5 Reasons to Invest in an Ethnographic Study This Year

5 Reasons to Invest in an Ethnographic Study This Year

Michael Kennedy, Associate Creative Director

April 3, 2018

Ethnographic research puts a cultural or consumer group's behaviors, patterns and way of life under a microscope by placing the researcher directly in the environment of the subject. But let's be honest: they can be an expensive investment. When you're already pressed for budget, why should you shell out the extra dollars for your own study?

Let's take a look at five key reasons why observing human behavior firsthand is not only a crucial part of the creative process, it can supercharge your brand strategy.

1. You can't be successful if you don't invest in understanding your audience.

If you're trying to get to the bottom of a business issue, guide the development of a breakthrough creative solution, or simply build a more complete picture of your customers, you're going to invest in research. It can be tempting to purchase an existing study or report and lean on the data, but this approach can be much costlier in the long run. It's best to use both custom qualitative and quantitative research to inform your brand strategy, and ethnographies are a powerful qualitative option.

2. Your agency will produce more insightful, impactful work.

It's typical to include key stakeholders in reporting research results. But for your agency team, there's nothing better than observing your consumers in action. Involving key leaders in your agency's strategy and creative teams from the start will help you:

  • Determine the right questions to ask your consumers
  • Intuitively adapt the study as it progresses to produce more valuable outcomes
  • Provide priceless context for audience targeting and creative ideation
  • Save time and money in interpreting and communicating the results

3. You'll never look at focus groups the same way again.

Too often, marketers default to focus groups for qualitative insights and call it a day. But consider the all-too-typical focus group environment: a sterile conference room, an unsettling two-way mirror, bottled water, too many printouts, and a handful of strangers jumping through an hour's worth of guided discussion hoops, always with at least one chatterbox and a couple reluctant "I'd rather be bingeing Netflix" pseudo-participants. Does that sound like the optimal environment for deep insight gathering?

Like social anthropologists, ethnographers study people in their natural environments. They spend time with your consumers, one-on-one, in a place they feel most comfortable and open to discussion. This yields more intimate and unique data from powerful stories that are personal, some even emotional. In a recent study for a packaged foods client, one participant's heartfelt story even made us cry (though we blamed this on allergies).

4. You'll uncover simple, actionable insights without mining decks of data.

Ethnographers can also identify key behaviors that connect a brand's users, signaling aspects of the brand or product that should be prioritized for improvement or innovation. In that same study, whether we were visiting a million-dollar home in White Plains or a modest apartment in Yonkers, participants interacted with our client's product in the same way: they prepared it themselves rather than buying a curated option. Suddenly, we had a better understanding of users' chief concerns: the product's perceived freshness, and the desire to add a personal touch for themselves or their guests.

5. You'll tackle business problems on an emotional level, not just a rational one.

Observing human behavior firsthand can help you better understand customers' emotions and attitudes. When consumers connect with brands on an emotional level, they not only stay loyal to that brand longer, they extend the brand's reach through word-of-mouth, social sharing and referrals. That means greater market share and profits with a lower cost, thanks to insights gained through observation.

In an ethnographic study for a regional cottage cheese brand, participants told us they were afraid to share the product with others because most people didn't like it, even if they'd never tried it. This revealed that the emotions behind consumers' reluctance to share the product - worry, self-doubt, and fear of rejection - were a barrier between the brand's loyalists and potential new users. The solution: create a slew of shareable recipes to help cottage cheese lovers sneak the product into the mouths of cynics.

Bottom line, qualitative insights gained from ethnographies are essential for creativity. This research can better inform your brand strategy, identify issues that impact purchase decisions, and confirm you're taking the right steps to solve them.