discovery, etc.

I had to learn how to use the language of the web as well as learn new language forms.  That is, I went looking for conversations, including key words that I didn’t know about.  I went looking for special terms, like “hospitality”, which until now brought to my mind only Southern Hospitality and Gone With The Wind (“you need kissing badly”).  Looking for conversations using these new special terms I found all sorts of things that smart people are talking about, and I quit as I’d made my stupid point: once you find a bunch of smart people in your field and talking a lot, well, you don’t have any longer to pretend you know everything, you can simply report on what the smart people are talking about and, when they find them, you will be prepared to join them.  

———-  Additional notes, 22 March 2013

It’s just great to see what Melanie did next, in her post, HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY: TRENDS FOR 2013!: she identified two other trends, online booking and the enhancement of hotel lobbies, and then Ina offered her a fine comment, including a link to an excellent post on innovative hotel concepts in England.  With this post and comment my interest was renewed, and so I looked up “trends in online hotel booking services” using Google Blog Search and found all sorts of commentaries that led me to think of how data can be used not simply to increase efficiency, but to increase the quality of offerings in many other ways.

For instance,

  • Online Motel Booking Engine Make reservation easy, the reservation system is designed to “widen customer reach”, including support for advertisement and booking of other services, including restaurant reservations and recreation activity (and eliminate double books, too).
  • Another post describes how the user interfaces have become richer, including answers to lots of questions that customers might have.
  • An article in the Economist identifies two interesting trends that support the use of mobile applications: the current economic crisis leading to more cost-conscious comparison shopping and increasing last-minute, or “on-demand consumption,” customers, who are better served by the convenience and sophistication of mobile hotel reservation system applications.
  • Reservations KPI | Measuring the Efficiency of your Hotel Call Center, another blog post, offers what I would imagine to be tremendous insight into the design of such systems: it lists many of the factors that influence customer choices, and ultimately, their making (or not) of reservations. 

How interesting!