Allison on the Art of Asking Questions

Allison Braund-Harris

Allison Braund-Harris, founder and CEO of Hardly, is interviewed by Mitch Turck for a new podcast from EnquireLabs. She gives insight into the art and science of effectively asking questions.


Mitch Turck 0:02
Welcome to question authority, a quickening podcast where the best and brightest teach brands about the art and science of questions. Today, we’re asking about digital ethnography with Allison Braund-Harris. Let’s dive right in.

Matt Bahr 0:28
Hey, Hey, Allison. Hi, Matt. Thanks for jumping on the pod. Allison.

Mitch Turck 0:34
Welcome to the show. Thank you for making an appearance to talk to us about digital ethnography, which is probably not only a term that you need to define for us, but you may even need to pronounce slowly for some of

Digital Ethnography Overview

Allison Braund-Harris 0:47
You totally got it correct— digital ethnography, and I call them “digital ethnos” for short, sometimes. And it’s really about having that mix of getting to customers in a digital way where they’re comfortable, honestly, if people are more comfortable on their phones now then they would be face to face. So when they are talking to their phones on a message board, which is how we usually conduct digital ethnography is that they’re able to say things in videos to their phone that I don’t think I could pull from them if they were at a focus group.

But they have been a really key part, of what my path to discovery has been. I’ve been in the branding industry. For the past six to seven years, I worked in New York City at a couple of different branding agencies, first starting off as a brand designer. And then, as I was building all these brands, I I kept on asking questions to the point where I ended up becoming a marketing strategist, instead of a brand designer, it ended up being the career choice that was really right for me. So I ended up working with some gorgeous cosmetic brands in the world, some of the top four or five largest beverage brands at some point or another. And I’ve also worked with hardware products tech, those things,

Benefits of Ethnography

Mitch Turck 2:21
a fair number of folks in our listening audience are spending most of their time on Facebook and Instagram ads. And that’s the extent of you know, marketing equals that. So the notion of market research is, you know, maybe new to them in general, but, you know, what are some of the insights that you would get from this kind of research that you couldn’t get from like click and cookie data?

Allison Braund-Harris 2:42
So, so many things, honestly.

I couldn’t, I couldn’t imagine doing research only with clicking cookie data. Because it’s when you get just a ton of data points, you’re getting the action, but you’re not getting the why behind the action. And the why behind the action is really the key in the decision making the key and the purchase behavior. I had a client and around 2015 that was the largest cosmetics company in the entire world. And they tasked us to figure out what was wrong with their shampoo and conditioner brand that was performing really well in Europe but did not perform well at all in the United States. They tasked us to really talk to these women and figure out the why behind this brand is not resonating with them.

Setting up the Study

We did a one-two-punch type of research with the first punch being I guess, the digital ethnography is where we talk to 40 to 50 women with half in the target audience that is actually purchasing the brand and half outside of the brand purchasers— but they were all a part of the target audience.

And we delved into everything about their shampoo and conditioner for four days on a message board we asked them to take videos of where they put their shampoo and conditioner introduce themselves in her video. And yeah, we actually asked them to write poetry about their hair care routine, because anything to do with creative exercises like collages or poetry, allows people the freedom to get a little bit more elaborate with the way that they talk about their decision-making process. So they will use more emotional words and delve deeper into their own thinking process when they have to when they’re forced into that creative mindset. So that’s a fun exercise to do. If you ever have some time with people, make them write poetry.

Matt Bahr 4:58
Quiet the question on top Then I guess that’s relevant to our product and our customer base too. So we, we all need our product right now really focuses on existing customers. So how do you when doing research in this realm? How do you think about breaking it up of like, okay, maybe half the audience should have already purchased the product half haven’t? Like, where does that? And it obviously depends on what you’re trying to solve. But how would you how does that go into the equation?

Define Your Target

Allison Braund-Harris 5:24
Yeah, that’s a really good question. They, you, of course, have to define your target first. And then within that target audience, we usually use a type of recruiter that will call people up, figure out that they are our target, and some of them will purchase the brand before but the other part that should in another world, be our brand purchasers, for some reason is their opinion on why they don’t purchase, the product currently is actually usually indicative of a broader brand problem, or a reason why some of those people that are current purchasers might lapse in the future. So it’s, it’s important to define your target audience and then really dig into the who is purchasing and who is not. Got it?

