Ethnography: Cutting Edge Research



Ethnography, cutting edge research



The Jakarta Post, Supplement News – Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Amalia E. Maulana


Nine out of 10 people who read “Brand Consultant & Ethnographer” on my business card ask me what an ethnographer is. This is precisely the question I am waiting for. Putting my new profession on my business card is in fact part of a strategy to introduce ethnography to the business network I have built.


What about yourself? Are you familiar with the term ethnographer or ethnography and its role in business? Hopefully, the word has caught your attention as a decision maker. If you are not familiar with this term, it is high time to take a short break from your routine activities and tune-in again to the buzz words of the management world. Ethnographic jargon, at the very least, needs to be part of your dictionary to enrich your discourse with business colleagues, especially when you are running a very competitive business. Broadening the horizon of contemporary research methods in an effort to better understand consumers is indeed invaluable.


At present, the pressure to conduct ethnographic studies in marketing is getting higher with the diminishing confidence in the research effectiveness of conventional methods such as the focus group discussion, survey, consumer panel, etc. For example, the popular focus group discussion method is being questioned since the results tend to be superficial. One of its obstacles is the domination of one or two respondents who agitate the dynamics of the discussion. Besides, some brand experiences are just too difficult to express in such a setting. The goal of ethnography research, therefore, is to capture the telling moments that reveal what consumers actually do with products, rather than what they say they do.


An ethnographer’s task in the context of marketing is to help a business to know the existing dynamics in consumers’ lives in dealing with products; to look closely at their experiences with the products; to learn intensively about the product’s role in its original setting; to reveal what is in the consumers’ mind from the very beginning, when they first decide they need a product until when they finally buy and use the product.


The job of the ethnographer is no longer simply a moderator who explores respondents’ responses in the setting of a focus group discussion in a closed room. An ethnographer involves him/herself in a dynamic environment full of various dimensions. To meet, observe and interact with both the primary and the supporting actors in an episode of a product in real life.


In looking for facts, the ethnographer should find the linkage between one story and another, connecting the elements involved in the big picture of the product’s role in its real setting. Extracting and arranging these findings in the form of meaningful insights is a real challenge in itself. This helps the company sharpen the blurred pictures which are not shown when doing superficial research that absorbs piles of valuable consumer insights.


How far is the company concerned with the needs and aspirations of the main stakeholders i.e. consumers? Quite often the decision to launch a new product is more controlled by the company’s competence in the field of technology and innovation. Some companies introduce new products only as a benchmarking reaction against competitors. Rarely does the company complete the full exercise – identify the customer value gaps which the competitors have yet to fill.


On the other side, the company’s focus on product improvement as a feedback from consumers still addresses technical matters. It is true that many companies have implemented customer satisfaction surveys as concrete proof of concern for their customers. Unfortunately, as a feedback system, the design of the questionnaire is rarely based on a profound and fundamental qualitative exploration study. The top management is mainly interested in the final output of the customer satisfaction achievement index or customer loyalty, for the sake of measuring the organization’s Key Performance Index (KPI) achievement. Few have any interest in finding out the essence of the reasons behind the index.


Ethnographic study is a qualitative study which is implemented using a combination of several different exploration research techniques, which help dig out more meaningful stories about consumers in relation to the product. Before designing a quantitative study such as a survey, the company needs a thorough understanding of company stakeholders. This is expected to open the decision maker’s eyes and ears, and of course minds. The survey as a follow up study lends a final touch to confirm the different findings. Relying on a survey alone, unfortunately, will restrict the perspective. The company will be only see a trend with many figures, but without a deeper explanation.

Like a puzzle, the pieces collected in this type of study will represent different dimensions of stakeholders’ behavior. The more pieces we collect, the brighter and clearer the insights will be that radiate from the puzzle. A difference in sharpness can be seen in a puzzle with picture consisting of 100 pieces and one consisting of 1000 pieces.

Ethnographic research is not necessary done by professional research agencies. Internal team-based ethnography with personnel from different divisions will also help the company observe problems from different perspectives. The involvement of an expert will give added value, such as speeding up the process of insights discovery.

Now the decision is in your hands. Will you stick to the conventional method? Or start learning and applying ethnography, a cutting-edge research method. It’s about time you rolled up you sleeves and plunged directly into consumers’ lives. So what are you waiting for? Just do it!

The writer can be reached at www.amaliamaulana.com










8 Comments on "Ethnography: Cutting Edge Research"

  1. Dan Waldron says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  2. adith says:

    kalo butuh bantuan antropolog, saya kenal banyak loh….


  3. Amalia E. Maulana says:

    Thanks Dan.
    Reward for a writer is when he/she found the reader of his/her work. Keep in touch.

  4. Dulu ketika sekolah s2, saya sempat belajar banyak mengenai organizational ethnography dan occupational ethnography.

    Ethnography study tentang Harley Davidson bikers sangatlah menarik. Juga kisah etnografis mengenai the world inside Apple….tentang narasi intim mengenai bagaimana produk-produk Apple dikreasikan.

    IDEO — salah satu biro desain terbaik di dunia — juga sangat rely in ethnography study untuk mendesain produk-produk para kliennya.

  5. Amalia E. Maulana says:

    Menarik baca blognya Mas Yodhia di Blog Strategi+Manajemen. Bener Mas, memang saya juga sudah pernah baca tentang IDEO, Harley Dav dan Inside Apple tersebut.. Full of ethnography deh pokoknya. asiik..

  6. shjeffr says:

    thanks !! very helpful post!

  7. Team Roster says:

    Maybe you could edit the post subject title Ethnography: Cutting Edge Research : Amalia E. Maulana to more catching for your content you create. I loved the the writing still.

  8. Amalia E. Maulana says:

    Thanks for your suggestion, will make time to revisit the article and ask expert for proofread it.