Ethnography: Why it Matters in Market Validation


As an entrepreneur, you always strive to get a clear picture of your customer base and who they really are. But how do you do that?

A powerful way to collect this type of information is by observing, asking, and listening; and a field of study that’s already well-established since the older times called ethnography is primarily about just that. 

Ethnography aims to go beyond the rational approach in classic research and instead, its goal is to capture the rich context of human behavior.

In business, understanding human behavior is key to keeping the business alive. Alive in a sense that it looks to develop ways to attend to their customer’s needs by diving deep into their customer’s real motivations.

That’s what makes a business successfulone that finds ways to innovate and answer to the needs of their market. That being said, let’s look more into what ethnography is and why it’s a key factor to your business success.

What is Ethnography?

Ethnography is a type of research where culture and society play a huge factor. The word ethnography itself is rarely used nowadays. The word is derived from the Greek word ethnos and graphein, which means "to write about people." It’s also referred to as “culture writing”. If we put that into business, ethnography is a study and understanding of your customers.

In both the past and the modern times, an ethnographer seeks to become an accepted member of the group that’s being studied, overcoming the reluctance of some groups to let outsiders in, and then observes the group from the inside. Simply put, ethnography is the systematic study of cultural and social phenomena by being involved in the said group. 

As a business, you’ll want to immerse yourself in various communities to observe their behaviors and motivations up close. 

At the core of every ethnography study is a specific culture and physical location, and the goal is to uncover, understand, and explain the cultural nuances and trends in natural settings.

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What are the Goals of Ethnography?

Ethnography is used by businesses, designers, and by any industry that needs to understand what people want, why they do what they do, and how they behave.

The major goal of ethnography in business is to describe a culture, collect data, and analyze the many social and cultural factors that influence it. You are essentially looking into who your customers are and finding out ways to connect with them.

Ethnography uses the social sciences to describe the origins and development of human society in both traditional and contemporary societies. It is a powerful tool for business development as it helps them to:

Gathering these insights can be used to assess what the industry’s needs are and figure out strategies and tactics to answer these needs.

In today’s time, ethnography has been adopted by businesses especially through the internet. It’s easier to observe online communities, interact with them, and look out for the communication patterns of each of these groups. This is also called netnography.


What is Netnography?

Netnography is a branch of ethnology that’s particularly concerned with the digital world.

Ethnography research relies heavily on observation, which allows researchers to track behavior within its natural setting. On the other hand, netnography seeks to collect data from the tools available on the internet.

Digital ethnography or netnography is a qualitative method so it focuses on the meaning and context rather than numbers or raw data.

For example, you can collect information from a specific social media group with the goal of learning how the members interact with each other, how they listen to the admins, and how they react to certain posts.

The approach involves studying the patterns, themes, and conversations that occur within these online communities. Netnographers usually do this by joining, observing, and interacting with members of that group.

Ethnography is often called a “thick description” of people as it describes communities in great detail. It uses actual quotations from people who are part of a community in a way that describes each individual as descriptive as possible. 

In marketing, ethnographic research is used to gain insight and collect data regarding consumer behavior. This can affect most if not all marketing materials used. The email content, photos used, content topics, and even the slightest change on email subject line can rely on what the ethnographic research says.

The result of your ethnography will help you validate what your branding means to the market. Does the market like you? Do they think the competitors are better than you? Is there a way to salvage your reputation with angry customers?

Knowing these insights produces ideas that can set you up for success. The remainder is just the proper execution. But before execution, surrounding yourself with the right resources from the beginning is the first step.

Types of Ethnography

There are various types of ethnography used in business, but it can be narrowed down into getting two major pieces of information: qualitative and quantitative data.

Ethnography is primarily a qualitative type of research but that doesn’t mean that it ignores quantitative data. Qualitative research is conducted by interviewing and observing people in their natural environment, while quantitative research is conducted through questionnaires and other more structured methods.

In the past, the types of ethnography are:

For today’s businesses, the most common factors involved out of these five types are cultural and social.

Business Ethnography focuses on the consumer habits of their target market. It aims to discover the overall behavior of their market to identify possible changes needed for their product or service.

There are various techniques you can use to collect consumer habits. But what’s important is you establish your role as a business seeking valuable information. This mindset will set you up to what the goal of the research is aboutknowing what your customers think of you.


Ways to Conduct and Ethnographic Research

Before you can conduct your ethnographic research, you need to gain access to your target community. How do you that?


Surveys involve outlining questions and distributing them to the participants. It can be classified as quantitative as most of the responses will be collected and calculated.

One of its goals is to get accurate information that’s easier and faster for the subjects to answer. Surveys are best partnered with yes or no questions, a scale from 1-10 questions, and multiple choices.


An ethnographic interview is a qualitative research method that aims to get authentic data from the subjects of the research. Most of the interviews are casual and spontaneous, so both the participants and researcher can actively engage in a conversation that has a natural flow.

With one-on-one interviews, the researcher can also assess the emotions of their subjects which can reveal far more than what they’re actually saying.

Note that results can be affected and may be biased if there’s a relationship between the researcher and their subject.

In Conclusion

In a nutshell, ethnography is a qualitative type of research that documents a particular culture or group and tries to understand how this culture affects their lives. Then ethnographers observe the day-to-day life of the members of that group and conduct interviews with them.

In modern times, businesses can get a ton of valuable information if they invest in this specific type of research. The insights that were produced through ethnography can be the main push of businesses who are struggling to understand where they are in the market and what they need to do specifically catering to their customers’ needs.

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