Conducting Commercial Ethnography
by Housecalls, Inc.
This white paper details the methodology of ethnography and offers suggestions for executing a professional observation research project.
Ethnography today (2009) has become a popular method of qualitative research. It offers in-context insight into the ways consumers live with products and services, and the ways their culture influences their actions -- insight not readily available to other forms of qualitative research. This paper has been developed as an overview of the methodology.
Many different practices have assumed the mantle of ethnography -- from an in-store interview, to 4-hours of observation on location, to living with a consumer for an extended period, to ethnography conducted on-line. Given the variety of practices, how can ethnography performed for commercial purposes be defined?
Ethnography can be considered a study of consumers’ lives, habits and practices within the context of their culture – that is, their values, beliefs, social attachments and goals. Most often, but not always, commercial ethnography is performed in relation to a product or service, or a product category. It can also be used to identify the culture of a particular group of consumers.
So what constitutes good, professionally-practiced ethnography? How do experienced, dedicated ethnographers go about their projects? We offer some suggestions:
How Ethnography Differs From Other Forms of Qualitative Research:
Despite the variety of practices, most ethnographic research techniques have some things in common. Ethnography doesn’t depend on the consumer’s selective memory of their experience. Ethnography is usually conducted in their everyday environments -- watching and recording while consumers live with, shop for, and use a product or service, observing how they conduct their everyday lives, seeing and hearing who they are and what they value. Nothing is missed -- neither the special ways a product is used, nor the mistakes consumers make with it, nor the way a product or service impacts their lives, nor the way their culture influences their choice of products or patterns of interaction.
Ethnography is reality-focused. The real relationship between the consumer, their culture, the product or service and the competitive sort that exits uniquely in each home is right there, before your eyes.
Ethnographers can be there when day-to-day life happens, in and out of the home. For example, at the time the product is customarily used. At six AM to watch consumers floss and brush their teeth. In the afternoon when kids come home and reach for a snack. In the evening to see how family members use their free time. At bedtime to observe a woman applying a night cream. With mom or dad as they’re shopping for the weekly groceries, or with a group of twenty-somethings at a pub after work. Ethnographers try to be right there to record the crucial moment or moments of the product experience.
Ethnography takes more time than other forms of qualitative research. It requires a willingness on the part of the ethnographer to spend hours and days to understand a consumer’s particular culture, to explore the ways a consumer lives with a product or service, to probe the levels of emotional involvement, to understand the context. It provides a unique opportunity for perception, insight and in-depth analysis that often leads to advances in marketing strategy and execution.
As practiced today (2009), most ethnography can be described in two different (but not mutually exclusive) ways. While this paper deals primarily with commercial ethnography, some researchers practice anthropological ethnography. A word or two about the latter:
Anthropological ethnography, as the name suggests, is usually performed by practitioners who have been trained in anthropology. They explore the whole product experience -- how brands fit in and relate to the consumer’s life. What is the cultural context – the values and rituals that touch on the product or service category? What does the brand mean to consumers? What place does the product have in the kitchen, the bathroom, the home office or the car? What is the social significance that consumers attach to products or services? What hidden clues are conveyed?
Moreover, anthropological ethnography is sometimes used to find or describe a niche market – people with special forms of behavior or characteristics in common. For example, people who work at night. How does their schedule affect the rest of their lives? In what ways are their day-to-day lives different from people who work nine to five? What are their special product or service needs?
Some ethnographers like to use classic projective techniques to explore the unexpressed emotional motivations of their respondents. Among them are archetypes, first developed by the psychologist Carl Jung. Others use Tarot cards, and some have developed their own projective devices. Respondents tend to identify with a specific image or character in a particular context, which can give ethnographers an insight into their true feelings that may have been previously unavailable.
On site, others see themselves as part of the woodwork. They resist intrusion into the lives of their respondents, and that includes interviewing. They prefer to tag along, watching and listening, hardly even making eye contact.
While the suggestions below apply primarily to commercial ethnography, some anthropological ethnographers follow them as well.
Preparing For Ethnography
Some of the preparations qualitative researchers make for a focus group will be similar to preparations for ethnography. Some will be different.
Perhaps the most important part of an ethnography project is setting clear, well-defined objectives. Here are some of the potential objectives ethnography can fulfill:
- To understand a cultural context – how the emotional, symbolical, or social network informs the lives of consumers
- To gain insight into a particular consumer niche
- To identify a lifestyle
- To learn how consumers actually use a product or service in their everyday lives
- To discover product decision points
- To reveal unmet needs
- To find and document the real benefits of consumer experience
- To probe problems and opportunities associated with a product or service
- To understand and document the quality of suffering and relief offered by a medication
- To uncover consumer language, cues, and signals for potential advertising use
- To learn selection and purchase behavior at the store
- To seek consumer-generated new product ideas
- To test new products in context
- To identify interactional patterns that help to describe a consumer segment
There are potentially many more objectives ethnography can fulfill.
- Ethnography is not a substitute for quantitative research. It takes place among a limited number of respondents.
- Packing a proposal with multiple objectives. Resist issue greed. The fewer the objectives, the more focused and in depth the findings will be.
- Ethnography is not suited to scope a wide market. Findings often suggest strategic and tactical direction, but the findings may or may not be representative of a broad market category. It would be wise to verify the results with an inexpensive quantitative test.
What You Will Need Before Fieldwork:
- A clear, concise statement of objectives. When writing the objectives, consider the ultimate purpose – how the ethnography findings will be used. Fuel for strategic marketing? Fodder for advertising executions? Direction for a quantitative study? Each purpose will call for different objectives. And the objectives will help you focus your fieldwork.
- A screener. Any qualitative researcher who has developed a screener for other kinds of qualitative research will be able to write a screener for ethnography. The principle is the same – narrowing down the qualifications until the exact respondent needed is defined and found. However, the ethnography screener should put somewhat more emphasis on articulateness and willingness to participate in the research. You are going to partner with each respondent for hours, if not days. You want their words and their behavior to be productive. And neither the recruiter nor the screener should reveal the focus of the research to a potential respondent.
- An interview guide. The interview guide exists primarily for the ethnographer to organize the areas of observation and inquiry and to highlight key issues. It should not be a laundry list of questions. It should be a blueprint for exploration. And it should include triggers designed to unleash a respondent’s feelings about themselves, their families, and the product or service at issue.
The guide should not be considered as fixed. There are times when it should be ignored. In the best of all possible worlds, the consumer should lead the observation and whatever discussion ensues. Some of the most surprising and productive insights come to the surface when a respondent takes off on a tangent, departing from the subject at hand. Or when an ethnographer makes an aha! connection between a respondent’s behavior and his or her cultural context. The ethnographer should be prepared to be led into uncharted waters, where an unexpected insight may be waiting.
However, part of a guide’s reason for being is to answer the concerns and soothe the anxieties of clients and others involved in the project. The issues of interested parties should be honed and distilled by the ethnographer.
It should be noted here that some ethnographers believe in performing fieldwork without any interview guide. They feel that the ethnographer’s mind should be a blank slate, open to whatever they see and hear during the interview.
To read the rest of this white paper in pdf form click here.
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