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6 Creative Examples of Ethnographic Research in Action

By Dorota Rewinska

Ethnographic research

Harvard Business Review defines ethnography as a “branch of anthropology that involves trying to understand how people live their lives.” For the purposes of market research, ethnography is an indirect methodology where consumers’ natural behaviour in their everyday environment is observed. Ethnography allows researchers to immerse themselves in the consumers’ lifestyle in order to understand their point of view in detail and depth.

Traditionally, an ethnographic study would involve a researcher observing behaviour either in person or via cameras pre-installed in participant homes, work places, etc. Think Gogglebox where you watch others watching telly – that’s ethnography, in my opinion.

In the traditional approach, logistics alone make this method pricey and time consuming and with technological developments happening at pace (we are on the 7th version of iPhone already!); the move of ethnographic studies to the digital environment was a natural step forward.

The main difference between traditional and digital ethnographic studies is the toolkit a researcher uses. In the traditional version, a researcher would use cameras, notepads, etc. whereas in digital ethnography, they use social media, smartphones, online blogs, etc.

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"The move of ethnography to the digital market research environment requires a new toolkit"

Here are a few examples of ethnographic research in action:

1. Social Media Analytics

Social media is used by 2.3 billion people and any one Internet user has on average 5.54 social media accounts.

If we look at Twitter alone, there are 500 million tweets sent each day and Twitter has 310 million active users each month. This demonstrates the volume of consumer feedback available to researchers. Social media posts are unprompted – there is no direction from a researcher on content. Posts are shared organically on topics which are important to the consumer at that moment in time. This makes social analytics a great example of digital ethnography.

2. Eye Tracking

What better way to understand a consumer’s natural behaviour than to see what they see. Eye tracking has several applications in market research from understanding shopper behaviour, to measuring marketing effectiveness, to exploring how consumers interact with digital content. All that is required is for participants to wear glasses which track their eyes movements as they shop, browse the Internet, etc.

3. Scrapbooks

Whilst scrapbooks are not as sophisticated as eye tracking, they are just as effective in allowing consumers to show you what surrounds them, what attracts their attention and what they find visually appealing. Participants simply submit photos of items, places, or situations that stand out to them or they feel had a significant influence on their decision. In this way, researchers can once again immerse themselves in consumer’s environment.

4. Discovery Forums

Whilst “a picture is worth a thousand words”, sometimes it’s the words that count. Describing day-to-day routines, behaviour around the house or interactions with particular people (e.g. family members) is sometimes done more easily in words. In addition, the anonymity created by an online environment encourages consumers to open up and write in great depth.

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"The anonymity created by an online market research forum encourages consumers write in great depth"

5. Vox Pops

Another format of digital ethnography is Vox Pop videos. This activity uses the high consumer engagement with smartphones and their sophistication to the researcher’s advantage. Participants record short video messages where they ‘think out loud’ and share those thoughts with a researcher almost instantly. This activity is also a very good way for participants to show how they do things: for example, how they interact with a product for the first time. Do they read instruction manual or dive right in and figure it out via trial and error?

6. Online Diaries

Those of you who kept a diary know what a great way they are to record your daily experiences. Online diaries are therefore an excellent way of getting to know your customers. By their nature, online diaries allow researchers to read entries ‘in situ’, giving them an immediate insight into customer lives. For best practices and more benefits of online diaries in market research, visit Annette Smith’s blog: All you need to know about online diary studies.

These are just some examples of ethnographic studies. What are your experiences with this type of market research? Share your stories with us below.

Humanising Big Data

Dorota Rewinska

Dorota Rewinska- Head of Research & Insight

Personal Bio: Dorota joined FlexMR after completing a PhD in Applied Mathematics. Across 10 years, she has worked with brands such as Sure & Aegon to develop products, communications and market opportunities.
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