Social sciences research helps digital marketing firm transcend click rates and page views

York University postdoc applies anthropology principles to social media strategy

Treefrog, based in Newmarket, Ontario, knows all about social media for businesses. It provides a variety of marketing services to clients, including ‘traditional’ social media strategy. But a series of ongoing conversations between Sean Stephens, Treefrog CEO, and Laurie Baker, then an anthropology PhD candidate at York University, sparked a shift in how the company approaches social media.

Together, Sean and Laurie decided to embark on a project that would see Laurie bringing her anthropology expertise to strategy development, with financial support from Mitacs’ Elevate program. Rather than focusing on traditional outcomes like lead generation and promotion, Laurie engaged in a deep dive for Treefrog’s clients: Who are the people behind social media? What are their individual pinch points? How are end users reflected in social media posts? How could an in-depth examination of the people behind a company drive that company’s social media strategy?

Simply put, Laurie theorized that a people-centred approach based in anthropological practice — examining social media channels as individual ecosystems, exploring people’s relationships to technology,  and better understanding the people on both ends of a social media exchange — would not only yield desirable business outcomes, it could provide a more engaging social media presence for Treefrog’s clients. And she was right — in addition to its existing services, Treefrog now offers clients “digital ethnographies”, which apply ethnographic research to digital spaces (rather than geographic ones). Clients gain a deeper understanding, backed by Laurie’s research, of how their own clients and customers interact with them online, something they don’t necessarily get from standard social media analytics.

“It’s amazing how much our business has changed,” says Sean.

We never thought about collaborating with a social sciences researcher, but since bringing Laurie on board, we’ve grown our head count, increased our revenue, and even attracted more PhD applicants to our job postings. And Laurie’s involvement means that clients who were previously hesitant about social media strategy are now eager to try it.”

One of the rewards for Laurie has been the opportunity to play an influential role in an emerging field of study: “It’s only within the past five years that digital anthropology has been a serious subject of study,” she explains. “This project is helping serve as a bridge not just to clients, but also back to the academy. Due to its relatively young age, social media doesn’t yet have an established theoretical understanding. So it’s both exciting and challenging to be at the forefront of this research.”

Although combining anthropology research and social media may seem unusual, taking a chance has paid off for Laurie, Sean, and Treefrog as a whole. Sean sums up the project’s success in a simple, Tweet-worthy soundbite: “We’re beating off work with a stick!”

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario for their support of the Elevate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Elevate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.

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