Matt Bahr 6:19
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think it could be it could probably also be carried over to maybe a customer who’s already a fan of a brand, but isn’t purchasing a particular product and that brand? Yeah, I’m going to couldn’t like it couldn’t be for a whole slew of reasons. But yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense.

Mitch Turck 6:34
Yeah, it’s interesting to think about the shampoo thing, because that’s, like now that I think about it. I’m a perfect example of how little a brand knows like how little impact a brand has had on my behaviors. Because like, I don’t know why I remember this about my life, but I used to shampoo my hair every day. And then I met a girl in college who said, No, don’t do that. Just do it a couple of times a week. And that’s, that is the amount of education about shampooing my hair I’ve ever had in my life. I’m a guy, obviously. So that tends to happen. But the point is, like, some brand out there is missing out on two or 3x as many purchases for me, because some girl in college told me don’t wash it as much like that, just that that total ignorance as to how I’m actually behaving and my product preferences, and you know, usage of it, and everything is just all out there to be had by talking to me, and no brand has ever done that.

Matt Bahr 7:25
diver, I have a story on that, too. So we have a customer called modern mammals. And it’s similar to what happened to you, Mitch. But they created this product that doesn’t strip the oils out of your hair. So I was told not to shower all the time, either. And I tried to work out four or five days a week. And after you work out, you want to shower like you want to wash your hair, like you obviously just sweat it. So what modern mammals do is solves that exact problem. And like I discovered it like a year ago before they were a customer of inquire labs and have been just a huge fan. And in my head. I’m just like, there are billions of dollars going into price shampoo research. And no one has been able to figure this out, except like these two guys, like 100% goes to that, like, you have to talk to your customers, and they obviously weren’t getting feedback in the way they should have been.

Battle Autopilot

Allison Braund-Harris 8:13
Yeah, definitely. And there’s, there’s another layer to that of just the autopilot that goes into a lot of these decisions. It’s a very natural way of decision making for our brain to go on default mode or autopilot mode, and a lot of commodities and a lot of personal products like shampoo and conditioner are the biggest victims of this autopilot mode because what better time to go on autopilot than when you are doing something you do every single day of your life. Right? Yeah.

And just like what you meant, you mentioned Mitch. You had one person tell you that you shouldn’t wash your hair every day, which they were definitely right. It completely changed the trajectory of your purchasing habits for probably the rest of your life.


So really, in order to solve this problem of the shampoo and conditioner, we had to take a step beyond the digital ethnography that we had already done. We had to sit outside of women’s showers and talk to them. That was not personal because we had to dig into the process of shampoo and conditioning your hair. And if we pulled women into a focus group or add them to a survey or any of those things that you would do, after they get out of the shower, they’re not going to be able to go back in their mind and really uncover what they think is happening during that shampoo and conditioning process.

So we had them put on bathing suits, and I literally sat outside Their shower with them showering and ask them questions. What do you think the shampoo is doing to your hair right now? And I’ve had them describe the process of cleaning their hair.

Mitch Turck 10:15
That’s crazy. That’s what’s funny, too is like, what story would you rather be telling internally at your brand, right that like, you were so dedicated that you had someone sitting outside of shower talking to potential customers about their input, or like, you know, we just spent 50 grand on on Instagram, like, it just seems so obvious, like the knock on effects of actually being that dedicated as a brand, which actually, to my point, or to your point, is interesting, because you like you’ve since gotten out of the agency space, and you’re now working on your own product. And I, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. But I assume that a lot of this product is guided by asking the right questions to potential customers.

