Are we close enough yet?

Over pizza recently, the folks at Virgin Mobile learned that their über-savvy target is supremely into ringtones (especially as call screening), particularly hate bundle plans in the summer (switching your phone on after 8 p.m. could mean being ostracized by your friends) and adore text messaging (because it's so cheap).

Over pizza recently, the folks at Virgin Mobile learned that their über-savvy target is supremely into ringtones (especially as call screening), particularly hate bundle plans in the summer (switching your phone on after 8 p.m. could mean being ostracized by your friends) and adore text messaging (because it’s so cheap).

These are the kind of salient insights Andrew Bridge, Virgin’s director of brand communications, says he has been privy to during the dozens of times youth, typically age 18 to 24 – from a pair to an entire class – have visited the company’s Toronto headquarters.

The meetings are stripped-down, relaxed, face-to-face chats. (No hordes of research or agency types here.) And moreover, it’s with these details that Virgin then shapes its very distinct marketing and media plans. Virgin, and more and more marketers, in fact.

In these times of the elusive consumer and the frittering away of mass-media dominance, ‘humanizing’ research using ethnographic techniques is more important than ever. A growing number of marketers find it can help create more meaningful marketing campaigns that reach consumers. And inevitably, these findings are influencing how they spend their media dollars.

For example, ad agency Leo Burnett’s Canadian and U.S. wings recently wrapped their first Leo She study during which they got cozy in the living rooms of real women to study what makes them tick. And the findings are intriguing.

After meeting with more than 1,000 North American women, Leo was able to separate them into four general ‘media’ categories focusing on their feelings about their home. First, there’s the ‘Treading Water’ set, about 29% of women, who feel overwhelmed by the stress of keeping up a home and lean towards ads that focus on simplicity in publications such as Budget Living.

Then there’s the ‘Keep it Simple’ group, about 22% of women, who focus on relationships rather than things. They’re the Real Simple-type reader who responds to ads that focus on how a product might enhance their lives.

Then, at 37%, are the ‘House Proud’ types who seek out ads that give details on how to be the maven of their home. Better Homes would tend to be their magazines of choice.

Finally, at 12%, are the ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses,’ women who only want to impress others. They gravitate towards House Beautiful, seeking out ads that speak with authority and make guarantees.

Findings in hand, Leo Burnett execs are beginning talks with clients like P&G, Zellers and Coca-Cola about how to use this information, says president and CEO David Moore. ‘[This research] adds a layer of richness on top of different [research] models.’ And will it impact media plans? ‘Absolutely.’

Virgin is already showing how. ‘They’re not afraid to call bullshit on you,’ says Bridge of the youth during the V-dinners. ‘They say: ‘You know what, we don’t watch that show’ or ‘You’re wasting your money if you think you’re going to talk to me there.”

So the billboard at the corner of Toronto’s Queen and Spadina, for example, was a result of learning that after a night of partying in the nearby entertainment district, the 24-hour McDonald’s found at that corner is a popular haunt. TV ad spends are also reduced in the summer and buys in summer guides are increased because teens watch less TV and use the guides to figure out where to go and what to do, Bridge says.

‘We have a conversation, that’s the big difference.’ And it’s one that even CEO Andrew Black has dropped in on. ‘He hears it right from the horse’s mouth. It really helps ground us and makes sure we’re doing the right things to drive our business forward.’

More real research coupled with highly refined media plans is the natural offshoot of the move away from the 30-second TV commercial, says Alan Middleton, professor of marketing at York University. Marketers are finally recognizing that culling simplified yes-no answers from consumers in sterile environments is simply not enough.

And to get closer still, says Middleton, marketers are asking agencies to dig deeper and ‘find out how media is intercepted.’ The answer, he says, explains the rise in street level, outdoor billboards and PR strategies.

While Frito-Lay Canada’s Tony Matta’s ethnographic research was somewhat more accidental, the marketing director of Tostitos/Doritos/Fritos/Competitive Brands has nothing but praise for the time he spent face-to-face with a group of eighth graders recently. What started out as a one-day, two-hour Marketing 101 class turned into a full-fledged exchange spanning a semester with Matta gaining serious insight into the life of a 13-year-old.

‘They spoke about their lives [and their] very specific points of view,’ he recalls. ‘[For example,] they looked at PlayStation and said: ‘Well I grew up with PlayStation. I played that when I was kid and now Xbox is cool because it’s the next thing.’ Whereas I was basing my cool factor of Xboxes and PlayStations on titles.’

And he says these insights surpassed those gained in any focus group. ‘When we go into [focus groups] we’re very specific about the answers we want. Questions are narrowly defined because we don’t want variability in the answer. Rather than taking [these participants] and putting them into an artificial testing environment, I was put into their environment.’

So, his biggest learning? Kids not only use text messages, they speak to each other that way (‘They even write their essays that way,’ quips Karen Ellis, the group’s teacher.) ‘[I realized that text messaging] is a language and I’d better understand it; not as a neat marketing tool, but go out and learn this language because maybe the print ads and our Web sites should use it.’

Back at Virgin, Bridge says this kind of intimate research and how it’s gathered allows the brand to be far more ‘nimble’ than with laborious traditional methods, and able to respond far more quickly to what they’re learning.

Case in point: Based on an insight that some consumers use ringtones as ‘rescue rings’ (i.e. programming one’s mobile to eek out of a bad date,) the brand was inspired to create a series of similarly-themed cinema spots which just launched.

And late last month, they started a top 10 list of the most popular songs used as ringtones that runs in more than a dozen free local papers across the country, including Toronto and Montreal’s Metro, Eye, NOW, Calgary’s FFWD and Edmonton’s See.

Close, indeed.