In this entry in our “Customer Insights” series, we will explore the merits of ethnography in getting to know your customer base.

As you develop as a marketer, it’s important to explore both old and new methods for getting to know your customers. Not only will this breadth of knowledge help you develop more intuitive and useful products and services, it will help you market them in more appealing ways.

So far in this series, we’ve explored methods like focus groups and polling in getting deeper insight into your audience. This time, we’re taking a look at the merits of ethnography.

What is Ethnography?

In its simplest definition, ethnography is the “close observation of social practices and interactions.”

Essentially, ethnography is the division of anthropology that explores how people live their lives. Unlike surveys or even focus groups, it is more than simply asking questions; it’s stepping into the lives of actual people and watching how they live, how they make choices and how they relate to their cohort.

Ethnographic research is bolstered by studying historical accounts or documents of certain cultural groups. It can involve witnessing religious rites, observing important social functions or simply following along as a consumer or group of consumers performs their day-to-day tasks.

Historically, ethnography is valuable to marketers because it gives them insight into how a product or service would actually fit into a person’s routine and culture.

How Has Ethnography Helped Marketers and Brands Deliver Results?

Ethnographic research has helped companies throughout the past several decades to produce and alter products so that they fit the actual day-to-day lives of their consumers.

The German company Miele, for example, used ethnography to study their consumer base in their homes, and noticed excessive cleaning in families wherein members had allergies.

As a result of these ethnographical findings, Miele was able to innovate a traffic light indicator on their vacuum cleaners that showed a user when a surface was dust-free.

Swedish manufacturer IKEA has been very open about their use of qualitative, ethnographic research in developing their products and marketing:

Beth Kowitt of Fortune Magazine reports: “The company frequently does home visits and—in a practice that blends research with reality TV—will even send an anthropologist to live in a volunteer’s abode. Ikea recently set up cameras in people’s homes in Stockholm, Milan, New York and Shenzhen, China, to better understand how people use their sofas.”

It was through observing people in their natural state, as they move about their lives, that these companies were able to make truly effective and revolutionary changes to their products. Many other companies have utilized ethnographic research in making market predictions and adjusting their budgets to the behavior trends that are on the horizon.

What Makes Ethnography Different from Other Customer Insights?

As we’ve said, ethnography focuses on learning about a particular culture or demographic in the environment where they live.

Because it’s often difficult for consumers to communicate what they truly want in a product or service (or the ways it’s impractical in their lives), ethnography serves as a sort of bridge between saying and doing. Ethnography provides the real, hard data on how your customer base lives. Regardless of what responses they’ve given in surveys or focus groups, ethnography allows you to see their struggles and decision-making processes in action.

These numerous, often unspoken elements of a consumer’s life can add highly valuable insight into how your product or service can be adapted to suit them. It may even provide inspiration for future services or products that meet another big need in their lives.

Similar to focus groups, ethnography is a qualitative form of research. It provides subjective, consumer-based data with deeper implications than a survey or poll can provide. As such, conducting ethnographic research is more time-consuming and expensive than many quantitative research methods, making it more difficult to budget for.

Is There a Way to Conduct Ethnographic Research Online?

For modern companies, there are far more options for conducting ethnographic research than there were in the past.

Cyber ethnography is a growing trend among companies who want the valuable insights of this research but can’t necessarily afford to hire an ethnographer to collect, peruse and translate large amounts of data.

Robert Kozinets’ 2009 book Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online offers some procedural guidelines for conducting research into demographics and culture on the Internet, while Decision Analyst offers online ethnographic research services according to your company’s particular needs.

Rich, qualitative research, like ethnography and focus groups, are highly valuable when it comes to customer insight. The more you learn about the way your customers live and what their struggles are, the more easily you can adapt your products, services, and marketing efforts to meet their needs.

Read more: Is Researching Your Clients and Prospects a Good Idea?