Episode 107 // Jun 11, 2021

Podcast — The art and science of ethnography

Featuring Christian Barnett, Senior Vice President, Strategy


What is ethnography, and why is it valuable? 

  • Surveys and focus groups can result in a “contaminated” interpretation of the truth in which the context of the survey or focus group influences participants’ responses.  
  • One of the best ways to learn about your audiences is to observe their words, emotions, and actions in the context of their daily lives – this is called ethnography.  
  • Living and following your audience’s lifestyle offers a more accurate picture of what they’re thinking and doing, as it reveals unconscious actions and interpretations. 
  • For example, if you are evaluating product placement in grocery stores, observing someone shop in the context of their daily lives – every item they look at, reach for, or put back – may reveal more than the participant is aware of.  

When to use, when not to use 

  • Ethnography should be performed at the onset of a project because it allows us to understand human motivations and behavior that can then guide analytics and strategy.  
  • Ethnographic research offers rich opportunities for health system marketers to understand their patient populations because so much of health happens every day.  
  • For instance, a chronic condition can affect a patient’s everyday life – what they can and can’t do and the decisions they make. Understanding these lifestyle challenges allows health system marketers to cater to them.  
  • Ethnography is not a good approach for tactical tasks such as A/B testing creative or messaging because it can overcomplicate more minor decisions, making them more cumbersome.  

If you like people watching, you’re halfway there 

  • Don’t talk too much, and let the action unfold in front of you. Try to make your footprint in the research as minimal as possible.  
  • Typically, ethnographic research means going into someone’s house, which is very personal. This is a privilege, so marketers need to do everything they can to make subjects feel comfortable. 
  • Interviewing populations without conditions can be as powerful as interviewing those with conditions because it offers a more holistic community perspective. 
  • For example, ReviveHealth and Community Health Innovations (CHI) partnered to perform ethnographic research on diabetes in Monterey County, CA. We spoke to 10 families around the county with similar education levels without screening for diabetes. 
  • Interviewing independent of diagnosis revealed patients suffering from diabetes without a diagnosis. It also gave us an understanding of the community dynamics diabetics live in.  


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