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Spearheading New Approaches in Ethnographic Research

This article describes the process of ethnographic research - what it is, why it is valuable, and helpful approaches and procedures.

Ethnographics: What is it?
Ethnographics attempts to understand behavior and culture by finding target customers wherever they are, while they’re doing whatever it is they do. It means entering someone’s ‘world’ for a while, be it for a couple of hours or a couple of days, or for some ambitious clients, a couple of months. A major difference between ethnography and other types of research lies in the depth and intimacy of data collection.

  1. Ethnography gets up close and personal to research participants
  2. It requires spending time with people in the natural context of their daily lives.
  3. Ethnographers watch the world with a wide-angle lens in the context of where the action normally occurs: in their home, at their work, at the local gym - wherever the behavioral meets the product categorical.

Examples of venues where ethnographic research occurs:

  • Bowling with elderly respondents to get their reactions to a new pain killer remedy
  • Health clubs’ locker rooms to view men’s shaving and cologne usage habits
  • In living rooms, observing how men and their spouses view ‘Monday Night Football’ with each other and how kids view ‘Inside Stuff’
  • In offices across the U.S. observing how workers utilize fax, shredding, copier, and scanning machines—as well as various office and business software products
  • At bars with beer and whiskey drinkers to obtain attitudes towards alcoholic beverages and observe their bar ordering and drinking behaviors
  • In retail outlets and showrooms observing prospects for new television purchases
  • In bathrooms watching housewives scrub their floors, tubs and tiles

Ethnography researchers don't go into the field with too many preconceived notions or with a script; they take on the role of 'non-participant/observer', as if they've 'just arrived on Earth'.

  • We let the people we talk to lead the way
  • They tell us what is important with their words and their actions
  • Because of this, results become more vivid and real. Our findings are oils compared to the watercolors provided by focus groups, richer and deeper than those produced by more traditional methods. Our insights become not only actionable, but hard-hitting and memorable.

Why Ethnographic Research?
More ethnographers are heading into boardrooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms, bringing new insights to a less exotic, but just as complex, tribe: consumers. And why not? The U.S. consumer market is made up of thousands of "individual little cliques, subcultures, really, that all have their unique way of looking at life.”

Consumer groups, have their own language, rituals, symbols, and values. Crack the code, and you can develop new brands, products, and services that more effectively serve your unique tribe of customers.

Current Ethnographic Approaches

  • Primarily observational based
  • Supplemented by:
    • direct questioning
    • in-person group or in-depth, one-on-one interviewing
    • applications of dairy maintenance
  • Bottom line:
    • A lot of current ethnographic studies, though observational, still incorporate a lot of other standard, traditional research methods.
    • In fact, many ‘E’ studies yield little in the way of breakthrough findings and, relative to traditional approaches, don’t yield that much more in the way of cutting edge insights that would have been revealed otherwise.

When conducting ethnographic studies, ethnographers spend extended periods of time with respondents, observing and interacting with them as they use brands, products, and services. Some of the primary data collection methods that are used include:

  • Observation
  • Narrative Inquiry
  • Ethnographic focus groups
  • In-depth Interviewing
  • Elicitation
  • Audiovisual recording
  • 'Befriending’

WAC Survey Advancements
In an effort to overcome some of the limitations of basic ethnographic research, WAC Survey has been employing some of the following innovations:

  • 'Candid Camera’ videotaping in public locales using professional production crews
  • Use of sophisticated audio and video devices (‘spy ware’)
  • Videotaping and observation of subjects behind one-way mirrors
  • ‘Living with’ and spending extensive time with target consumers
  • ‘Man on the Street’ interview
  • ‘Natural habitat’ observationals: viewing and participating with befriended target respondent in his/her most enjoyable activities

Ethnographic Procedures
When it comes to conducting ethnographic studies, there are no 'set' rules:

  • Each study entirely unique and ‘neo-’ in terms of set ups and implementation
  • Venues can differ from study to study
  • Only one postulate we feel: never interfere with interaction of subjects being studies (i.e., a la Goffman’s Phenomenology); act as ‘non-participant observers’

'Natural Habitat' Observationals: Examples of Studies

  1. Viewing/participating with target respondents in their most enjoyable activities and engaging them in discussions/hands-on behavior re product in question (key: determine favorite pastimes of target market):
    • Poker nights
    • Bowling
    • Bingo
    • Backgammon tournaments
    • Scrabble tournaments
  2. For cosmetics, videotaping respondents’ applications at the counter
  3. Video, audio-taping sales interaction at the kiosk
  4. Impromptu videotaped respondent applications demonstrations
  5. ‘Video contests’: Enlisting women to videotape their friends and family applying makeup, moisturizers, lipstick, etc.
  6. Videotaped interviews of males to obtain reactions to their spouses’ cosmetics and fragrance usage dynamics and other issues
  7. Analysis of ‘body language’ as a tool for determining a customer’s salability, brand choice. To uncover salesperson’s and brand’s weaknesses

Ethnographics study costs can vary from study to study, based on:

  • Number of respondents
  • Amount of time spent with respondents
  • Breadth of tasks to accomplish
  • Types of consumers and extent of subgroup examination required (e.g., current users vs. recent defectors; heavy vs. lighter users)
  • Travel, room and meals become highly significant cost factor

This content was provided by WAC Survey and Strategic Consulting. Visit their website at www.wacsurvey.com.

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