I simply cannot recall the number of times clients have ruled out conducting online research with people from ethnic minority backgrounds on the grounds that, somehow, ‘ethnic minorities are not online’. As face-to-face research is too expensive, clients quickly give up altogether on the idea of conducting research specifically with ethnic minority customers. Sadly this means that a whole segment of the population - one whose needs and experiences may be very specific - ends up excluded from research, and companies and service providers fail to reach and engage this lucrative group of consumers.
It is puzzling that assumptions about digital non-participation should persist, especially when robust evidence shows that, in the UK, people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to have broadband, to own a smartphone, to be active online and to have positive attitudes towards new technologies. Surprised? Well, this is true of all the main ethnic minority communities in the UK, whether they are of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black African and Black Caribbean descent, or more recent migrants from Eastern Europe.
This evidence is not new either. An authoritative report produced by OFCOM in 2013 showed that internet penetration is deeper within these groups, with considerably more people from ethnic minority backgrounds owning a broadband connection. This is often because possessing a good internet service is essential to maintaining family ties and connecting with people ‘back home’ (on Facebook or Skype) in order to get international news and remain linked to their culture and society. This early internet adoption has increased their technological confidence; usage is more frequent, innovative and complex, as indicated by the fact that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to connect to WiFi hotspots. Importantly, ethnic minority people are also significantly more influenced by comments and reviews posted online than White British respondents. I know from my own research that people from all ethnic minority backgrounds place a greater importance on community networks and word of mouth, as a source of social and cultural capital. The fact that minority experiences are often marginalised, misrepresented or ignored in the media and elsewhere means that people develop the habit of turning to their network of trusted family and friends for advice, to share experiences and to access a perspective on the world (e.g. events, politics, brands and products) with which they can identify, and to which they can relate.
A similar picture emerges with respect to usage of mobile phones. Ownership of mobile phones is very deep, with virtually every ethnic minority household having at least one mobile phone and fewer people relying on a fixed landline. While the data is based on households instead of individuals, we also know that a greater proportion of ethnic minority individuals also own mobile phones.
Looking at the attitudes which people from ethnic minority backgrounds have towards the technology that enables and enriches online research sheds no further light on why they are currently often excluded from digital research. Indeed, all ethnic minority groups report being ‘less confused by computers’, ‘loving gadgets’ more and generally being keener to welcome ‘the latest technology’.
With all this in mind, why would we not seek to engage with these connected, forward-thinking, technology-loving consumers online? The answer is more likely to be found in the minds of researcher buyers than in the attitudes and lifestyles of the consumers. A treasure trove of insights awaits those who have the confidence to challenge mistaken assumptions and to give a proper voice to these consumers. Online research communities enable qualitative researchers to work people from ethnic minority backgrounds to explore their world, wherever they are (not just in London, Birmingham or Bradford!), in a cost-effective and meaningful way.
I certainly can recall the number of times that clients, who have used online research communities with ethnic minority consumers, have expressed their delight at the outcomes of these projects. These experiences not only had a positive impact on their business but, perhaps more importantly, also on their mindset.
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