Ethnography: How It Can Help You Win the Hearts of Your Customers

Online Ethnography

Ethnography is the study of human races and cultures, according to Merriam-Webster.

It is "people watching" at a very basic level. In small-town America, previous generations used to go to Main Street after dinner, especially in the summer, to people watch. Those watching (the audience) would sit on a bench and observe couples and families as they walked up and down the street; this audience would notice neighbors and friends gathering and talking. Everyone did a little window shopping and stopped in old-fashioned drugstores for soda or ice cream. It was fun, entertaining, social, and educational, and even some business was conducted.

The same phenomenon occurs today. Social media enables these behaviors in a more modern fashion. Some people are sitting back and watching on social media and not posting much—they are the "audience." Many people post pictures, videos, and opinions. In many cases they are sharing very deeply personal experiences and challenges. They are the "show." Most people are both the audience and the show. It is fun, entertaining, social, and educational, and even today some business is conducted (advertisements via social media).

How is this relevant to marketers and brands from a consumer insights or research perspective? Being in the right place at the right time is critical for learning true consumer insights. Your brand, or company, can take advantage of social media to learn so much about your consumers, their needs, their lives, and how to reach them. You can monitor your target market's usage of social media for a time period, and/or you can use social media to conduct research to learn about your consumers.

Today ethnography is conducted with mobile devices (virtual ethnography), so that you can be in the moment of emotion, in the moment of the shopping trip, or in the moment of the product usage, without actually being there in person. This not only allows the behavior to happen without the increased likelihood of the researcher’s presence biasing the results, it also makes it easier to conduct research across countries.

Consumers can use their phones or tablets to capture video and images...then they can tell researchers what's important in their lives, how they shop, how they use the product, etc. Mobile technology works especially when geofenced, because a survey can be pushed to the shoppers’ apps on their phones while they are shopping at a particular store.

What is the path to purchase or customer journey? How are consumers initially exposed to your brand or product category? How do they research your brand or products? How can you convert less frequent customers to loyal customers?

Ethnography can also be conducted in person, where the researchers observe the shopping trip or product usage. Depending on the objectives of the research, the product category, and usage occasions, recommendations on methodology are made as to whether virtual ethnography or in-person ethnography is the most appropriate.

Your organization can utilize ethnography ("people watching,") to provide in-depth knowledge about your consumers. It allows your team to build stronger brands, better products, and optimize grow your business and improve profitability.


Bonnie Janzen

Bonnie Janzen


Bonnie helps drive growth for client companies based on strategic consumer insights, innovation, and analytics to shape marketing campaigns and new product development programs. She has consulted with clients on new business mergers and acquisitions including global expansion. Advertising and messaging research is a particular passion. She is very involved in the strategic direction of the company.

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