By Heidi Dietzsch
Following people around for a few days, entering their homes and workplaces, observing what they eat and drink, how and what they buy, what technology and products they use and what their lifestyle habits are, is invasive and time consuming. However, for market researchers, this data collection method, known as ethnography, is an excellent way to gain powerful revelations and deep customer insights.
Ethnography is a form of qualitative research with the objective of providing a comprehensive, holistic understanding of people’s everyday activities, their opinions and actions as well as the nature of the location they inhabit. The goal is to witness people’s behaviour on their own terms, not that of the researcher’s. Ethnography puts the researcher in the shoes of the consumer while seeing first-hand what the consumer is experiencing. It is reality-focused and does not need to rely on consumers’ selective memory of their experiences.
This research method’s roots can be traced back to anthropological studies of small, rural and remote societies that were undertaken in the early 1900s. Researchers such as Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown lived with and participated in these societies over long periods and documented their social arrangements and belief systems.
In a modern-day context, ethnographic market research helps businesses understand the consumer in terms of cultural trends, lifestyle factors, attitudes and how social context influences product selection and usage. It also helps researchers identify gaps in the market.
For example, a researcher may accompany a customer on a shopping trip. The researcher observes and records everything the shopper does. This includes which sections of the store are visited and in what order, what sections are passed by, which products are being looked at and which are ignored and, most importantly, what products the shopper buys.The researcher does not need to remain silent throughout this expedition. There are various questions that can be asked along the way, such as why the shopper prefers one brand over another. Unlike other methods, however, the ethnographic method allows observation of the customer to drive the questions, increasing their relevance and the meaningfulness of the answers.Off course, the researcher can also pick up on insightful nonverbal cues and nuances such as body language and facial expressions.
Certain elements of ethnography can also be found in gonzo journalism. This is a style of journalism where the journalist becomes a part of events, instead of just observing them. Objective reporting is replaced with the journalist’s viewpoints and first-person perspective. Gonzo journalism was fronted by the celebrated American journalist Hunter S Thompson when he infiltrated the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang in 1965. He recounted this experience in the 1967 publication and was hailed as a journalistic pioneer for his anthropological approach to the subject.
Similarly, researchers in the US and Australia joined biker cultures to investigate the relationship between riders and their Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Not surprisingly, their insights have been keenly sought by the renowned motorcycle manufacturer, which turned them into lessons in brand management and marketing.
Although ethnography is pivotal to qualitative market research, it is more time consuming and expensive than other data collection methods. Therefore, this method is less frequently used than qualitative methods such as focus groups and in-depth interviews. It is also more difficult to entice people to participate in this type of research and it is challenging to gain the level of trust that is needed. Researchers need to be exceptionally well-trained and experienced in the science and art of ethnography.
However, sometimes it is difficult for people to articulate what a product or service means to them, or their actual behaviours don’t correspond with what they tell researchers. Ethnography can overcome these barriers and allows researchers to dig into consumers’ minds and motives.
This method is a great tool when products need to be tested, new products developed, new stores launched or existing ones renovated, feedback regarding package design is needed, advertising strategies need to be shaped or when online formats such as websites and apps need to be tested. Ethnography is also excellent in stimulating innovation and can complement other qualitative or quantitative research.
Like other qualitative methods, ethnography can add a lot more colour to traditional research and it allows respondents to tell their own stories. Every ethnography study is unique and therefore a cookie cutter approach can never be followed. Essentially, it is what people do that defines them and ethnography will continue to be a respected approach in assisting businesses to gain a profound understanding of consumer behaviour.