Category Archives: ethnography

The Future of a Global, Mobile Internet: Context Is Everything to Emerging Communications and Tech Brands

I have been receiving emails for a few weeks now from asking me to look at their infographics for potential sharing on my blog. In this case, the relentless communication has paid off.

I thought this particular graphic, rife with statistics (some dated, and some perhaps questionable, but still thought-provoking) was interesting. I have a friend who is currently working in the telecommunication’s field, doing ethnographic projects exploring emerging markets in Latin America and Africa.

I think it will be interesting to dig deep into the context of interpersonal communication and the role of the internet / mobile internet in socialization, education, business and other aspects of life. The numbers promise the potential of some great deep culture / surface culture stories that could lead to the development of some very meaningful brands if those companies make a point (like the one my friend is working for) to listen.

That success will come from empathy for context.  And empathy starts, however, with an awareness of cultural relativism: the idea that one’s assumptions about behavior and cultural norms based on one’s  own cultural experience are not necessarily true in other cultures.  I think the numbers only tell one part of the story:  the opportunity.  Many corporations make the mistake of seeing a number and  translating it into dollar figures as an opportunity for business growth but not going deep enough into the human side of the opportunity.    I’m excited that my friend is working for a company that makes a point to examine that opportunity.  In this industry, especially – the impact of human understanding can be enormous: not just from a business perspective for his employer, but to the degree to which that company can deliver products and services that truly enhance the lives of their customers.

An interesting time we live in.  So, let t he numbers inspire some thought.  I’m interested in what some of my readers in the regions mentioned here feel are points of context that telecommunications providers should consider in developing their products and services.



Culture Trumps Strategy

I was recently interviewed by a gentleman named Francois Gossieaux, co-author of The Hyper-Social Organization and co-founder of C Suite 2.0 

The topic was the role the study of culture plays (or should play) in the business of brand strategy.

Here is a “taste” of the article, but for more, including full text and a link to the full podcast interview, click HERE

My first episode of the Culture Trumps Strategy show with Jamie Gordon, the VP of Anthropology at Northstar, was a great one. Jamie always thought of herself as a participant observer in her own life, which led her to become an anthropologist. She learned the ropes as a consumer anthropologist by working for market research and brand strategy firms.

Jamie uses a framework called the study of context to understand and predict consumer behavior in the marketplace. The study of context consists of understanding what she calls the three C’s, which are the three layers of context that are relevant:

  • Client/Category Context – Understanding what happens to them as an organization and within the product category.
  • Cultural Context – The large macro cultural trends that are going on in the world and that might affect the space being researched. This is also where they also look deep cultural aspects vs. trendy things that might affect the buying behavior.
  • Consumer Context – What influences them in their world, and how do they interact with others in their inner circle.The idea is to find the sweet spot of where those three C’s overlap. This method also dispels the more traditional, but increasingly unrealistic, model where you have companies on the one side that create things and put them out in the marketplace with a target consumer in mind, and the consumer on the other side waiting for the company to produce something. While this model may have existed at some point, it does not lend itself to innovation and evolution.

Companies now need to understand that their customers are human first before they are people who buy and consume things. And as humans we are influenced and constrained by what is going on around us – our cultures. It is that culture which will determine what we buy and how we consume things. And the producers are humans first as well, and while they are in the business of creating trends, they are also consumers. So these days products are the result of a cyclical dialog among humans – both from the consumer side and from the producer side. It is this rich dialog that allows for innovation to happen.

A Perspective On The Context Of Millennial Brand Engagement From the AMA

I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel hosted by my company, Northstar Research Partners, for a discussion on Millennials at a meeting of the Toronto chapter of the AMA.
Below is a clip from that event where I am responding to a conversation about Millennials as consumers and the importance of brands having a dialogue.  It was such an interesting conversation and I was delighted to share the stage with Nicole Galluci from Boom Marketing and Greg Ambrose from Coca Cola Canada.

An Anthropologist In Context

I am an anthropologist.

I am a participant observer of this culture we call humankind.

I collect context and derive its meaning.

I attempt to communicate that meaning with empathy.

I do this to contribute to the advancement of human understanding.

I do this to earn a living.

I do this as a passion.

Doing this enhances and advances my other passions.

As with any human my context defines me.

I am an anthropologist.

Progressive Sample Selection (PSS): A Methodology for Optimizing Qualitative Insights

Identifying challenges for ethnographic and qualitative approaches

At Northstar research partners, we are committed to the relentless pursuit of progress in the way we approach unearthing Insights that Inspire. With regard to human and cultural insights generation, approaches and methodologies are typically ethnographic in nature. These projects are typically rooted in an anthropological ethos that seeks to explore the rich, cultural context that shapes and influences consumer behavior. They also look at sociological and psychological factors that have an impact on consumerism.

