Ethnographers vs. Moderators: Know What You Are Buying

The other day I was speaking with someone about ethnography and was informed by the person in question that she too was a “moderator.” She, of course, practiced ethnography, such as it is, and informed me she had been “moderating ethnographies” for years.  Yes, it made my skin crawl. Not because someone was crossing disciplinary boundaries, but because the choice of words told that ethnography was indeed the last thing she practiced, but had no doubt sold her self-defined ethnographic prowess into many a company. And unfortunately, this is precisely what continues to water down and cheapen the methodology and its use in business settings.

Let me state that I am not a moderator, I am an ethnographer and an anthropologist. And while both moderators and ethnographers speak to people, they are hardly one and the same.  On the surface it no doubt seems like I’m splitting hairs, but this isn’t just a simple matter of differing opinions or semantic variation, it is at the heart of how practitioners execute their work and how they practice ethnography.

A moderator is defined as a presenter, or host.  A moderator is a person or organization responsible for running an event.  A moderator is a person given special powers to enforce the rules of a collective event, be it a focus group, a forum, a blog, etc.  Moderation is the process of eliminating or lessening extremes. It is used to ensure normality throughout the medium on which it is being conducted. In other words, moderators assume control and direct. They maintain power and tease out information that is essentially qualitative hypothesis testing. Understand, I have no problem with moderation and moderators, but the practice of moderation is anything but ethnographic.

Ethnography is a qualitative research method aimed to learn and understand cultural phenomena which reflect the knowledge and system of meanings guiding the life of a cultural group.  Data collection methods are meant to capture the social meanings and ordinary activities of people in naturally occurring settings that are commonly referred to as “the field.” The goal is to collect data in such a way that the researcher does not impose any of their own bias on the data. Multiple methods of data collection may be employed to facilitate a relationship that allows for a more personal and in-depth portrait of the informants and their community. These can include participant observation, field notes, interviews, and surveys.  In order to accomplish a neutral observation a great deal of reflexivity on the part of the researcher is required. Reflexivity asks us to explore the ways in which a researcher’s involvement with a particular study influences, acts upon and informs such research.  The goal is to minimize the power structure and allow people, our participants, to inform and guide the researcher according to what matters most to them, be it spoken or unspoken. In other words, we are not moderating, we are learning and exploring.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because when a client chooses to do ethnographic research, they need to know that they are getting what they paid for – people who understand the theoretical models governing cultural behavior and the training to tease out information and opportunities that traditional methods do not yield.  Ethnography’s strength comes from the ability to work fluidly with participants as opposed to moderating a setting or social interaction. The researcher who refers to him or herself as a moderator of ethnography, through his or her choice of words, is indicating how they will do fieldwork, how they will interpret findings and how they subconsciously see their role in the field. And again, while there is nothing wrong with “moderating”, selling it as ethnography or assuming that the word “moderator” is synonymous with “ethnographer” is like saying that because I can do basic money management I can now call myself an accountant. Or because I own a copy of The Lotus Sutra I am an expert in Buddhism. Or because I can change my oil I am a mechanic.  You get the point.  Not only is it a disservice to the discipline, it is a disservice to the client.

Simply put, if you’re going to hire an ethnographer, it isn’t enough to ask what markets they will work in or how big the sample population will be. If you’re going to spend the money, the time and the effort ask the obvious question: “What do you call yourself.” Then get them to articulate not only their methods, but the rationale behind them. It’s your money. Be sure you are paying for what you have commissioned.


It’s Not Just the Products

Shopping habits can be observed in multiple ways: how people react during social interaction, how they present and see themselves, and how they define situations with others. In other words, people need emotional connections to what you sell and how you sell it as much as they need to know about the products in your store. They need to feel a sense of increased social and psychic capital when they enter your store and when they leave it. Apple, after all, sells computers just like everyone else, but they have successfully bridged the gap between customer emotion and product knowledge. Steve Jobs challenged Apple with “changing the world” rather than simply fulfilling a function. It’s hard to deny that Apple has changed the world of how people see computers, tablets and MP3 players, and Apple’s growing market share is a testament to the strategy.

In terms of marketing materials and communication with your customers, creating an emotional connection does not mean using clichés and gimmicky messaging. It means conveying the things your products enable. By the time many customers actually consider locating a retailer, they have spent significant time researching specs, consumer reviews and feature lists. Therefore, it’s important to interact with your customers and ask key questions accordingly – giving them the information they need based on what they already know about the product. Marketing materials that convey how a product or service will fit into their daily lives in a realistic way are far more likely to capture their attention than price listings and technical information.

