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How to Use Ethnographic Research for Innovation and Strategy


According to the Insights Association, “Ethnography involves the study of a small group of subjects in their own environment. … The ethnographer attempts to get a detailed understanding of the circumstances of the few subjects being studied. Ethnographic accounts, then, are both descriptive and interpretive; descriptive, because detail is so crucial, and interpretive, because the ethnographer must determine the significance of what she observes without gathering broad, statistical information.”

Ethnographic research participants are recruited to allow the interviewer into their environment, where the interviewer can observe the participant engage in the behavior in question. That might be at home for testing a product, an information search, or a decision. It might be the office or job site for a B2B ethnography. Or it might be a restaurant or hotel, depending on the research topic. The key to ethnography is that the interviewer joins the participant in the participant’s environment.

A second important key to ethnography is that it emphasizes observing behavior or social phenomena, rather than the focus of testing hypotheses in traditional marketing research. The interviewer wants to watch the participant complete a task, whether that means baking a cake from a mix or using a power tool on a construction site. The interviewer will ask clarifying questions to explore and understand why the participant made specific choices in completing the tasks. Interviews are usually audio-recorded but may also include video recording.

In ethnography, the researcher gathers what is available, what is normal, what it is that people do, what they say, and how they work. Then, the researcher looks for patterns in the results of the interviews, how ideas and beliefs through language, and how they behave as expressed through the actions that the interviewer observed.

There are several challenges to ethnographic research. First and foremost, the interviewer must be both participant and observer in the setting with the participant. Highly-trained ethnographic researchers are needed to walk this fine line without introducing a personal bias into the results. Ethnographic research can take longer than traditional marketing research qualitative work, which may be an obstacle for some projects. Because participants may be hesitant to invite interviewers into their environment, it may take longer to recruit for ethnographies. And finally, you may be limited geographically in where you can recruit participants and incentive costs will probably be higher than with other research methods.

Despite the drawbacks, ethnographic research has been growing in popularity, especially in research for innovation and strategy, because it can provide uniquely powerful insights.

Benefits of Ethnographic Research

The main benefit of ethnography is that it provides a fresh perspective on consumer behavior. Some of the questions to be answered by ethnographic research include:

Ethnography in Action

Increasing Weekend Get-Away Visitors
A major city in the Southeastern U.S. wanted to increase weekend-travel by visitors from nearby states. While the client thought they had a lot to offer visitors, they wondered how different groups of potential visitors made their decisions about weekend get-aways. Participants were recruited from neighboring states, focusing on residents of cities within a 3-hour car trip. Families and young couples were the focus of this research. Participants were all planning a weekend get-away, and interviewers observed how they decided where to go on this get-away, including how they completed the research about accommodations and activities, who made the final decision, and how the plan was implemented. If the city was not their get-away destination, participants were offered an attractive incentive to choose the city. Interviewers then observed the participants throughout their visit to the city. The research identified several critical pain points that were addressed through additional information and marketing communications, with the result of increasing neighboring state visitor traffic by 15%.

Housecleaning for People with Allergies
Another example of ethnographic research , as reported in Marketing Week, involved German household appliance manufacturer, Miele. Specifically, Miele wanted to understand how people clean their homes if they have a family member with severe allergies. Miele, through its ethnographic market research, realized that these households were cleaning non-stop, since they were not sure when surfaces were completely clean. This led Miele to design a vacuum cleaner with a traffic light indicator that shows when a surface is dust-free. Additionally, Miele also observed how careful people with allergies were with their laundry and so introduced a washing machine with a program for washing pillows and a rinse process that removes detergent residues. Olaf Dietrich, a director at Miele, explained the research, “… We realize that it is essential for not only marketing but also engineers to see the issues first-hand. Only if you are present do you really understand the issues.”


Ethnographic research can be a powerful tool to uncover new and unique insights about your customers, their behaviors, and where the market may be moving. While this research is still qualitative, results can be confirmed with traditional qualitative research. The key to ethnography is to use trained and professional interviewers to make sure that the information gathered is not biased and is interpreted properly.

Can your research problem be solved by ethnographies? Contact Research America to find out!

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