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Why Ethnography is Still the Best Form of Market Research

Let’s be honest. A lot of people view ethnography as an expensive, time consuming form of research. Whether its service, product, or experience development — ethnography is rarely ever considered. Much of the time these naysayers are right. After all, you wouldn’t want to engage in a long-term, costly ethnographic study to decide on a name for the new service you’re offering.

But, if you’re wondering why customers that claim to be loyal to your brand but keep switching to other brands, that’s when want the insight of an ethnographic study. And this is just one of the many examples. Though it is clear that ethnography is not the perfect form research method (as with any project, method must be tailored to need), it is still very much a contender for the title of most insightful market research methodology.

Today, ethnographies are becoming more accessible and more appealing to companies due to their mobile counterparts. Why? Because it provides a quicker, cheaper way to get inside the consumer’s mind.

But here’s the catch. Even though mobile methods eliminate a significant number of the issues associated with the original method, it does so at the expense of the richest qualitative insight. So what does this mean for researchers and companies alike? How is this type of research better than a focus group or IDI, especially when you need to examine behaviours and emotions in detail?

In mobile ethnographic studies, there’s no direct observer, moderator, or interviewer. Yes, this means it is cheaper — but most importantly, the participants don’t feel the pressure that they normally do when taking part in a research study, regardless of its type. If participants do not feel pressured, they are more likely to act naturally.

Mobile ethnographies remove the human element. enabling participants to act more naturally.

The risks of a poorly trained or transparent researcher are almost completely eliminated, which, in association with participants’ freedom, severely diminishes their likelihood to give biased answers and opinions to the research questions. This is what can draw the very fine line between an actionable result and a bad business decision.

While researchers carrying out focus groups and interviews all too often bombard participants with questions and prompts, controlling the dynamic of the conversations and steering them towards the answers the research project needs, by using mobile ethnography you let participants become co-researchers.

You allow them to take the research in their own hands. Participants are free to document their achievements freely, to actively and consciously share their experience, location, and opinions. So it is once again another factor that frees participants from the behavioural limitations imposed by other forms of research.

Not only can you tailor your online feedback platform to the needs of your research, but also to the needs of your participants. This is about making research as engaging and easy as possible, so that your participants will enjoy taking part in the study. Teach them how to approach the tasks and let them express themselves in the way they feel more comfortable with. The beauty of mobile ethnography is that participants have so many tools to choose from when documenting their daily routines. This means it’s possible to easily find the ones that they feel might complement the moment the best. By complementing them with the possibility to mix media and text in different ways, you keep the excitement alive for longer and greatly reduce respondent fatigue.

Ethnography is arguably the only research method able to dig deep into consumers’ minds and motives. It may even be the best way for researchers and businesses to understand if, and why people’s behaviours do not correspond to what they say. It is natural to believe that we are better than we are, and to believe that we do what we put our minds to. But it is also natural to lie to ourselves about what we do, and merely answering questions about our actions and perceptions may not be enough to paint the full picture of our consumption habits.

In-depth qualitative research helps paint a full picture of perceptions & consumption habits.

This is where ethnographies are most valuable, helping you figure out if what people say they do actually is what they actually do. While mobile ethnography may not provide you with the same (sometimes overwhelming) amount of insight, it still remains far higher on the relevance ladder than other popular research methods when exploring the mind of participants.

Because it is carried out on a mobile phone, you can prompt the participants any time about certain thoughts they shared, or they might share, based on what they communicated. This gives you the advantage of immediacy as you have the opportunity to extract the information from the participants’ heads before it is lost to the fog of memory. Again, this means less biased, more accurate information that may unveil hidden perceptions not accessible to any other type of research.

Do you agree that ethnography is still one of the most powerful market research methods you can engage in to this day? Or do you see another method taking that crown? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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