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If you hang out in marketing, branding, or product development circles long enough, you’re bound to come across the term “ethnographic marketing research.” Here at InterQ, we’re a big fan of this style of research because it helps us observe behaviors, rather than just rely on what people communicate to us in interviews. We get to see people in their home, shopping, or office environments, and because of the setting, we often find new insights that people may not have even realized themselves.

We thought it would be valuable to spend a whole blog post breaking down the what’s, how’s, and why’s of ethnographic marketing research.

First, a definition

You may associate ethnography with anthropology, which is absolutely correct. Ethnographic studies have long been a mainstay of field anthropologists and sociologists who aim to study cultures, subcultures, and distinct populations. The practice is rooted in observation rather than interaction.

In marketing, ethnography is rooted in observation, as well, but studies are typically much shorter, and projects are designed for a marketing context. In anthropology, an ethnographic study could last years, but in marketing, timelines are compressed. The main goal is to see people in their natural environment and to note how they behave or use products or services. Usually, we conduct the study in the user’s home, office environment, or at a store where they shop.

Ethnographic research versus traditional qualitative research

A traditional qualitative marketing research study is done through in-depth interviews (either over the phone or in-person), or we’ll do focus groups, where a moderator will interview a whole group of people at once. (We can also conduct online marketing studies, but we’ll save that for another post.) These study designs produce highly useful information, as we’re able to really probe and ask questions that will help us produce insights and strategy.

However, there are instances when we realize that what people say may not give us enough data; we need to see how people actually use a product, shop, or act in their natural environment. In these circumstances, we’ll advise on creating an ethnographic marketing study.

Characteristics of a marketing ethnographic study include:

  • Observing people in their homes or offices.
  • Collecting multiple data sources, including observations, videotaping people in their environments, and interviewing people in the setting.
  • Analyzing the results through a methodology-based process using coding (identifying the themes and key points in the data), looking for contradictions between what people say and how they act, and identifying cultural characteristics of the subject to understand how this affects behavior.

Situations where ethnographic research is a great choice

A marketing ethnographic study is particularly useful when you want to:

  • Figure out a customer’s needs, wants, and desires
  • Uncover a customer’s attitudes and behaviors
  • Test products
  • Get package design feedback
  • Develop a new product
  • Test out online formats, such as web design or apps

In ethnographic research, it’s imperative to hire a third-party, outside company to conduct the research? Why – well, there’s internal bias, for one. Second, customers or clients may act differently when observed by a company manufacturing the product, and third, ethnographic methodology requires experience, training, and academic-based methods for optimal results.

Ethnographic marketing research, above all, helps a company better understand the customer by determining the internal and external factors that influence behavior. Take advantage of this powerful research tool next time you undergo product development, launch a new website, or develop packaging – it may radically change your approach.

Interested in ethnographic marketing research? So are we! Let’s talk about it.