Keep in mind when creating ads and promotional materials:

  • Incorporate references to how non-tech-savvy people might actually use the phone.
  • Explain benefits in a realistic way.
  • In addition to listing performance and feature information, list at least one direct connection between these things and an activity a consumer might engage in.

Taking to the Field: Client Collaboration

Perhaps naively, many ethnographers assumed that we would work in a vacuum when they learned their trade. We’d go into the field – people’s homes, workplaces, and leisure areas – and then report to clients what we learned. However, we soon realize that some clients take us literally when we state ethnography will bring them into their customers’ homes. They aren’t always satisfied with just overseeing the project or telling us what they want to learn and why. This is a great opportunity for clients to see customers using their products in real situations and a chance to get to know the customers personally. But it presents ethnographers with certain challenges. 

Involvement Risks

Ethnographers tread delicately. Every time we perform fieldwork we need to become instant friends with participants. We need them comfortable enough to behave “normally” while we point a camera at them, and to feel that they can tell us anything – even if they’re just talking about peanut butter. The field is spontaneous and sensitive, and anything can happen. That means making sure we and our clients do all we can to ensure that the field remains as natural as possible.

Clients have varying levels of fieldwork experience. Some are qualitative market researchers with a little in-context interviewing under their belts, and others don’t have much first-hand knowledge of qualitative research or the human sciences. Consequently, clients might interfere with the interview process, misinterpret the data, or overlook important but subtle information. However, ethnographers can take steps to mitigate these concerns.

1. Explore Motives

Understand why clients need to go into the field and what their expectations are of the project. Do they want direct exposure to generate ideas, ease issues of trust/competency/legality, train their in-house ethnographer, or simply be more engaged in the process? For the sake of both the research and the client-ethnographer relationship, articulating these issues is essential.

It’s paramount that clients communicate goals for a smooth operation. On one occasion, a busy client of ours wanted to see his products used in context, so he attended two field visits early in the project. Knowing his reason and planned number of outings, we ensured they’d include use of his products. Everything went well, and his observations were eye-opening. Because he didn’t have time to invest in more fieldwork, we sent him a video document every time someone used his products during the project.

2. Establish Boundaries

Before fieldwork, ethnographers must communicate the research boundaries and client role. Clients should recognize that ethnographers’ expertise consists of more than an ability to build rapport with strangers; their skills are rooted in a keen understanding of social theory and methodological rigor, and entail years of training.

Ethnographers have a process and particular mindset that directs the interview, interaction, and interpretation, so guiding client input before starting a project will help prevent everyone from asking leading questions or biasing conversations. Limits ensure quality work and allow clients to make the most of a field visit.

It also permits them to function within a frame of hierarchical authority, lessening their need to be project leader. In other words, clients understand that the context reduces or removes a layer of authority. It lets them focus on learning and executing predetermined tasks, instead of feeling compelled to handle everything. They can filter information through a training perspective while taking a holistic approach.

3. Define Responsibilities

Providing clients an indispensable role in the projects, such as videotaping an interview, helps them feel more like team members and less like visitors. It also raises comfort levels of everyone involved. Assigning tasks s also a practical necessity: Clients can replace research assistants in the field. Two researchers plus a client can threaten and crowd a participant, who just wants to demonstrate the best way to clean a bathroom countertop.

4. Encourage Reciprocation

It’s important to know clients well and be thoughtful about their flexibility, political realities, and character traits. Unfortunately, there often isn’t enough time to do so in-depth. Clients might arrive a half-hour earl for an afternoon interview and leave that evening, never to go into the field again. In this case, an ethnographer can only outline some expectations and techniques – through phone and e-mail conversations beforehand, and on the spot (frequently while sitting on cushy hotel-lobby chairs).

When clients have more time to invest in the ethnography, there are two parts to building a solid team and guaranteeing productive fieldwork (despite their lack of experience.) Clients must be willing to adapt to new or unfamiliar methodologies – techniques for data gathering and interpretation – regardless of their backgrounds (e.g. design, business strategy, engineering). And ethnographers must appreciate and incorporate clients’ theoretical and practical contributions. Success requires devoting time and energy to discovering the capabilities of all the team members – ethnographer and client alike.

Each team member can learn to apply findings across a range of activities. After all, a key to business achievement is using seemingly disconnected information to build new products, brands, and business models. Learning how best to conduct research and understanding individual roles in the field ultimately helps the client use the gathered information most effectively.


Protection and Collaboration

As ethnography becomes a staple of market research, we just might see marketers and product designers make an exodus to the field – with or without us. Ethnographers need to prepare for the possible outcomes. They should do so by not only preventing research from being disturbed, but also by harnessing clients’ intelligence and know-how – using their involvement as a springboard for more effective and actionable ethnography. In the future, most marketing decisions and product innovations will be based on real-world experiences with ordinary people.

