I vividly remember the experience of my first animal sighting on safari. We were at Thornybush, a private reserve in South Africa nestled next to Kruger National Park. We had only just headed out in an open-air Toyota Land Cruiser about 10 minutes earlier. The African sky was a bright blue with an afternoon sun still relatively high. We were driving in hopes of sighting one of the big 5 – lions, Cape buffalos, African elephants, rhinoceros, and leopards. Eager with anticipation, our group of 7 came around a corner and our ranger slowed the vehicle to a stop. He pointed. I followed his gaze…he was looking up…I raised my head and there it was. A giraffe. Its head perched like a crown on a long majestic neck extending high up into the trees where it was eating leaves. The giraffe came to a complete stop, eyeing us warily. Waiting to see what we would do. I could hardly believe it. There it was. A giraffe! Right in front of us. Breathing the same air. Feeling the same sun. There was nothing between us and the giraffe. I watched it as it watched us, slowly finishing chewing the leaves. A long tongue darting out around the edges of its mouth. The feeling was complete awe and wonder. The theme song to Jurassic Park popped into my head. This was beyond what I had imagined it would be.

What also surprised me was that I was having this reaction over a giraffe. A giraffe! It’s not like I haven’t seen plenty of them in zoos over the years. But here, in the wild, where it was free to roam where it wanted, do what it was supposed to do, it felt much more genuine. This was a giraffe being a giraffe, not penned in by an artificial environment with moats and walls to let us see but keep us far enough away not to be harmed.

I kept reflecting on how different this experience was than anything I’d ever seen in a zoo. And it reminded me of the differences in two of the research methods we use most often: ethnographies and focus groups.

Like a safari, ethnographies allow you to meet the respondent in-context, in their ‘natural habitats.’ It’s a great vehicle when you want to see what happens in the environment and really go deep. However, it takes time and you might have to travel great distances to find what you want to experience.

A focus group is more like a visit to the zoo. It’s a great way to see a lot of animals in a short span of time, getting a flavor of what’s out there. Like a zoo, the environment is contrived. It’s an artificial habitat with a wall of mirrored glass not unlike a zoo’s wall and moat – keeping the client viewers close enough to see but not be ‘harmed’ by being in the same room.

Ethnos or focus groups? You need to know when to use the right tool and it comes down to 3 considerations: your question to be answered, timing, and budget.


Focus groups are great when you need to get a breadth of information from a range of people. In a matter of days, you can talk to a sizable number of people to gain reaction on a concept or positioning, explore how people think about a product or service, gain feedback on messaging, political candidates or advertising. Groups are a relatively cost-effective way to speak to a broad group of people. Just like at the zoo – you can see a lot of animals in one day and get a sense of what the animal is like, maybe hear it make a noise or see it move.

The focus group, usually shorter than an ethnography at 90-minutes to two hours, can be smaller in size if you want to get a little more depth, or you can go for a ‘super group’ of 10 or more if you have an activity or the project requires numerous voices. You want to make sure people have enough ‘talk time’ – to figure that out, divide the length of the session by the number of respondents. It is usually about 15 minutes. Anything less than 10 and you’ll barely scratch the surface let alone go deeper. You’ll want to add more time or take away participants.

One best practice we have is to make the focus group setting feel a bit less intimidating - seriously, who sits around a conference table sharing feelings – conference tables are for decision making and performance reviews. Make the room feel more comfortable. Similar to how zoos have evolved to resemble habitats in the wild, try a “living room” style set-up or find a facility with softer design elements like exposed brick or stylish chairs.

Ethnographic experiences are valuable if you want to deeply understand a particular audience – your brand champion, your voter, your target consumer. Or, leverage ethnos to see how people behave within a certain lifestyle or activity. Put enough of those experiences together and patterns emerge along with a clearer picture of who this person is and the role your company might play in their lives. Unlike focus groups, you talk to fewer people but for much longer. Ethnos are less cost effective and often involves several days in multiple markets in order to gain enough breadth along with the depth.

A good ethnography will be two and a half to three hours in length. That lets you gain an understanding of who a person is, explore their home, let them show you examples of their values, favorite items that have meaning, and demonstrate how they might use a product or device. It’s a one-on-one conversation so you come away feeling like you really know this person. Like my first giraffe-in-the-wild sighting, clients hold these experiences with the consumers much closer to their hearts. The cognitive empathy built is much more palpable, which leads to stronger belief and conviction, and compels action.

Want to try something other than the ‘tried and true’ methods? Here are a few more ways you can mix things up:

1.     “Fishbowl” Focus Groups

Tear down that wall, cross the moat, and join the moderator in the pen with the respondents. Have your client team sit in a circle outside the core circle or table of respondents. Give each client a notebook so they can capture verbatims and give them permission to jump in with questions. You’ll find they quickly forget about their email, Facebook, and the M&Ms in the back room, and will be more fully engaged in your session.

2.     “Blitz Ethnos”

Sometimes you want to get the in-home experience but don’t have the time or budget to do full sessions. When clients have a good foundation of learning and just need to go deeper or round out knowledge, we’ll schedule a blitz day of 90-minute in-homes. That gives us the advantage of being able to complete 3 in a day without suffering moderator/client fatigue. We have enough time to get a sense of who the individuals are and go deep on one or two topics but not the full depth we’d have in a traditional ethno.

3.     “Netnography”

This is like watching the animals via remote cameras and streaming feeds – you aren’t in the same room as them but there are some great benefits to this methodology. First, you are able to get a geographic range that’s not possible with in-person methods for most clients. Second, you can make this a bit more ‘longitudinal’ and follow them for several days, even a week or two. They can take you with them when they shop, go to family events, or whatever other activity you want to understand. The drawback is that it lacks the spontaneity of in-person and, as a moderator, you have to think differently about the questions you ask and how you ask them. We often marry this method up with our Blitz Ethnos but sometimes it stands alone, particularly when budgets are limited.

There are trade-offs no matter which method you select.


As thrilling as the safari/ethno is, it’s not always the most practical, nor appropriate way to gain learning from your consumers. Choose the experience that will yield the appropriate results for your business. Sometimes a trip to the zoo is just what you need.

What’s your favorite safari or zoo experience? We’d like to hear. Let's have a conversation on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.

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