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JWPM Consulting

Ethnographic research

01 December 2021

Ethnography seeks to understand how people live their lives. Unlike traditional market research, where specific, practical questions are asked, ethnographic researchers visit consumers in their homes or workplaces and simply observe with no interaction.

The goal is to understand people’s behavior. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it provides insights about the consumer context and allows direct observation of the consumer journey and use cases.

The aim of ethnographic research is to gain insights about the true value a product or service may have to the end-user

More deterministic research methods (such as asking questions) tend to "lead the witness" resulting in fabricated answers (trying to please the researcher or simply wishing to appear thoughtful) and often do not reflect the consumers true motivations. Traditional research often elicits a logical response where as what truly motivates people is emotion and deeper down still, their deeply ingrained personal identities and underlying personal model of the real world.

While expensive (because it is time consuming and requires employing skilled observers) it provides enormous value particularly solving the "we don't know what we don't know" problem.

Further, truly powerful marketing strategies and communication is based on appealing to people's primary motivations and not logic.

However, even if such powerful emotion based marketing is not needed, ethnographic research is useful for understanding the process via which people solve their daily problems through purchasing products or services. For example...

  • To what extent do they rely on the internet to research options?
  • Do they buy online or then visit a retail outlet?
  • Do they make the decision by themselves or consult others?
  • Are other products or services complementary to the use of the product?
  • How long is a typical purchase cycle?

The list is endless.

Ethnographic research - people don't behave the way they say they do

Ethnographic research is a method of overcoming several traditional problems in research...

  • People have false perceptions about themselves and when asked will present an idealized version of their behaviors and motivations.
  • People often can't remember details about their consumer journey's and to satisfy the researcher's question will confabulate.
  • And, even if people perfectly understand their true actions or motivations, they are not likley to reveal them to others. And this isn't necessarily about embarrassing or private matters - (for example) not wanting people to know despite undertaking extensive research into a product , they ignored all that and chose the red one because they like red.

Ethnographic research: "Let's follow them, and see what they eat."

By Justin Wearne

Further reading

What is market research and why do we need it?

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