Ethnographic Research vs. Market Research

Aug 15, 2019

As market researchers, we should all be aware of the role other fields, like psychology and sociology, have within our industry. One field, in particular, that has had a significant impact on the qualitative nature of research we conduct, is ethnography.

Ethnography, while widely regarded as a research methodology, is also its own entity as well. Having got its start in anthropology, ethnography uses empirical, or sensory data (information gathered from observation and experience) to capture insights about a group of people, culture, or individual. Observations and interviews are just two forms of ethnographic methods that help market researchers glean a deeper level of insights from consumers when it comes to their behaviors and perceptions.

How Ethnography Differs From Other Research Methods

While methods of observation and interviews don’t sound all that different from market research, ethnography differs most in its approach to a research question. Market researchers often develop hypotheses and test those hypotheses against dependent and independent variables, but ethnographers refrain from making any assumptions about their subjects. Ethnography is also far more personal even though it doesn’t always entail asking questions— participants of ethnographic studies are allowing you to observe their daily and personal lives. Ethnography also utilizes three main principles within its various methodologies:

  • Naturalism: As the name states, these methods work to capture naturally occurring behavior where consumers are not asked to conduct an action but researchers let them occur naturally.
  • Understanding: Methods of understanding seek to learn more about a consumer and culture before observing them so as not to let bias interfere with additional ethnographic research and market research.
  • Discovery: Methods of discovery are used to determine hypotheses prior to market research methods.

Application to Market Research

Ethnography is pivotal to the market research industry and qualitative methods. Ethnographic practices, when used in market research, lend additional context, emotion, and a deeper understanding of consumers. We utilize the field in order to observe consumers at their own convenience and to avoid influencing customer feedback. In other words, they may know we’re there, but don’t know what we want. Online methodologies have a reputation for creating challenges when it comes to ethnographic methods. But today many online and non-traditional research methods are influenced by ethnography, including

  • Mobile Shop-Alongs
  • In-Home Usage Tests
  • Video Responses
  • Image Uploads

Other Types of Qualitative Market Research Methodologies

In addition to the bulleted list above, there are several other qualitative market research methodologies that many of our clients use to better understand their audiences. Let’s take a brief look at a handful of them:

In-Person Focus Groups

In-person focus groups are used when a face-to-face interaction is needed and valuable to the questions being answered.

Use when:

  • You want to talk to a smaller group of consumers (typically 8-10 people) and iterate with that same group over a longer period of time.
  • You aren’t concerned with or have a process in place to remove the possibility of one or two respondents dominating the discussion and/or persuading the group.

Online Communities

Communities are used to connect to a pre-screened group of consumers who can be accessed weekly within an online forum over a year or more. It’s common for brands to bring in consumers who are loyal to their products.

Use when:

  • You need to conduct longitudinal studies that require iteration with the same consumers over a period of multiple weeks or longer.
  • You aren’t concerned with timing and know when stimulus will be ready.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY)

DIY methods can be a cost-efficient approach to certain research objectives and are ideal for those with the expertise to create, execute, and analyze results in an unbiased way. 

Use when:

  • You have a quick quant question and know how to write a properly structured survey question and questionnaire. 
  • You are completely unbiased about the outcome and will be able to present the findings objectively.

Agile Full-Service

An agile full-service approach can be very helpful when you want to work with a partner who does the heavy lifting, especially if you’re strapped for time and need guidance with both quantitative and qualitative research design and methodologies. It’s also a good fit when you simply need insights from an objective third party. 

Use when:

  • You need to spend your time on strategy or communicating the insights vs getting too much into the weeds.
  • Your expertise is in uncovering consumer insights and knowing what to do with them, not necessarily in writing the questions that get you there.

Ethnographic research, in its purest form, is incredibly time-consuming. So applying it to agile market research can take a good chunk of the time and effort required without sacrificing the benefits of depth and understanding. 

To see more information about how you can keep online respondents engaged when it comes to using an online approach to uncover deeper insights about consumers, take a look at our quick eGuide below.

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