The Great Dumbening (Wait, Is That A Real Word?)

There is a growing contempt for thinking amongst certain quarters in this country and it is as dangerous as any foreign power has ever been.  Contempt for knowledge, real innovation and critical thinking have become a rallying cry for anyone in disagreement with the dogma of the far right.  And while it didn’t begin with the far Right’s outcry about the president’s statement about everyone having the opportunity to go to college, the speech certainly galvanized the anti-intellectual movement.  Now, I’ll be the first to agree that not everyone need go to college. There is value in learning and practicing a trade and it is, admittedly, something that has been devalued in recent years. However there is equal value in education, regardless of what you do for a living. Education doesn’t mean elitism anymore than being skilled at hunting or farming or woodworking means you are an oaf. The world is not as binary as they claim, and I say this as someone who has done both what amounted to trade school as well as graduate school.  Both have been exceedingly valuable. Unfortunately, for the Right it has become an either or declaration of value and a moral litmus test. So much for the people complaining about class warfare – they are as guilty as anyone of fanning any such flames.

America has always had a critical thinking deficit.  It has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. This is particularly perverse and contradictory, since America’s Founders were the most intellectual group that ever founded any nation we know of. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, etc. were all brilliant thinkers, well educated and dedicated to the idea that reason was the best guide to any endeavor. The desire to foster free and critical thinking, both in government and in the society at large, was one of their notable goals.  The Enlightenment was the heritage on which America’s Founders depended.  But anti-intellectualism has become a mainstay of the not-so-far Right in America today.

Anti-intellectualism is hostility towards and mistrust of intellectual pursuits, expressed through antagonism of  science, art, education.  In public discourse, anti-intellectuals usually perceive and publicly present themselves as champions of the common folk proposing that the educated are a social class detached from the everyday concerns of the majority. This has become the new mantra of the Likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, etc. And while it was never a pillar of the Republican Party, it has crept in as a mainstay of the post-Tea Party conservative identity. Hopefully, that will change.  In the meantime, it is a fundamental threat to everything the Right upholds as sacred – defense, personal liberty and economic development.

Opinion has become what serves for reason and now trumps critical thinking in the public discourse. But the fact of the matter is that training and education are more than esoteric pursuits.  Expertise in an area, whether plumbing or biology trumps opinions grounded in vague statements of belief, and the bulk of the arguments being presented in the anti-intellectual movement are just that – vague, unreasoned, unfounded speculation or rehashing of familiar dogma.  Flat Earth theory is somehow seen as valid though everything points to its absurdity. So, while I would be inclined to defer to an engineer about matters of structural integrity or to a carpenter about matters of home building, so to would I defer to a biologist on matters of evolution or an psychologist on matters of cognition.  The point is that while opinions are valid, education does indeed confer special knowledge and expertise that is not so much a matter of opinion as training. There is nothing elitist about it.

Education allows for a wider range of perspectives and creative thinking. That leads to more innovation and growth of the economy, political freedom and civil discourse. Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, began his career as a plumber. It was that work that led to his seminal work on the nature of black holes and the nature of the universe.  It was at the intersection of these two seemingly binary occupations that imagination and reason flourished.  The imagination deficit we currently seem to be fostering in the US is closely tied to our critical thinking deficit. Minds that are perpetually muddled in uncritically accepted ideas and psuedo-facts, incapable of grasping clear-cut truths are hardly prepared to grasp projected possibilities and judge them soundly.  Hardly a positive situation for innovation and economic growth.  Contrary to the arguments being presented on the far Right this is about opportunity, not indoctrination.

But the current anti-intellectualism was never about elitism or a return some mythical past where everything bordered on the utopian. It was about power and fostering division. It is about training people to be blind followers. It is about control. It allows for power to be held in the hands of a few.  The most vocal about the issue use anti-intellectualism to gain popular support by accusing intellectuals of being a socially detached, politically-dangerous class who question the extant social norms, who dissent from established opinion, and who reject nationalism, hence they are unpatriotic and thus subversive of the nation. And there is nothing new in this, nor is it the sole property of the Right. It was used by Mao, Pol Pot and the Nazis.  Unfortunately, the long-term results of the anti-intellectual movement result in devastating consequences for the rights of citizens, the growth of innovation and the development of the economy. None of these seem particularly smart.

Local Marketing, More Than Geography?

