This New Research Is Improving Lives Every Day

From text messaging to big data, modern marketing is all about spotting the technologies that are poised to revolutionize the industry, and then becoming a master of those technologies. Sometimes, however, the biggest innovation isn’t in hardware or applications. Sometimes, the thing that drives the biggest advances in marketing is the application of new techniques.

When a marketer understands how people behave when they are in their own environment, they can learn how to steer that behavior.

Ethnography: Customer Research at the Source

Ethnography is a kind of qualitative research that focuses on how people interact in their natural environment. Ethnography started as an academic branch of the anthropology field – until marketers began to realize its value. Marketers have studied how humans behave in social groups since businesses first started selling merchandise. But focus groups and surveys can miss the subtleties and nuances of actual human behavior. Ethnography, on the other hand, brings the research to the subjects themselves. This type of analysis requires researchers to go where the subjects live, work and play to study them without influencing them.

Humanizing Big Data: The Traffic Jam

Like big data, ethnography can help marketers better understand and predict human behavior through the collection and analysis of massive data sets. But ethnography draws information from the real world that no big data algorithm could ever provide.

The article “How Big Brands Use Ethnography For In-Depth Customer Insight” uses the example of a Los Angeles traffic study to show the actionable, real-time power of ethnography.

Xerox collaborated with the city of Los Angeles to improve traffic flow, reduce congestion and increase overall efficiency by manipulating the price of parking. This indirect orchestration of human behavior was made possible by the use of ethnographical research. They watched and studied how highly sought after “good” parking spots lost value when the researchers lowered the price of parking in what had been less-coveted areas a few streets over. They learned that by manipulating parking prices, the city could “direct” traffic in a completely passive fashion by re-routing vehicles to cheaper – and therefore more valuable – parking spots a few blocks away.

This ability came from the study of how humans behave in their own environment, and how controlled alterations to that environment can encourage new behaviors.

Big Business Takes the Lead on Ethnography

Even the smallest businesses are now finding innovative ways to use big data. But when the technology emerged, it was reserved for only the biggest companies with the money and the manpower to explore its potential. Now, when it comes to ethnography as a tool for customer insight, corporate America is once again taking the lead. Xerox and Intel are among the corporate giants who pioneered the emerging strategy of putting marketers at the crossroads of science and advertising.

Intel is the largest corporate ethnographer on Earth. It has been conducting ethnography studies since the 1990s, when it tried to determine if its business products could be applied to private use in people’s homes. The company quickly realized that ethnography could reveal things that customers couldn’t express in surveys or to focus groups. Since they only see the world from their own perspective, customers can’t compare their experience to someone else’s.

This is where ethnography came in for Intel’s researchers.

Ethnographic studies began revealing to Intel that young people who grew up with the Internet viewed and used some products completely differently than those who were young before the arrival of the digital age. Today, Intel is using ethnography to find out how likely baby boomers are to migrate from televisions to tablets for media consumption.

From city traffic to home computers, ethnography makes new advances every year.

Ethnography is not a new field of study. But some of the biggest and most well-resourced corporations are finding exciting new applications for this type of research. Although ethnographical studies are beyond the reach of most companies, marketers should watch this field. Not only is ethnography following in the footsteps of the big data revolution, but it is now working in conjunction with it.

About Author: Andrew Lisa is a freelance business writer who covers online and social marketing.

Andrew Lisa

Andrew Lisa is a freelance technology writer. You can email him or follow him on Twitter.

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