With such a robust and potentially infinite set of variables, sometimes a major challenge is in discerning how to approach data collection so you can both define what constitutes data as well as how to generate it. Another key issue is also related to identifying patterns in the data.

In the majority of ethnographic projects, although a good amount of time might be spent observing context and interacting with participants, often pattern identification is a more intuitive exercise, as participant samples are typically smaller and it’s difficult to quantify context unless significant rigor exits around data classification and data entry / analysis.

And if we look at purely qualitative projects, which typically utilize a more question-response based approach to collecting and contextualizing data, in absence of spending more time with research participants, much richness can be left unearthed under the surface.

And this is not to say that Insights aren’t meaningful if they don’t have large sample sizes and statistical significance. Nor is it to say that there isn’t significant value in understanding patterns from the lowest hanging fruit on the surface.

But, in the space of consumer research, one can observe a fair amount of anxiety on the client side in determining the best type of research for guiding and backing up strategic decisions. Often budgets are stretched and the myth of economies of scale leads to use of a qualitative or quantitative methodologies in a “silo”. Also, while human and cultural insights are absolutely critical for driving business growth that will be sustainable over time, much of the time, the C Suite decision makers need to feel that the research results are driven not just by gut instinct and keen interpretation of surface patterns, but by analytical rigor as well. It is an easy but often-erroneous presumption to make that qualitative analysis is not “rigorous”

Introducing PSS: Progressive Sample Selection
Progressive Sample Selection is a Northstar process that enables us to efficiently select the “best” respondents through a multi-stage qualitative exploration

This qualitative approach begins with tasks assigned to a large sample of candidates.

These tasks completed by this larger pool of candidates produce a broad range of data outputs from which we identify patterns and themes. Next, we query those candidates we deem the best equipped to provide further depth and insight into these identifies phenomena.

While qualitative research typically seeks to uncover in-depth commentary from a specified sample and that is where it ends, Progressive Sample Selection achieves depth and fine-tunes focus throughout the process by both deepening the conversation, but also by progressively selecting those candidates best able to shed light on emerging findings and issues as they arise in the overall investigation.

How does PSS optimize qualitative and ethnographic research?

Progressive Sample selection serves a couple several “masters”.

First, It elevates qualitative research to a broader, ethnographic purview by allowing-in data that is ethnographic in nature, generated by participants.

Second, in the space of qualitative and ethnographic research, it also elevates the quality of the research participant sample in the more in-depth sample…by seeding thoughtfulness / preparation in participants, alleviating peer-generated bias that may happen in a focus group setting by more outspoken participants. It also allows for more in depth screening on creativity and articulateness so the right respondents can be selected for either qualitative or further in-context ethnographic deep dives.

Third, it supports efficient rigor in collection and analysis of qualitative and ethnographic data: providing a structure for data collection and analysis through coding of pre-task responses and outlining of specific data collection-points against each strategic research objective. The rationale: in order to properly scope out a PSS project, you must first identify which data source each specific objective will be covered by and how (pre-task, focus group discussion capture, ethnographic photo capture, etc.)…Allowing for checkpoints for coding data throughout the qualitative process. Also, by letting your research participants be informants from the outset, they are doing the bulk of the initial data generation in the pre-task assignment, which is (by design) the most robust data set. It also, again, allows the research team leader extra exposure to qualifying characteristics of the respondents in order to select the best participants for subsequent stages.

Finally, if the initial sample is large enough, some identified patterns can even be quantified. I like to call this “quantilative” research. With an initial sample of 100 to 200 respondents, one can identify legitimately quantifiable patterns from the pre-tasks, depending on the sample distribution.

A fictional example of PSS in practice

Lets say ACME widgets wants to identify the value and purchase drivers of their long-standing line of wonder-widgets among a couple of consumer segments (from an existing segmentation): one that is a sizeable and loyal customer base and one that is a psychographic fit but somehow not adopting the franchise in the volume ACME hypothesizes they ought to be. The objective of the project is to prioritize product line enhancements, changes and price-tiers that will exceed the expectations of their loyal consumers and get them to buy higher-priced wonder-widgets, as well as to seed relevance and encourage purchase consideration among the prospect group.

The PSS sample might start with 30 participants in each target segment group, in each of 3 priority ACME markets. Each of those 180 participants will be given a week to complete an ethnographic homework assignment that might involve a photo journal of their widget use, a widget-brand collage with accompanying narrative to explain the collage content, etc. From there, the research team would enter data and do an initial analysis to identify patterns, then find a selection of participants who represent those patterns most accurately and / or are the most articulate, thoughtful or diligent in completing their assignment…giving them an elevated right to a point of view on the topic.

