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Ethnographies: The Pros, Cons and Modern Solutions

Ethnography is “the study and systematic recording of human cultures,” according to Merriam-Webster dictionary.

One of the best ways to gain deeper consumer insights is to spend time sitting in someone’s home observing when, why, and how much time they spend doing things like watching TV, cooking, eating, drinking, brushing their teeth, or cleaning.

The most interesting insights will come from just watching, which is the basis of ethnographic research.

What is Ethnographic Research?

Ethnographic research for marketers is observing consumers in their natural habitat – usually their home. This is where they tend to be more open and honest and where marketers, product development, and designers can directly observe them using products. Researchers can see firsthand how participants create their own work-arounds rather than rely on explanations of how they get a task done.

Why Choose Ethnographic Research?

Ethnography is more than just an in-depth interview.  It is a methodology that gets to the root of why people do what they do versus what they say they do. Ethnographies are well suited to study unpredictable situations and relationships that are too complex or difficult for quantitative methods, such as surveys and statistical analysis of numerical data. The idea is more to observe than interact. It involves qualitative analysis of consumers’ pain points. It is about identifying unmet needs – and this is where the real breakthroughs can occur.

Learn more about the importance of intuition and curiosity in market research.

Ethnographic Research Benefits:

The more brand marketers, product developers and designers know about their target consumers and how the world around them shapes their behavior, the more they can empathize with them and develop products that meet their unmet needs.

Marketers Get a More Realistic Picture

Researchers can look into your target consumer’s attitudes, behaviors and motivations towards a brand or product. Rather than a survey, you can see actual consumers in real life and in real time.

Uncovers Extremely Valuable Insight

In ethnography, the data relates to everyday solutions and innovation that customers really need. This in-depth approach can reveal extremely valuable insights you can’t always glean from a survey.

Pinpoint Business Needs & Make Accurate Predictions

By viewing consumers in their environment, researchers are able to see needs versus wants. Understanding a target market’s needs can be invaluable to pinpoint the direction of a business and what a brand should really focus on. Gathering data at this level can help companies predict future products, designs, models of service or even the entire business structure itself.

Extended Observations

Unlike focus groups, you have a lot more time to spend studying motivations and develop a greater understanding of the consumer. With digital ethnography, you can extend observations even further than in-person methods. However, while extended observations create more in-depth data, you’ll want to keep this in mind for your timeline and budget.

Higher Scope of Available Data

Both digital and traditional ethnography offer a greater depth of data than other approaches. While a survey may allow you to study and research more people, ethnography gets to the heart of the research. The amount of data collected through ethnographic research gives businesses full transparency from the participants. Online methods can also contain and store more data than previously.

Learn more about understanding the voice and mind of the consumer.

Ethnographic Research Challenges:

Ethnography isn’t for every research project. Here are a few aspects to keep in mind when considering ethnographic research:

Ethnography Requires Time

Whether you choose traditional ethnographic research or an online approach, this method takes time.  You are observing for at least three hours and this is only one person while a focus group you are talking to 6-8 people over a two-hour time span. If you are on a tight timeframe, you may want to consider another approach or adjust your deadlines.

Creating a Normal Environment Isn’t Always Easy

Consumers aren’t used to being watched in their own home. That is why it is important to be there a long enough time, so they forget you are there! Even with digital approaches, participants may be mindful of cameras or moderators, which may affect how they behave and skew your results. However, with the right team of researchers and even digital methods, this challenge is often easy to overcome.

It’s More Difficult to Recruit

Because you need to find participants that are comfortable having strangers in their home or who are willing to put in the time, finding recruits can take time. However, incentives are helpful to overcome this challenge.

Traditional Approaches Have Geography Limitations

The more locations the greater the time and expense (unless you are going with a digital approach to ethnography, which we’ll cover in the next section).

Overall Expense May Be Higher

Recruiting cost and time can be higher and traditional ethnographic research may require travel expenses as well.

The Power of Digital Ethnography:

Technology can help eliminate some of the possible challenges while still achieving some of the benefits of ethnographic research. The evolution of video has greatly enhanced digital ethnography. Consumers can wear small cameras or use their smartphones to take videos and provide instant responses and updates to an app.

Here are a few common digital ethnography methods and specific benefits:

Mobile Ethnography/Lifelogging

Thanks to social media consumers are used to reporting what they do, when and why they do it.  Mobile ethnography is becoming a popular research tool, sometimes called “Lifelogging,” with participants using their cell phones to record events as they happen. Ethnographic research in person or mobile is not a big investment to make, given that the outcome could be products that meet your target consumers’ unmet needs.

Learn more about the necessity of mobile in qualitative research.

Online Journals

Online diaries give researchers an even deeper understanding into consumers’ routines, habits or attitudes towards a brand’s product or service. These journals can provide context and document the use of a product or service over an extended period of time– even across phases or stages of a project.

Online Community

Similar to online diaries, respondents answer questions and prompts from a moderator in an online forum or bulletin board. Online communities can be open so that others can see responses, interact or share ideas or closed so that only the facilitator can see conversations. 

Data Collection

In digital, you can store a massive amount of data – from recorded conversations to written journal entries. All of this information is collected and safely stored during the ethnographic research process. Accessing this data digitally allows for large-scale analysis and deeper insights.

Want to learn more about ethnography? Get in touch with our team of researchers!

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