Ethnography - Get Close To Your Customers

What is it?

Ethnography is common practice within anthropology. Anthropologists often live with and study groups or societies for long periods of time, forming close and intimate connections with the target group that allow for insights that could not be gained from one-on-one interviews or group discussions. These immersive observations and interviews often result in powerful and unexpected findings.


Ethno 101

The objective of applying ethnography to market research is to get inside the customer’s head and understand them in their environment. Sharing these visits can provide coworkers deep insight into how customers live, how they use the product, and what problems they are experiencing. You also uncover details of their lives not typically found during one-on-one interviews (e.g., what car they drive, what food they eat, the brand of clothes they wear). These findings are valuable for effective new product development, positioning, messaging, and developing winning sales and marketing tactics.

You typically conduct visits in the locations where customers use the product (e.g., home, school, business). The visit often lasts several hours (or days), allowing a deep understanding of who the customer is and various aspects of their lives (e.g., what other products they own, what media they consume, foods they eat, brands they respect), how they use the product, and what problems they encounter when using the product. A few hours or several days with customers in their environment can provide amazing insights to drive new ways to message customers, position a product, or develop products for untapped markets.


During the visit, focus on the environment. Take in the physical setting to gain a holistic understanding of the environment, not just what the individual says (Gray, 2011). What sounds and smells do you notice? What do you see around the area (e.g., pictures on the walls, items in the garage, types of furniture)? What’s on their desk? How does the person react to certain questions? What key phrases or words do they consistently use? How do they spend their free time? What is important to them?

The more you listen and observe, the more information you will gather that can provide new ways to differentiate a product or uncover new methods to engage with customers. Remember, you are going to build a story, so make sure you gather multiple insights to communicate the small nuances that quantitative data cannot provide.

Conducting ethnographic research requires great listening skills—being empathetic, but dispassionate. You are there to watch, listen, and understand the customer, not to get involved or influence their behavior. Continually ask probing questions to fully understand the customer and their interactions with the product, service, or process. It is recommended that you record the visits.


Next Steps

If coworkers cannot get out of the office and participate in the visits, a video story is the next best thing. Develop a video story that brings the customer to life. You should be able to show people back in the office who the actual customer is: the person on whom you all must focus, the person who keeps the organization in business.

Now that you have preliminary information regarding your MR topic, it is often helpful to conduct several focus groups to ensure that what you’ve learned applies to a larger subset of the sample population. Avoid starting your exploratory research with focus groups, though, because they are expensive and take a lot of planning and preparation. It is more effective and efficient to conduct focus groups after gathering some initial qualitative data.