How valuable is research? Chances are, you probably answered “very valuable.” However, traditional market research has its limits, and as consumer expectations increase, those limits are becoming more apparent.

To get better insights on our audience, we turn to a technique rarely found in marketing: ethnography.

Ethnography is the study of individual peoples and cultures and their customs. In practice, ethnographers will conduct observations, in-depth interviews, participate in the subjects’ activities, take pictures, record videos, and other activities to collect open-ended data. This data is then systematically reviewed, organized, structured, and analyzed. From this, the ethnographer gains insight into the subjects’ lived experiences and their beliefs and values.

The drawback of big data

This approach is the opposite of most current marketing research. Marketing research today focuses a lot of attention on big data analytics and with good reason. Big data has given us a level of understanding of consumer behavior like never before. Additionally, data from Facebook, Google, (even Bing) allow us to segment our target audience and make specific marketing campaigns.

Despite all the capabilities, there’s a catch. There’s often an overwhelming amount of data, meaning you’d have to sift through a lot of junk before you found something useful. Also, the information is imperfect. Sure, you might be able to know what your patients are doing, but it’s likely you won’t be able to find out why.

The culprit is the data itself. Big data comes in the form of structured data. Even before any data is collected, marketers first have to determine what data is meaningful. Because the audience doesn’t get to define that, structured data can often miss out on things that a marketer doesn’t understand to be important.

When this happens, it easily leads to blind spots in the marketing campaign. There’s a greater risk of missing the mark completely and creating something that doesn’t resonate with the real motivators for patient behavior.

Look for the “why”

To find out why, marketers have to collect a completely different type of data, unstructured data. Unstructured data takes the form of stories, words, pictures, and artifacts that individuals and groups share. Collecting unstructured data often requires some interactions with participants, rather than simply running through a database.

Unstructured data is more loosely defined than structured data, but collecting it is not arbitrary. This is where ethnography comes in. The goal of ethnography is not to learn about marketing outcomes or even how an individual interacts with your brand. Instead, ethnography paints a clear picture of people’s lives. Normally, ethnography is associated with academia, in anthropology or sociology. However, there’s a growing movement to using ethnography in business and innovation these days.

Large technology firms like Intel have ethnography research departments to power their product development. Likewise, consumer products and several global healthcare companies such as Novo Nordisk and Pfizer have done the same. Design-focused firms have been using ethnography to gather information that fuel their creativity.

All these industries learned that using ethnography to complement big data analytics provides both a wider and a deeper understanding of the people involved. Being able to answer why improved the organization’s ability to meet the consumer’s need and make a financial impact.

Wield both powers

Capture insights through ethnography to supplement your big data marketing research. This insight is especially important in healthcare, as the experience of healthcare is one that is more emotional and more personal than probably any other experience.

Using both ethnography and data analytics allows us to answer both “what’s the matter with you” and “what matters to you.” And besides, no marketer got fired for understanding their audience too well.

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