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Making the Most of an Ethnography Study

advertising research / behavioral research / ethnography / blog / youth

"Who is your typical rural teen male?" As market researchers, we often field these types of questions from clients working on a campaign. We need to be able to provide a portrait of the target market so that the strategy and creative teams can create a message and execution that resonates with the intended audience. Otherwise, how would any ad prompt people to buy that latest Apple product or eat more fruits and vegetables? One recent question we were tasked with was ‘who is your typical rural teen male?’ which was part of an overall effort focusing on rural teen males for a public health campaign.

So, who is your typical rural teen male? I have a confession: I have no idea about rural teen boys—I am female, suburban born and raised and urban dwelling for the past 8 years. Clearly, this target market is a bit foreign to me. However, like with rural teen males, many times we don’t have a clear picture of the target market. In these cases, qualitative research--particularly ethnography—is a valuable research method to uncover hidden motivators, attitudes, and behaviors that advertisers can tap into to create a message that resonates and causes an outcome—whether that is a purchase decision or a behavior change. Hi Megan With quantitative data we can get the basic picture—what TV shows they watch, what they’re doing online, etc.—but isn’t every teenage boy in America playing video games and watching YouTube? That information isn’t extremely helpful; we need to dive deeper. What makes rural teen boys different? Are they even different? What makes them tick? What are their thoughts? What are they doing with their friends? You get the idea. For these questions, the available syndicated data just doesn’t cut it and good luck fielding a survey to the target market asking them to write down everything they think about. (Go ahead, I dare you).

Tips and Tricks

Along the way we have picked up some tips and tricks to ensure a successful data collection and application of findings using ethnographic research.

First and foremost, the recruit is essential. This may seem like a given, but who you speak with determines your findings, so make sure you have a clear target in mind and that you have a corresponding screener process that includes or excludes participants as accurately as possible based on your target criteria. This can be accomplished by asking a simple probe such as “What is your favorite food?” during the screening process and gauging responsiveness and the participants likelihood and ability to carry on a conversation. The last thing you want is a participant who answers in one or two word sentences for a two-hour session; instead you want participants who are comfortable providing detail to get the information you seek.

Second, ethnographies are as much about observing as they are listening. Make sure to soak it in—you are there to learn as much as you can about your target. Drive around the area, see what stores and restaurants are around, look at the schools or businesses and take pictures. Take advantage of additional observational fieldwork—attend the local football game, walk around the mall—anywhere you can observe the target market naturally interacting with their peers, families, and surroundings. All of this can provide context to participants’ responses you might otherwise not have.

Lastly, remember that ethnographies are still qualitative and findings should be interpreted with caution. It is easy to get excited by particular responses, but keep in mind that it is the opinion of one or two people out of a much larger population. For this reason, we recommend validating with broader reaching data collection methods, such as surveys, when possible and also taking advantage of available literature and research. We conducted an extensive literature review of available research on teens, rural teens, and the health behavior we are tackling to form hypotheses and help guide the discussion of the interview sessions.

These steps are not intended to discount the findings from the qualitative research. Instead, they are to provide support to your key takeaways. It is helpful to identify qualitative themes when developing your key takeaways that underscore the thoughts of multiple participants. For example, when examining the attitudes surrounding a specific health behavior with our rural teen male participants, we identified two unique environments that appeared to encourage this behavior—one being sports teams and the other a high prevalence of the behavior among family and friends (i.e., something they grew up with). However, at the root of these two different circumstances was the sense of belonging--whether among one’s teammates or the influential people in one’s life, which unified all of the participants’ responses.

And, in case you were wondering, rural teen males do play video games and watch YouTube. But, we also learned that these “small town” teens place a high value on friends, family, and community. Although they may complain that they might have to drive 30 minutes to reach the closest fast food joint, that drama spreads quickly in their community, and that there is not much new or different to do around there, they would not trade their small town life. Small town life meant hard, honest work and a sense of community they feel you may not find the city, where people would be too rushed and busy to slow down and help you out.

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