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Still have questions about the value of consumer ethnography?

My line of work has always been a bit perplexing to people. It is part of the fun of being in such a niche profession. I fantasize that it makes me a bit more like the Dos Equis man—the most interesting man in the world.

Ethnographer Brad Bennett Still confused

Recently I was telling a friend about the many homes I’ve been in and wide array of people I’ve met. Their first comment was, “Wow, you must have some crazy stories.” Yes, I do.

Then they asked, “Do companies really pay you to do research like that? What do they do with it?!”

Yes, they really do pay me. Why? Because it makes them exponentially smarter about their consumer. And the smarter they are about their consumer, the more they can grow their business.

Just like my friends, Marketers and Consumer Insight folks sometimes struggle to understand the value of ethnography. After all, they already know a lot about their consumers. They have survey data, purchasing data, social media data, demographic data, trend data and on and on. They know a lot.

I worked for one of the largest food companies in the world before becoming an ethnographer. I had access to all of that data. I poured over reams of tabled information, thrilled by what I learned about our consumers. But something was missing—something in the white spaces between columns of data.

Not quite human

The learning from the data was like having a perfect skeletal depiction of our consumers, but there was too much blank space. It was not a person. I could not tell what held them together. I could not tell, at a deep level, what caused them to act the way they did. I was baffled by things they did that misaligned with what I expected. My skeletal understanding lacked connective tissue, skin and, most critically, a heart.

Having a deep understanding of humans is critical in business and in life. We would never pick our friends, new hires or spouses based only on their CV or resume, a reference and their social media story. We need to look in their eyes, spend time getting to know them, and observe how they navigate life. Why would we not want that same level of understanding about our consumers—the people most critical to our business success?

Much more than numbers

Skeptics of ethnography often point to the small number of consumers we interview—often only 8, 12 or 20 people. Ethnography is not quantitative research. That is a fair point. Ethnography does not amass volumes of data from thousands of people. That’s not the goal.

We are looking for inner thought processes, subtle behaviors often unknown to the consumer, connections that could never be self-reported and explanations for what we see in quantitative data. 

Over and over I see my clients experience a series of epiphanies as they spend time with consumers. The skeleton of data takes on tissue, muscle, and skin. It begins to make sense. And with a heart, it comes to life.