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Ethnographic Market Research: Advantages & Disadvantages

Ethnographic market research is a qualitative research method used when companies want to gain insight into consumer behavior. Like all forms of market research, its goal is to shed light on the factors that motivate consumers to think and act the way they do. However, unlike other research methodologies, ethnography focuses on observation rather than discourse. Instead of relying only on information as it’s obtained via the words or written responses of a research participant, researchers use a variety of techniques that allow them to both witness the way respondents interact with products in real life, as well as discuss with them the motivations, thoughts, and experiences that drive their conduct. Here’s what you need to know about ethnographic market research, including its advantages and disadvantages:

Ethnographic market research takes place in a natural setting, wherever brand decisions are made and consumer behaviors are displayed. This could include a store where a purchase is made or the home (or office) in which a product or service is most often used. It could be a restaurant, a club, a school, or even the Internet (!), basically, anywhere a consumer might be when they consider a brand or make a purchase. Researchers aim to interact as little as possible with a study participant during an ethnographic research project, instead focusing on observing or videotaping actions in real-time. Only later might researchers follow up with the research participant to verbally review what has occurred. Of key importance during the process are the nonverbal clues that point to how and why the consumer acts in a particular way. Signs of intrigue, frustration, happiness, boredom, resignation, or any other of a host of additional emotions are sought as a way to reveal the reasons a brand is sought after (or shunned) within a market. The belief is that people — indeed, consumers — reveal more about themselves through their own actions than their own words.

When done correctly, ethnographic market research reveals wholly objective data. Researchers see with their own eyes what consumers are doing and saying about a brand, product, or service. They don’t have to rely on others or be wary of interpretation biases and misconceptions.

Oftentimes, it is difficult for consumers to accurately voice or even pinpoint the reasoning behind their actions. Furthermore, many only focus on what they want, not specifically what they need. Thus, companies are not able to adequately strategize for the future. Ethnographic market research can reveal the multiple factors that go into a consumer’s decision-making processes, features that he or she might not be aware of at all!

Similarly, ethnographic market research often points companies to other issues, issues that consumers might not realize themselves and with which companies might have the opportunity to exploit for competitive advantage. Take, for instance, a consumer who an ethnographer notices has difficulty opening a product’s packaging. Perhaps it wouldn’t have warranted a mention from the consumer in a verbal exchange, but the researcher could note the frustration viewed in the field and a company could use that data to improve packaging in the future.

Not only is ethnographic market research more time-consuming than most other types of market research, but it can also be more expensive, necessitating specially-trained facilitators and multiple research participants that raise the cost of the research process in and of itself.

Let’s face it: it’s not easy or “natural” to be observed. Ethnographic market research can be difficult because it can be hard to find participants willing to open their lives or their homes to prolonged scrutiny. And it does take time to conduct ethnographic market research — time to secure viable participants; time for them to get used to being observed; and then time (once both those have been secured) for meaningful observation to actually take place. 

Ethnographic market research can provide meaningful information that enables companies to maximize their business strategies and improve their ROI. To get the most out of this type of research, however, businesses need a knowledgeable and experienced market research partner. Conducted in the wrong way, ethnographic market research can lead to biased reporting and biased results. Our team at Research America has years of experience crafting ethnographic market research studies and can help you conduct research that yields only relevant and actionable insight. Please contact us to learn more.

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