Innovation, Ethnography, and Entrepreneurship

Allison Braund-Harris 10:58
Definitely. When COVID hit, I was in Antarctica. As we all were, yeah, of course. My husband, Roger, and I had just packed up our entire New York City apartment and basically narrowed it down to two suitcases worth of stuff that we were going to take around the world for a whole year. And the process of narrowing it down to two suitcases really allowed us to prioritize a lot of things for remote work and really understand what we really needed to survive and work outside the US for a whole year without necessarily having to come back and get more things. And it ended up that process of really figuring out what was gold and what’s just excess. It became a tech company, as we were asking people questions. And that process really happened through digital ethnography is that I conducted back in September. And I recruited four to five remote workers over the course of a week.

I put them each in their own private Slack channel, and just asked them questions, had them do creative exercise, I had them do videos, I take pictures of their desk, we wanted to make sure that we were addressing a true problem. And if everyone was super happy and remote work, then there wasn’t anything there that we could do for them.

The good news is that people liked remote work, but there were many problems with remote work. So we were we did that survey, and then followed up with the digital ethnography in order to figure out that why. And I showed them pictures of sensors to the left and the right of their computer. And they just went nuts. They’re like, Oh, my God, this is so cool. I want hotkeys that that had that feeling to them. Of course, the form has shifted of Hardly over the course of the past six months or so since we did that.

But the form really shifted because we kept talking to people over and over again and asked me why I probably have talked to 200 plus people since we did that digital ethnography just about why they find something interesting why they don’t. And every single conversation gets us closer to a product that people are truly excited about and is truly going to solve their pain points.

Mitch Turck 13:33
Yeah, I was gonna say that’s it’s so blatantly obvious the transferrable skill there from doing market research, for the sake of understanding the customer and then going, going out and building a product. And obviously, if you were working, we know within a company, then just the alignment between marketing and product, and and even engineering teams, right at that point, becomes so much stronger. Again, when you’re looking at it from that perspective, rather than the perspective of like, how do I spend my digital ad dollars today? Definitely. So what can you school us a bit on the kind of the nuance of asking questions, because obviously, you’re an expert here and you do it for a living. So how, what kind of questions do you look at and say, like, Okay, I know why this is, you know, this is gonna give people the answers they want, but not the answers they need, you know, and things like that.

The Right Questions

Allison Braund-Harris 14:21
Yeah, I can, I can definitely go through some of my processes when I’m figuring out what the questions are that I need to ask. And it’s really starting off from the beginning.

You have to figure out what goals you’re trying to achieve. You can’t just start asking questions without really understanding the problem. First, you need to dig into that. So there’s a discovery phase two tall research and innovation. You kind of just let people evolve in the conversation. There’s there are some objectives that you really need to get to and you do need to pull them back a lot but it’s It’s really fun to just kind of let people speak and see where it goes. I’m sure you’re very familiar with this as a podcaster.

But in order to decide what types of questions you need to ask, you need to understand if you are going after an expert interview, if you’re really wanting those facts, you could do street interviews if you’re kind of wanting to get the average opinion. Or you could do a target profile where you’ve already really defined your target. And you’re understanding the why of your target audience, which is what we talked about with the shampoo and conditioner. And with the questions that you ask, it’s, it’s really about not leading, of course.

So this is one of those points where I really like to have visuals when I’m teaching. I taught a class at SBA a few years back, but I had a really sad kitten on the screen. And I said, why is this kitten sad? And I had the students re-organize the question to, to not be leading. So instead, you say, what emotions? Is this kitten? experiencing? Right? And you have the whoever you’re talking to all of a sudden isn’t having a yes or no question. It they’re really having to dig deep into the kitten psychology.

Mitch Turck 16:23
Yeah. Well, that’s a great point, too, because cats are jerks. So I don’t I don’t trust a cat that looks sad. I know they’re up to something.

Matt Bahr 16:32
So like, I know, companies, a company we work with just paid like a half a million dollars to McKinsey to help conduct customer research. And according to their team, it’s like, how do we write like, I don’t know how to write a nonleading question. Like, I don’t know how to do this stuff. Like, Oh, I know how to, like optimize ad creative and yeah, bidding on Facebook’s platform.

Allison Braund-Harris 16:52
Here are a few examples of questions that are really good about digging deeper:

  • Could you explain blank more, tell me more about blank?
  • How would you do ______ differently?
  • How would you see this working?
  • And how do you feel about _______?