There is a belief current amongst marketing professionals that the mass market is starting to break down, and instead of an easy to target homogenous consumer groups in a mass market, the market for many products is dividing into large number of niches, that could make mass market products redundant. Now, I would be disinclined to agree with such a blanket statement (I think it’s flat wrong), but I would be inclined to agree that local marketing and hyperlocal marketing are increasingly taking center stage and will continue to grow in importance in the coming years.  “Local” means a lot in marketing these days, from search rankings and profiles to location-based games and apps.  Hyperlocal further refines this by defining itself as focusing on a very specific area, very close to home (or, your place of business.).  But, what “very close” means is relatives and apps follow us everywhere.  So what is the underlying feature, the truth so to speak, behind localization?  I believe is has less to do with physical proximity than it does with social and cultural proximity.

For example, hyperlocality plays a large role in a homogeneous suburb, perhaps, but within that suburb, and spread across a metro, there will be subgroups that will travel fairly large distances to shop at a store, attend a church, etc. es, they are affinity groups, but with physical location becoming less a factor than social location, and with the advent of being constantly dialed into the network, local and hyperlocal marketing means rethinking demographic data and how we visualize the populations we are targeting.

The important feature is that if people feel a connection to the store, they are more likely to pay attention to its marketing materials.  This is part of a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the setting, and generally includes the people who occupy the place. The point is that the stronger the bond at the local level, the more likely the customer is to buy.

When you’re trying to promote a business, regardless of size and reach, every little thing that you do needs to be thought out before hand. You are more than a business, you are part of the community and social fabric. Understanding the complexities of the communities you serve is central to establishing long-term relationships and sales.

Screaming in Retail

Human beings act toward the things they buy on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters. Shopping, then, can be viewed through the lens of how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or “identity”), and how they define situations with others.  In other words, people need emotional connections as much as they need to know about the products you sell.  They may never admit it openly, but they do. Apple, after all, sells computers just like everyone else, but they’ve bridged the gap.

In terms of marketing materials and communication with your customers, this doesn’t mean using clichés and gimmicky messaging. It means conveying the things your products facilitate. By the time most customers actually consider making the move to finding a retailer, they have spent significant time researching specs, consumer reviews and feature lists – they don’t need more of that information from the retailer. Or, regardless of what your interests may be personally and professionally, they may not have cared enough to research a thing.  Consequently, marketing materials that convey how a brand will fit into their daily lives in a realistic way is far more likely to capture their attention than price listings and a list of technical information.

  • Incorporate references to how people might actually use the product in unexpected ways.
  • Don’t explain benefits in a vacuum, provide context and tie the product to other facets of their lives (. Subaru’s ads focusing on what a couple does on vacation rather than the car itself).
  • In addition to listing performance and feature information, list at least one direct connection between these things and an activity a consumer might be engaged in.
  • Limit the amount of text you plan to use and dedicate that text a conveying a story.
  • Talk about what the product is really for (e.g. the original iPod ads showed people dancing and enjoying life, they didn’t talk about the product directly).



Good Retail Displays Are More Than The Materials

In Las Vegas, what you see is not necessarily what you get.  Whether it’s the gambler, the convention goer or the restaurant in the casino there is often a hidden agenda or a disguise. Las Vegas is a playground and a stage, a liminal space writ large.

The events Global Shop is no exception. Across the myriad vendor displays and supplier innovations, everything from virtual greeters to flashing window signs were being portrayed as the next big thing in shopper marketing. But much of what can be experienced was nothing more than an elaborate mirage. Great care was taken by manufacturers of displays for retailers to explain how their pegboard would increase sales and stop the shopper in his or her tracks. The newest LED decal would of course change the way people experience the retailer’s store front. The problem is that while all of the solutions and widgets being touted as the next great think were marvelous in terms of engineering and technological innovation, they had very little to do with the customer experience.

However, there were some that were more than technological and manufacturing marvels. These displays and designs tapped into the simple insight that shopping is about more than getting “stuff.” They played to the notion that if you can get the shopper to engage, whether it be to stop and explore the space or to actually touch products, then you have a better chance of converting them into buyers. These displays created a sense of belonging, or interest, of fun. They spoke to the idea that a retail location is more than a series of objects, it is a destination, a place that infuses goods with the mystery and pleasure of exploration. They provide shoppers with a sense of Place.

The universal truth, though, is this: great ideas win.  The company that was making elaborate displays from shredded, recycled paper? Brilliant – eye-catching, beautiful, enticing. The Mexican furniture and fixture company that was using synthetic materials to make more durable display pieces reminiscent of Rococo art? Awesome – colorful, inviting, whimsical. All great ideas that used innovative techniques to create something special, and all based on really solid thinking.