With Insights in Marketing, delve into what ethnographic research is, & understand the strengths & limitations of ethnography for your market research.

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 and understand what ethnographic research is would be 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 in Marketing?

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 brand marketers, product developers, engineers, and designers can directly observe people using products. 

Analysts performing ethnographic research in marketing can see firsthand how participants use products, and create their own work-arounds — rather than relying on people to explain how they get a task done.

what is ethnographic research

What Are the Advantages and Limitations of Ethnographic Research for Product Development?

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. 

Though there are strengths and limitations of ethnography and ethnographic research in marketing, the main idea is to simply observe consumer behavior, rather than interact with people. It involves qualitative research and analysis of consumers’ pain points and behavior. Ethnography identifies unmet needs – and this is where the real breakthroughs in product development can occur.

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

Advantages of Ethnographic Research:

The more brand marketers, product developers, engineers, 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

To grasp what ethnographic research in marketing is and how consumers react to brands, 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 situations, 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, which is one of the many advantages of ethnographic research. 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.

Limitations of Ethnographic Research:

Ethnography isn’t for every research project. Like any type of research, there are strengths and limitations of ethnography. 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, one of the biggest limitations of ethnographic research is that this method takes time. You are observing for at least three hours and this is only one person, while with 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 limitation of ethnographic research 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 and advantages 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.

Digital ethnography has transformed what ethnographic research is into the current day. Here are a few common digital ethnography methods and specific benefits:

what is ethnographic research

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 what ethnographic research in marketing is, or get more in depth about the advantages and limitations of ethnographic research? Get in touch with our team of researchers and learn more about Insights in Marketing through our case studies, infographics, and blogs!

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