So those are, those are some good go to just that always have in your back pocket.

Mitch Turck 17:14
If your goal is to understand your customers better than your competitors, then it’s laid bare pretty much. You’re saying here, Allison, that, you know, going the extra mile beyond just like demo breaks and whatever is available in like, you know, Facebook ad targeting, to actually identify what the emotions are the patterns are, the motivations are behind, you know before we even get to the brand preference or usage, but even then some of that core stuff, you just you have to go there. And there are three buttons on the internet that can do it for you. At least not yet. So one day maybe I think that’s working on that.

Matt Bahr 17:57
I feel like a brand can also do that. Not even in the question. More so from a just a brand perspective of like, Oh, this brand is very engaging holistically. And now I’m getting asked a question on the order confirmation page. Like they’re already, they’ve already been. They do this publicly, it’s very transparent how they talk to customers, now they’re talking to me. So there’s definitely like a lot of ways in which you could do that. That isn’t that I’d argue that isn’t just like trying to create that instant one on one. But it’s more or less like, the more you talk, there’s probably a compounding effect of like, the more you talk to customers, the more customers know you talk to them, and the more they might be more receptive to give feedback.

Make it Easy

Allison Braund-Harris 18:33
Definitely! Make it easy for people. If you can’t make it feel like it’s a one on one, you’ve got to make sure that you’re coming to them. And if it’s a text message, or at the end of your order confirmation page, as long as it’s easy, then people will be way more likely to do it, than if you’re bugging them to step outside of their shower. Yeah,

Matt Bahr 18:56
yeah. I think there’s like to your point, too, there’s a lot of value that can be had with starting with an open-ended question to suss out certain things before you move into more of like a multiple choice or whatnot. And that’s just because like we see all the time like people will add the word like the press is a good example, like into their How did you hear about a survey? And like a consumer might not like press might not mean anything to them? But in a brand? Yes. So it’s more or less? Like, how do you get that like the only way to actually know how your customers are inferring certain things is to just ask more open-ended questions, and then use the copy and use the way their wording stuff to then maybe ask a larger scale customer.

Mitch Turck 19:33
Yeah, Matt, I think a lot of it is like mapping, right? And it’s kind of like that the adage that the map is not the territory. So if all you have internally is like, well, we have these 20 advertising channels, and we want to direct to what we want to map them towards this ROI. You know, that’s what we think of as the whole landscape. Right, but like the reality is to Allison’s point, and to your point, there’s this territory That’s unmapped, that is, you know, how do people interact with your brand, whether that’s a channel that you’ve never heard of, or don’t have on your list or one that exists but they think of differently than you do. And being able to understand that territory is kind of like I was gonna use some corny term about being like a Sherpa or something I decided I’m not going to do that. But yeah, so that mental model for me makes a lot of sense and, and I like it. Any Allison any parting words guidance for any any of these marketers that are running these these brands, and how you are one.

Allison Braund-Harris 20:31
I think my biggest overall guidance for marketers as a whole is just to respect your customer. They’re the people that are actually paying your paycheck.

Matt Bahr 20:45
another way we would word that and like, I think Mitch might have come up with this but people over pixels. So I think it’s right in line with what you just said just around like respecting your customer and like try to actually build a relationship and relationship is a two way street. So how do you how do you communicate and how do you collect the type of data that allows you to understand that so yeah, no, I


Mitch Turck 21:05
can’t agree more. Well, Allison, thanks so much for joining and yeah, congrats on on building hardley. And excited to see what what goes on there but favorite beverage while in the shower. What do you have? Oh, goodness.

Allison Braund-Harris 21:19
Do you drink? I have. I have had beers in the shower. Yes, good. Shower beers are great. I would say probably Blue Moon is my favorite shot. revere. That’s a good shower beer.

That’s refreshing.

Mitch Turck 21:36
is a whole use case that these brands don’t know anything about because they never bother asking us. Yeah, that’s a wrap on this episode. Thank you for listening, subscribing, and rating the show. You want to see what Allison’s working on to solve for remote work. Just text hardly to 668661 a chat with inquire labs. Check us out at inquire labs comm See you next time.