Tip Sheet for Buyers of Ethnographic Market Research
Presented by GfK's Qualitative and Ethnography Team
Some common ethnography misconceptions dispelled:
- In-home does not equal ethnography.
- Don’t be tricked by visual evidence—it’s not as self-explanatory as it looks.
- The online world serves up a smorgasbord of free consumer data that seems "ethnographicky,” but the people who generated the data are self-selected and non-random in ways that you cannot control, so it’s almost impossible to assess what the data mean in terms of even the most general segmentation variables.
- "Security camera ethnography” is good only at showing what happens in a limited time and place, almost never why.
- Beyond that, data collection without informed consent is dicey from an ethical standpoint, though there are workarounds.
- The ethnographer is not the color commentator of the research team, providing nice images to decorate a deliverable. That is a worthwhile activity, but there are specialist firms that do it.
- Non-interventional observation does not mean passive observation. It’s okay to ask questions, because—again—visual evidence is not always self-explanatory.
It might be something, but it’s not ethnography unless it has these three characteristics:
Not individual people, but rather situations, environments, activities, relations, interactions, processes are the units of study.
The researchers use a toolkit grounded in social scientific models and theories, not gut instinct or impressionism, and they use that toolkit to discern significant patterns—traces of culture—in the data.
The expertise flows two ways, as research participants are assumed to be the experts on their own experiences, while the ethnographers are experts at translating those experiences into a description and analysis that clarify business issues.
How to tell when you need and don’t need an ethnographic approach:
- The farther upstream you are in the product cycle, the more value you’ll derive from ethnography. The really big success stories in consumer ethnography have been about product innovation and building marketing plans around new ideas, rather than for the improvement of existing marketing strategies.
- There is still value in using ethnography farther downstream in the product cycle—it is almost always a good way to generate hypotheses about consumers that can then be validated and measured quantitatively.
- Don’t think about the approach and the methodology first; instead, reverse-engineer the approach based on the goals. For example, what kinds of things do you need to learn about the consumer situations you’re interested in? Are they things that can be said or things that can only be shown/demonstrated, or both? Are they things that relate to one person alone, or are they about interactions within a group of people? If you need to learn things that can easily and accurately be said by someone, then all you need is a telephone.
- How profoundly do you not know what you don’t know? Ethnography is unparalleled as a research approach when the field is filled with "unknown unknowns” that have to be discovered, then sifted down into a workable description.
What to look for when choosing an ethnographic research provider:
- Find out the story of how the principals got there—whether through formal academic training or otherwise, they need to show they have the required mix of business experience and methodological expertise that makes for a competent market research ethnographer.
- What’s their attitude toward anything that isn’t their favorite approach? If they bad-mouth focus groups, for example, or ask you to "drink the Kool-Aid” about their special patented method, they may be more interested in selling themselves than in helping you solve your problem. It also suggests they’re methodologically inflexible, and don’t understand how all the pieces fit together in the world of qualitative research.
- Do they try to use short-cuts, like trawling the Internet for data instead of actually generating it themselves? That’s a bad sign.
- Ask about their process at the back end—the crucial analytic steps that spell the difference between good and bad research. Most of the value of ethnography derives from astute analysis, independent of what method was used to collect the data. Good ethnographers will tell you that spontaneously.
- What kinds of deliverables do they talk about providing? Whatever they call it and however they present it (words, pictures, video, etc.), a good ethnographer will promise a deliverable that gives you a concise model of consumer behavior that you can use to start solving your business problem. Ethnography is explorational, discovery-oriented and eminently fuzzy, but that doesn’t mean it should generate vague, hard-to-apply results.
For more information on GfK's Qualitative and Ethnography products and services, contact us.