Deep dive into your consumers: is ethnography the right method for you?

Deep dive into the advantages of ethnographic research and alternatives to determine the best fitting method for your next initiative.

Sandra Ferris

28 June 2024

4 min read

Imagine a situation where budgets, travel logistics, or other barriers didn’t stand in the way of you getting up close and personal with your consumers. Any smart human-centred organisation would take every opportunity they could to develop those deep relationships. But the reality is, budgets, geography, limited technology, and other barriers do exist.

Ethnography – or the study of culture – can enable brands to walk in the shoes of their consumers, and build deep empathy through their lived experiences. But like most methodologies, what works for one situation doesn’t mean it is the most effective for every situation. In this blog, we will dive deeper into the pros and cons of ethnography to understand when it would bring the most value to your next initiative.

Advantages to ethnography:

Ethnography allows you to conduct qualitative research in the moment and watch as people make decisions and experience the customer journey as it is happening. Here are just some of the key advantages to leveraging this method:

  • Empathy: often internal stakeholders are much different than the consumer base you are trying to get insight into – different background, culture, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. Through ethnography, you are able to help bridge this “empathy gap” and understand consumers in a way that you can’t get from a quantitative study. Going into someone’s home or shopping with them gives a much different feel than any data point in a set of tabulations.
  • Authenticity: simply put, people are more comfortable in their own environment. And when people feel more comfortable, they are willing to share more. By observing people in their natural environment, we are able to gather much more authentic insight than if we were to ask them in a survey or a constructed environment of our own.
  • Innovation: what better way to brainstorm new innovations or territories than to experience the challenges, struggles, and barriers of your consumers first hand? How are they using your product currently and what unspoken struggles have they simply (and sometimes unknowingly) adapted to overtime?
  • Versatility: with the help of advanced technology, ethnography can now be successfully leveraged both in-person and virtually, without compromising the value of insights. Need to reach consumers in global markets but don’t have the means of sending a team across the globe? No problem – virtual ethnography allows you to reach people across the world all from your home office.
  • Socialization: while there may be limitations of who can physically be present or involved during an ethnography, by having a videographer capture the ethnography in-person, or record a session virtually, you are able to package and share that experience across an organisation as if they had had the experience first-hand.

Disadvantages of ethnography:

The value that ethnography can bring to an organisation is vast, but this doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every situation or organisation. See below for a few of the reasons why ethnography wouldn’t be the best fit for you:

  • Time: if your initiative requires quick-turn insights, ethnography is likely not the best method. Because of the hands-on nature of ethnography, there tends to be much more planning and logistical time required to execute. And like other qualitative methods, those learnings also take time to synthesize to be ready to communicate to stakeholders.
  • Cost: due to the extensive nature of ethnographic work, the cost per person is quite high, compared to other qualitative methods (and especially compared to quantitative methods). However, virtual ethnography is a more cost-effective alternative, eliminating much of the travel and time expense.
  • Smaller sample size: because you are spending much more time and gathering much more in-depth insight from each individual person, you typically do not get as large of a sample size with ethnography as you would with other methods.

Alternatives to ethnography:

If any of the disadvantages above feel like barriers for your organisation – the good news is, there are plenty of suitable alternatives that can still bring deep qualitative value to your organisation. Some of those alternatives could be:

  • Online boards: this can include a myriad of different activities from journaling to creative writing to video responses to help you better understand your consumers. This asynchronous methodology allows for larger sample sizes and lower cost per person compared to traditional in-person ethnography.
  • Live Video: this can allow you to be in home (or even in-store, in-vehicle, etc.) with your consumers, in-the-moment, no matter where they are. Various platform options exist depending on the need and comfort of your consumer.
  • Observation: simply sit back and watch, sometimes that’s all you have to do to truly learn about your consumers. Sitting on a bench in a dog park can help you better understand pet parents or a bench in the mall can help you better understand food court consumers.  Take it all in and be open to what you’re seeing – which is often different from what you might have expected.  Isn’t that the fun of it all?!

Whatever method is right for your situation, it is all working towards achieving the same goal – getting closer to the people that matter most to your business. It is also important to remember that just because you leverage ethnography one time, doesn’t mean you will always have to leverage it. Remember to assess those factors like time, cost, and sample, to determine for each initiative which method or mix of methods would be best fit for you.

Keep in mind that behaviours and attitudes change over time – just think how much has changed even in the past 4 years since the start of the pandemic! For that reason, insights gathered from an ethnography a few years ago may need to be updated.

By integrating deep qualitative methods into your toolbox, you are able to build strategies that are human-centred at their core.

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