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Much Ado about Ethnography

Two years ago at a marketing research seminar, I attended a session on qualitative research. Not all that unusual at a marketing research event. However, the session soon captured my attention. It was on the topic of ethnography in marketing research and taught by a classically trained anthropologist who brashly stated that focus groups and open-ended questionnaires/interviews were nearly useless for extracting true insights from customers. I think he was using hyperbole, but he had my attention. (Note: The content of his session can be found here.)

What is ethnography? It is simply defined as the study and systematic recording of human culture. Within market research it basically involves studying customers in their natural environment to determine how their environment (all those things we can’t model in our quantitative research) affects their interaction with your products or services. There are many resources detailing ethnographic methods and approaches, so I won’t go into those details here.

So why am I writing about this topic and research workshops I attended two years ago? Two reasons: First, in the last two years ethnography has become the hottest “new” method being added to the market research toolkit.  For instance, Quirk’s Marketing Research Review published 9 articles on ethnography in the last year alone. If you aren’t at least aware of, if not using, ethnographic research, then you are at risk of being left behind.

Secondly, ethnography can help researchers “tell the customers’ story.” Researchers, especially those focusing on customer experiences, are now expected to use data and customer feedback to tell a story that delivers insights and compels others to action. To do this well, we need ethnographic research.

As we get more transactional and behavioral data on customers in addition to an ever-growing supply of quantitative customer survey data we tend to retreat further from actually interacting with customers to collect information and that is a mistake. I would encourage everyone who conducts or consumes customer research to learn more about ethnography and consider ways to apply it to your research agenda if you haven’t already. After all, how are we supposed to talk about the voice of the customer if we have never heard it?

Troy Powell, Ph.D.
Vice President, Statistical Solutions

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