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The Power of Ethnograpic Immersions

by Leanna Appleby , 13.01.2015

“I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?” ― James P. Spradley

Many of us are familiar with the holiday experience; delighting in different foods, clothes, languages and ways of expressing emotions. While this is a good start to understanding similarities and differences of cultures, lately, we find ourselves going so much further in qualitative research.

A lot of our clients developing new products and services, especially for emerging markets, need to make sure they ground these new developments in customer needs and expectations. And herein lays the difficulty – sitting in a distant Western office tower – how would you know the impact of the monsoon rains or summer dust on your product? How would a Product or Service Manager know how totally different human interactions and customer service expectations are to their own on another continent? How would they understand the role of status in another society, and ways to attain it?

At GfK, ethnographic immersions are one of our favorite methodologies. We get to take our clients out into the world to show them what life is really like in the market they are developing for. It’s a real eye opener with the vast majority of them having light bulb moments every day they are there.

As qualitative researchers we have many stories and anecdotes that we’ve collected along our ethnographic journeys. These stories surround us and enhance our bank of consumer experiences which are, ultimately, the backbone to our expert thinking. Driving to these immersions, we see what local life is like, how people live, what the community feels like and what the local customs are. From being enthusiastically kissed on both cheeks when entering unknown respondents’ homes in Spain, to being offered masala tea when in India, to understanding the ‘pet’ turtle will end up on the menu tonight, we wouldn’t pick up these teachings without experiencing these visits at first hand. Although new digital approaches such as digital tracking and digital diaries capture everyday consumer behaviors, ethnography adds the extra meat onto the bones through us, as researchers, physically being there and interacting with consumers. Real-time communication and observation enables us to probe at crucial points and uncover those ‘wow moments’ that we may not capture through digital approaches alone.

However, although the fundamentals of ethnography are still crucial, we believe embracing the new opportunities offered in this digital world can enhance and compliment the traditional ethnographic approach. Here in our qualitative team we have looked at new ways in doing this including accompanying ethnography with a digital pre-task through uploading snaps on Instagram or asking consumers to log their daily routines through online diaries before we meet them. This not only adds extra insight and context to our findings but primes consumers to really think about the topic we are interested in.

As James P. Spradley beautifully said, consumers are our teachers and we are simply here to learn…

For more information, you can contact Leanna Appleby at leanna.appleby@gfk.com.

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