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Ethnographic Research



Several years ago, my team and I developed a media and community engagement campaign for the Centers for Disease Control program called Project PrIDE. The campaign was designed to promote PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to reduce anyone's chance of getting HIV from sex or injection drug use. When taken as prescribed, PrEP is highly effective. Our priority communities were populations that may not have received adequate education about it.


It's essential when planning any promotional campaign to become acquainted with your priority audience(s). Every successful campaign relies on building trust and a strong relationship with key members of your priority audiences. It is important to try to understand the communities you are attempting to reach. With every campaign, you must concentrate on the 5 Ws - Who, What, Where, When, and Why which should be used to help set your SMART goals. Our team created a project management plan that enabled us to take a closer look at the needs and desires of the priority audience. We wanted to gain a better understanding of the following items:


  • Who is the Priority Audience? For the priority audience, you must look at the demographics which include age, gender, income, and race or ethnic identity.

  • Outreach. How do priority audiences get their news or information? Is it through television, radio, mainstream newspapers, or community news outlets?

  • Do the priority audiences use social media to obtain and share information? What are the sites used?

  • Where are the hotspots in the various communities where people spend time?

  • Who are the key stakeholders and gatekeepers in each community?

  • What language is spoken within each priority audience?

  • Research education levels of those to be reached.

  • Religion - Is it a religious audience?

  • What are the top 3 issues with the priority audience(s)?


We also utilized Psychographics to assist us in getting more information.

Psychographics is the qualitative methodology of studying consumers based on psychological characteristics and traits such as values, desires, goals, interests, and lifestyle choices.


When planning a campaign, starting with a SWOT Analysis is helpful. The SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis is a method for identifying and analysing internal strengths, weaknesses, and external opportunities and threats that shape current and future operations. It also will help develop strategic goals. Then we developed SMART objectives. A SMART objective would be to educate key priority audiences about a specific topic and increase the number of people willing to use the product or information to save lives or make things better. The objectives need to be aligned with the mission and goals.

  • S = Specific

  • M =Measurable

  • A = Attainable

  • R = Realistic

  • T = Timely

Organising an ethnographic study helped us to learn more about our priority audiences. Ethnography is a qualitative method for collecting data often used in the social and behavioral sciences. Data are collected through observations and interviews and then used to conclude how societies and individuals function. Several different ethnographic methods can be implemented in your ethnographic research.


Passive observation is an ethnographic research method that essentially involves observing your study subjects without interacting with them or in any way interfering with their natural actions. Passive observation is a popular ethnographic research method as it allows you to fully focus on your research audiences while maintaining an outsider's perspective.


Interviews can be performed as a standalone form of research or as an addition to participant observation. In ethnography, interviews follow up on observation by asking questions to gain more insight into what they are doing, why they are doing it, and their thought process on a particular topic or issue. It's essential to pay attention to what your priority audience does and what they say.


When you are ready to conduct an ethnographic study, you may consider the following:


  1. Determine what the goals of your ethnographic study are. What questions are you aiming to answer? What do you hope you will learn from the study?

  2. Develop an ethnographic study team. When creating a team, it's important to select team members who may be a member of your priority communities who may be able to speak the language of that community.

  3. Select the best ethnographic method. Take into consideration your budget, your timeline, and any other constraints or goals that might be relevant.

  4. Outreach. Reach out to potential study participants to recruit for your study or focus group activities. Explain to them what you will be researching, conduct a preliminary interview, obtain consent and a waiver, and put together a finalized list of your participants.

  5. Begin your study. Get out there and observe! Take thorough notes, even more than you might think is necessary. Make notes on the priority audience’s environment, key events and incidents, and your impressions. Remember, ethnographic research is a great way to uncover what sort of research you still need to do to gain the insights you need.

  6. Analyse your data. Look for patterns and themes that jump out. What kind of challenges and barriers did your priority audience encounter? How did this affect them? It may be helpful to use Post-it notes to join large numbers of observations based on their relationships.

  7. Organise your insights. Make a list of your insights. Share, enrich, and combine them, ultimately planning how to implement them in your campaign or product design process.


Our team learned so much information about each of our priority audiences. We learned better ways to reach each audience by simply having a conversation with them and actively listening to their voices. Remember, enjoy the process because you will learn more about your audiences and what they may bring to the table. It's great to implement these types of studies every few years so that your marketing is up to speed on what's happening in each community. For more information, please contact us at Promotions West if you need to bounce your ideas around.







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