The participants identified as “optimal” would then be invited to participate in a focus group discussion…perhaps two groups of 8 participants for each target in each market: just over half of the initial sample. An additional 4 participants (mutually exclusive from the focus group sample) who seem like they would thrive in a more personal deep-dive setting might also be selected to conduct ethnographic immersions in the days following the groups to dig in on identified patterns and bring some more context to the initial findings…perhaps adding a deeper level of findings and insights in the process.

The insights that results from the exploration for ACME widgets would identify both a breadth and depth of insights that can identify meaningful similarities and differences in wonder-widget value drivers and purchase consideration factors. It will not only identify the patterns, but also unearth the meaning behind those patterns that in turn lead to actionable product implications…with brand implications likely to surface as well.

The process can minimally add the project timeline (perhaps a few weeks to a month) but also serves to add significant incremental value to the results and implications.

Want to know more?  Would you like .pdf copy of the “official” whitepaper? Send me an email:

Demystifying Ethnography

From Fuzzy To Focus
As a part of the practice of applying a Consumer Anthropology framework to strategic research, we use ethnographic approaches; those focused on gathering facts generated by social mores and behaviors. The goal is to explore the culture that surrounds and shapes consumer lifestyles and their relationships with brands and products.
Often, in discussions with clients, or even amongst ourselves as strategic research practitioners, ethnography is used as a term or title to efer to a stand-alone research approach that involves in-home interviews, observation of consumers while they are involved in a specific activity, or some other narrow definition of a particular research tool.
This is not unusual. Even seasoned researchers who sell ethnography to their clients sometimes assume that engaging in ethnographic research means using the traditional anthropological approach of participant observation. However, in Consumer Anthropology, participant observation is merely one method for uncovering ethnographic insights. Ethnography in this case (and even more broadly in modern academic research practices) is actually a collection of methodologies that allow us to understand consumer context.
There are a number of ways to collect ethnographic data, with some examples including:
• Response-based group discussions (among strangers, friends or peer groups): this type of data collection is best used to gain input on new topics and in order to develop hypotheses

• Response-based one on one discussions: to get at deeper look at attitudes, values, motivations and behaviors and identify patterns of reactions and actions

• Ethnographic immersion: participant observation, in-situ, and either one on one or among a family or subculture group lasting anywhere from several hours to several days.

• Narrative Creation: asking consumers to write stories will provide context and language that describe how they relate to a brand, product or category. The trick here is to use this tool with the right target consumers: for obvious reasons, creative types often are better at constructing narratives.

• Ethnographic photos, video diaries or journals: consumer generated photography or videography of their lives that often include stories or narrative will add further texture and insight.

• Metaphor elicitation: having participants create collages of words, pictures and other imagery around a specific topic help participants to think more critically and abstractly. Usually assigned as homework, collages are an interesting way to identify cultural patterns.

It is also important to note that when it comes to sources of ethnographic data collection, we are only limited by our vision! That means that as the world changes and we evolve as researchers, the possibilities are limitless. If it can be observed, it counts as data. So we should always feel free to make customization a top-of-mind option for ethnographic research methodologies.

Why Do We Care?
And, why would we want to study consumer context? What is the value of conducting research that goes outside the sphere of asking consumers for their opinions or to report their attitudes, values and behaviors?
Ethnographic methodologies allow us to collect the context that helps us give meaning to consumer behavior, framing it in the influence of environmental and social factors. The greater the understanding of context and the stronger the collaboration between consumers and marketers (AKA “clients”) the more likely an increasing return on investment (ROI) will result.
This is the central philosophy of Consumer Anthropology and the reason why ethnographic methods are used as part of the “Consumer Context” sphere of the “3 C’s”(see previous blog on this topic).
At the core of the reasons to utilize ethnographic approaches is the desire to compensate for the limitations faced when using siloed approaches to gather insights, such as exclusive use of custom quantitative or qualitative studies. It is important for us to know not only what different types of research techniques can do, but also what they fail to do.
First, traditional quantitative and qualitative studies are very useful for helping develop models that seek to predict consumer behavior and for uncovering attitudes that consumers hold toward brands or products.
There is no opportunity, however, to identify patterns and differentiate between what consumers say and what they actually do, nor is there an ability to understand the impetus for those actions and the cultural influences explaining why certain patterns exist.
And, while qualitative and quantitative methodologies can create opportunities and lines of questioning that go deep, what these approaches often miss is the cultural context for interpreting the results. We don’t want to look at research in a vacuum. We want it tied to real world events, trends, and experiences.
Ethnography is a method of discovery that seeks to compensate for these limitations inherent in traditional qualitative and quantitative research.
Specifically, if in a more strategic focused research initiative (such as defining / segmenting consumer targets, assessing brand health or identifying innovation opportunities) research relies exclusively on what consumers say in a response-based setting, such as focus groups or surveys for insights, they risk missing bigger pieces of the puzzle and leaving holes in the efficacy of their final solution.
In focusing on the lived experience of research participants among other cultural factors, we gain insight into patterns of behavior that allow us as ethnographers to recognize unspoken assumptions, making the invisible visible to both the participants themselves as well as our clients!
Thus, the specifics of a research methodology or set of tools used in a strategic research approach, whether it involves primary or secondary data, matter less than its application. In other words, it is the entirety of the research approaches used that make a project ethnographic; the way they combine to provide understanding and meaning of sociocultural practices is ultimately what is important.
Getting To The Point
Ethnography is not a stand-alone offering that sits in a set of mutually exclusive products we offer to help develop strategic research solutions for our clients. Nor is a research methodology inherently ethnographic just because we are taking the experience off the survey page our out of the focus group facility.
Ethnography is, however, a set of approaches we can use to bring depth and breadth to the solutions we deliver to clients. Strategic research results that have a foundation in the understanding of human and cultural context elevate findings to insights, and elevate the return on investment clients can expect from application of those insights, both in the near and long term.
Ethnography is also a way to truly engage clients as partners in strategic research and “unlock insights that inspire!”

