We can guess a lot about how consumers' lives are changing through gut feeling and observation. After all, at some level we are those consumers, too. We see how our lives are changing as well. But seeing that something has changed seldom reveals the insights you need to frame a marketing campaign.
A recent article in MIT's Technology Review, "Netnography: The Marketer's Secret Ingredient," by Robert V. Kozinets, looks at how Camden, N.J.-based soup company Campbell's employed ethnographers to study how consumers are swapping recipes online. Deciding what to cook for dinner is a process that Campbell's used to be intimately involved in, but new social patterns have changed the voice of the kitchen.
Ethnography is the anthropological study of group behavior, with a focus on studying the interactions of a specific population until all of its social relationships, responsibilities and institutions have been mapped, categorized and described in detail. It's comprehensive and exhaustive. As market research, it's extreme.
Many methods of market research come from the disciplines of anthropology and sociology: focus groups, needs assessments, some techniques for developing interview questions, etc. But digging into ethnography isn't just borrowing a technique, it's adopting an entire field of research. Ethnography is the kind of research that spans academic careers, not semesters.
Campbell's tried focus groups and typical methods of consumer research, but, according to Kozinets (who also participated in the research), the company wasn't getting to the bottom of its target consumers' behavior, especially online. The ethnographers followed those populations deep online to ferret out the behavior: "We sought out and studied competitive companies and their efforts. We located and listened to bloggers. We checked out forums and newsgroups. We examined video blogs on YouTube and beyond."
The study appears to have been worthwhile. The ethnographers, according to Kozinets, illuminated the social interactions Campbell's was looking for and offered recommendations that made Campbell's website more popular and responsive. But still, I find that level of research extreme.