Ethnography in Market Research: A Deeper Understanding Of Customers

In most forms of market research, we take the participant's word as all we need to know for our data. Who knows their opinions and beliefs better than themselves, right?

However, there are cases in which a market research participant has more to offer than what they simply say. No, I don't mean online surveys versus spoken interviews. I'm talking about participant behavior versus thoughts.

This is the main idea behind ethnographic market research. Let's back up a bit. Ethnographic research is defined as a qualitative method where researchers interact with a participants in their real-life environment.

Basically, ethnography is looking at the world from the subject's point of view. Frequently, this means observing a participant to see how they subconsciously interact with products and their environment. Through an ethnographic study, you may learn something about your customers they would never think to tell you themselves.

An ethnographic study goes beyond the question and answer format found in your typical market research approach. It leverages observation to paint a broader picture of participants and their lives.

What Does It Look Like?

Ethnographic research isn't associated with any one specific methodology. It is viewed as more of an overall approach to understand participants and their cultures.

One of the most common ways you might see ethnography is through participant observation.

This type of study could involve:

  • no interaction with the observer
  • letting the participant go about their day
  • visit at a particular place as they normally would

In this last ethnography example, the observer only watches and takes notes as a passive presence.

Alternatively, the main source of data could be through an in-person interview with a participant. The setting may be a familiar place, such as the participant's home or at the local grocery store. While questions are asked of the participant, the interviewer would simultaneously record what the participant actually does versus what they theoretically do.

Both ethnographic examples build their findings on thorough observation of a participant rather than strictly what they say in an interview or survey. Ethnography may also be used across a variety of industries among all types of customers.

Looking for more ethnographic study examples? Learn how you can use this research methodology as part of your hiring process.

What Are The Pros?

So, what are the reasons to take the plunge into ethnography? For starters, you can expect to learn valuable information about your customers that you may never have imagined were true.

Through observation, you may see customers use your product in an unexpected way that presents an incredible R&D or marketing opportunity. Ethnographic research offers an in depth analysis not always found in other methods of research.

Another benefit of an ethnographic study is the fact that the research speaks for itself. In other words, you don't need to spend as much time trying to ask the perfect questions to participants. The natural behavior and attitudes of the participants acts as the data for your analysis.

Participants are only asked to live out a situation as they normally would. In this way, engagement of participants is usually a non-issue. The low effort level and familiarity factor provide the participant with a level of comfort not easily found in other methodologies.

What Are The Cons?

There are some caveats to ethnography, as well. A significant barrier to conducting ethnographic research is cost. It can be downright expensive to capture the individual experience of a participant.

Factors that can increase your budget include:

  • travel to the participant's location
  • high incentives for several hours of the participant's time
  • the professional time necessary for the observation and analysis

Ethnography might not also be the right fit for every company. If you don't actually need a deep dive in the use of your product and the lives of your customers, you could feel like you came up somewhat empty-handed. Depending on the customer, you may not learn anything revolutionary from the study.

Another reality of ethnography is that there is a risk of influencing behavior by observing the participants. Also known as the Hawthorne effect, participants may feel pressured to act a certain way that isn't a true reflection of their normal self. A thorough research plan can help mitigate this anomaly, but the impact should be considered.

Contact Drive Research

Drive Research is a market research company located in Syracuse, NY. Our team has the knowledge and tools to design a robust ethnographic study, should it be the right fit for your business.

Interested in learning more about our market research services? Reach out through any of the four ways below.

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