For more information about Northstar Research Partners and / or  our Consumer Anthropology practice area, please feel free to reach out to me directly:

Client Ethnography Briefing, Part II

In my last blog, I spoke about the importance of both engaging clients in ethnographic fieldwork as well as the value of a proper brief before entering the field as a member of the team.  I also shared the first half of the Client Ethnography Briefing document we at Northstar share with our clients to prepare them for participating in fieldwork.  The first half talks about the benefits of an ethnographic approach and what to expect from the experience by way of process and analysis.

Below is part two of that same document, whereby we detail out the responsibilities team members have for data capture and generation.  If you would like more information about the Northstar Approach to ethnographic fieldwork or would like a copy of the complete document, please feel free to reach out to me directly:



As Consumer Anthropologists we are socio-cultural investigators.  We spend time in places with people in order to pick up on clues that contribute to our understanding of those people and those places.  We interview, observe, listen, and participate across a period of time, and we do all of this while documenting our process along the way through video capture, note-taking and digital photography.  It is the role of any participant in the fieldwork to take on an ethnographer’s responsibilities.  This ultimately allows for a more enriching experience for the observer/participant, and generates higher quality and more meaningful data. 

Data Capture

  •  Observing & Participating – we are committed to going out and getting close to the activities and every day experiences of other people.  Ethnography enables us to directly experience for ourselves both the ordinary routines and conditions under which people live their lives and how they purchase and use products.  It involves being with other people to see how they respond to events and questions and experiencing for oneself these events.  Observing and engaging in these activities leads to the acquisition of empathy for other people’s ways of acting and feeling.
  • Listening – listening builds trust which will bring a level of comfort, honesty and openness to the process, which are all keys to accurate data collection.  We want and need them to be able to describe their lifestyle, behavior, thoughts, feelings, values, and attitudes in as much detail as they possibly can.  We do this most effectively through patient and active listening.
  •  Note-taking – we always carry a field journal or note pad and we ask that client participants do the same.  We ask that all ethnography team participants jot down observations of the actions and attitudes of our participants, as well as their own thoughts, questions, and reflections during their “lived experience” in the field.  These notes should be written contemporaneously with the events depicted, and do not have to be consistent in voice or purpose.  These notes will lend immediate value to the initial stages of our analysis.
  • Videography & still photography – we always bring both a video and still camera with us into the field to document our experience.  We ask clients to bring a camera and  snap photographs during their “lived experience” in the field.  We, of course, will have a digital camera as well and will be snapping our own photos as well as shooting video.  While we are certainly interested in documenting the behaviors of our participants, we are also very interested in capturing the context – people, items, & physical environment – that surrounds them.  Some examples include prized possessions,  media, tools, dress, favorite foods, pets, vehicles, artwork etc.

Data Analysis


  •  Post-Interview Debrief: Immediately following each interview we have a brief discussion with client participants to compare notes, retell anecdotes, share discoveries and discuss our top-of-mind impressions from the experience.  Topics for discussion might include:
  • Major themes recognized that relate to the guiding question
    Sensory impressions: sights, sounds, textures, smells, and tastes
    Specific words, phrases, summaries of conversations, and insider language
  • Personal responses to/feelings about what we observed – “What was it like for you to be doing this research?”  “In what ways did you connect with informants, and in what ways didn’t you?”  While this is extremely important information, we will be especially careful to separate it from the core analysis.
  • Questions for future investigation
  • Patterned similarities and differences as compared to other interviews we’ve completed

Aside from a “we look forward to having you in field with us” note, that’s the brief, at length. 😉

I look forward to your comments on shared experiences or other best practices.