Hire Me: “Selling” Good Ethnography

The term “ethnography” has been used fairly loosely and expectations about the work and final outcomes vary as much as the people calling themselves ethnographers. Businesses have embraced ethnography with mixed reactions and mixed results.  Ethnography has become as much a $10 word for those who feel at ease interviewing people in a “natural” setting as it has a legitimate, systematic meaning of learning.  As I’ve said before, trained ethnographers do more than talk with people – they rely on a set of analytical tools that take experience and specialized training.

Unfortunately, we rarely sell this or explain why it matters to the people who hire us. The fact of the matter is that we rarely address business people by saying “hire me because…” in a straight forward way.  I’ll be the first to say I don’t believe in the idea of simply laying out a capabilities deck and pushing the hard sell. Question-based selling is a much better bet because it is, I contend, focused on establishing a partnership with the client and helping solve their problems (rather than defining self-serving opportunities).  However, I also contend that it is beneficial to practitioners and buyers alike to understand what it is we do and to differentiate how we, meaning anyone selling ethnography, will make them money, increase brand equity, etc. Before a client decides to use an ethnographic approach to answer a research question, it is imperative to know what to expect from a provider.  And that falls to us to explain it. 

What Is It We Do?

Ethnography provides a real-world way of looking at a problem or opportunity, applying social and cultural understanding to the topic.  What this means is that ethnography provides a wide range of answers that, if analyzed properly, go well beyond the tactical, the sensational, and the superficial. What that means to a business, and something we should be more bold about stating, is defining new opportunities for revenue. Far to often we leave the message at the theoretical or deliverable levels without explaining how the work will be translated into actions.  We fail to explain why good methodology and good analysis is important. Providing real-world examples of how our work has been used, vivid accounts with readily defined outcomes, is important but so is articulating how we got there is perhaps more so.  This isn’t to say we bore clients with jargon and detailed explanations of every step of the analysis process, but it is to say we tell them the underlying framework and thinking processes that allowed us to go from findings to insights and recommendation to results that impacted the bottom line.  And that brings us to the second point.

A true ethnography includes a rigorous process of data collection and analysis using the scientific method.  This insures that findings are based on a careful examination of the data, not opinions or sensationalism. For anyone who prides themselves on the quality of their work, analyzing  ethnographic data is not simply a matter of compiling anecdotal information. Analysis is systematic and relies on set of conceptual and theoretical tools. Being able to articulate these tools should be an central element of how we sell our services.  An ethnographer should be able to talk about their analytical process and provide details about how they go about making sense of the data they collect.  Should we bore the client with all the details? Probably not. But we should be able to succinctly explain the rationale behind how we gather and make sense of data. Again, this comes back to a simple point – it differentiates the practitioner and legitimizes the work. It articulates the quality of work and therefore the quality of the insights.

Listening, Not Preaching

Finally, and perhaps the most obvious, is to focus on the client’s needs.  Why are we in the room?  Taking the time to differentiate ourselves along lines of methodology, analysis and results is important but means nothing if what we are doing is simply talking about ourselves.  Every time we talk with an existing or potential client we are conducting a mini-ethnography of sorts.  Rather than selling our services we need to uncover what the client wants and needs – not just what they tell us they want and need, but what the subtext tells us. Selling anything has become increasingly difficult over the last decade.
Prospects have less time but decision makers are receiving more sales calls than ever before. Buyers are often better educated about various competing methodologies than ever before. Clients don’t need information from us as much as they need vendors to help them define their problems and uncover solutions.

A good ethnographer will work with stakeholders to plan a research project that is designed around your business objective. This includes having a willingness to challenge clients.  This isn’t about being confrontational, it’s about making sure the client gets the best research plan and insights possible. Being willing to do what is right rather than what is expedient is a significant selling point that we often overlook.  It differentiates the practitioner and legitimizes the work. It articulates the quality of work and therefore the quality of the insights. Honesty ultimately has its advantages, not necessarily today but over the long run. The more we can articulate our desire for a collaborative partnership rather than just a check, the better we position ourselves to say “hire me.”





Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. I can’t help reading almost all your blog posts. Thank your for great thoughts and the ability to pinpoint important topics. It is surprising how often clients have poorly defined targets, feel lost and start from the beginning with research over and over again instead of putting together the results and start to find patterns and solutions. They also need help with implementation. I definitely agree that is our responsibility as researchers to help them by asking more questions and to be more curious. At the end of the day, it is what we are supposed to be passionate about 🙂

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