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Observation to unearth insight at the University of York
Culture & Insights
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In a nutshell

How do audiences actually engage with IC? What do people stop and read – and what gets skimmed over? What gets deleted or ignored?

Our cultural anthropologist used ethnography – an immersive research method anthropologists use to observe human behaviour in context – to explore these questions as part of a wider IC audit.

Staff and students at the University of York showed us first-hand how they engaged with content, formatting and channels. They shared their inboxes, how they used different channels and their challenges with finding information.

Ethnography unpacks the ‘why’ behind wider trends surfaced in focus groups, interviews and surveys – adding a richer layer of insight.

Ethnographic research gave us richer insight on their behaviour and engagement with communications, including:

Clear preferences on how formatting and conciseness helps all audiences filter key messages and information that’s relevant to them
The need to streamline and update the channel matrix with clear governance to limit duplication, and keep information relevant and up-to-date
Staff members wanted more transparency and detail from senior leaders in their area

The brief

The IC team at the University of York wanted to better understand the needs, wants and behaviours of its audience regarding its content, channels and platforms. That’s no small task considering the university’s incredibly diverse population of 18,000 students and 5,000 staff with vastly different roles, communications preferences and digital habits.

A better understanding of these wide-ranging audiences would guide the IC team on how to optimise its content, formatting and ultimately, where to best invest time and resources to improve the student and staff experience – and build a stronger community across the university.

8603 Uo Y brief

Our response and delivery

Our research toolkit always features a mix of qualitative and quantitative research, blending insights from focus groups, in-depth interviews and a comprehensive survey. But we added ethnography to this audit – an immersive research method used by cultural anthropologists to observe human behaviour in context. This offers a richer picture.

We started with a series of ethnographic interviews, meeting students and staff on campus to understand the context of their day to day and talk through their experiences with communications. Our cultural anthropologist got them to show us their world through a series of questions, prompting their reflections on how they use, consume and read communications.

For hard-to-reach audiences, we conducted a digital ethnography exercise where participants noted the communications they received in a typical week and shared their reflections. We then explored these themes in more detail in follow-up interviews.

8603 Uo Y response

The impact

Observing what people actually do and exploring their ‘why’ gave us a deeper level of insight into audience behaviour. This richer understanding of what people actually do (and why they do it) triangulates, confirms, enhances and complements the wider data set from focus groups and surveys.

Following our audit and recommendations, the team is leveraging its strengths, streamlining its channels and optimising its content to increase cut-through with key messages and engagement across the university community.

Our 360-degree approach to insights produces informed recommendations with an extra degree of precision to guide changes and interventions with real impact on audiences.

8603 Uo Y impact
“We chose scarlettabbott because of their comprehensive and innovative proposal for our project. The ethnographic element of their research has given us an additional layer of insight beyond a standard research project, enabling us to observe behaviours in action and shining a light on the cumulative, daily barriers to staff and student engagement that we just wouldn't get from a standard survey approach.”
Deb Ward, Head of Internal Communications at the University of York
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