No longer a novel buzzword, the experience economy has become an integral part of today’s business world. Yet, for qualitative market researchers, this raises an uncomfortable question: can our current toolbox of methods effectively and robustly evaluate this well-established economic trend? This was a challenge faced by Northstar recently, when we were called upon to complete a project for the Royal Academy of Arts (RA)’s Summer Exhibition.

The Challenge: The Experience Economy and Non-Interventionist Measuring

The Summer Exhibition is one of the RA’s crown jewels — an annual event that has been running since 1769. This event, however, has barely changed over time, lagging behind in terms of technology and with little understanding of who its visitors are.

To overcome this inertia, the RA came to Northstar with a brief to better understand the event in the hopes of ultimately improving visitor numbers and sales. We immediately realised that the reality of this project created methodological challenges: this research had to be conducted in person and on-site but without, in any way, interrupting the exhibition.

Rather than being unique to this project, I would argue that these limitations are integral to any robust research in the experience economy. A researcher needs to capture findings in real life but without impacting — and changing — the experience itself. This makes many common market research practices impossible. Real time research eliminates post-event focus groups or depth interviews while non-interventionist means even an approach such as in-event mobile feedback would change the experience.

The Solution: Micro Anthropology

To address these issues and take a fresh, bespoke approach, Northstar partnered with the London School of Economics Anthropology Department and developed one that drew from the discipline of anthropology and its perspective on ethnography.

Academic anthropology, however, is time-intensive. By contrast, the length of fieldwork and analysis time in the commercial world is often days and weeks. Thus, Northstar had to develop a method that carried the intellectual spirit of academic anthropology while meeting the RA’s business needs.

We melded tenets such as participant observation, interaction and engagement and non-invasive recording into the reality of the Summer Exhibition. Our approach, which we termed ‘Micro Anthropology’ had the following three methodological strands:

1: Discreet Participation
This segment of the research involved two related activities. First, we completed Micro Observations, which were repeated observations of visitor interaction at specific event touchpoints. Second, we ran Discreet Visitor Simulations — limited shadowing of numerous visitors as they moved through sections of the exhibition. After recording several hundred individual observations and simulations, we were able to begin to measure flows and blockages through the space.

2: Context Conversations
To supplement our observations and deliver the whys to what we were observing, we developed a project-specific interview approach, Context Conversations. The timing of the interviews — at the exit — allowed us to be as parallel to the experience as possible without interrupting and we utilised a straightforward three-question protocol to be consistent and effective.

3: Experiential Recording
Finally, we used two photographic approaches to aid analysis and supplement findings. First, we took cluster photographs of specific areas at set times. Second, as we began to develop visitor typology hypotheses, we took discreet, non-facial photographs of representative attendees.


Our bespoke, anthropology-based approach produced insights the RA had never before considered or understood in full:

1: Less is More
The Summer Exhibition included an overabundance of art, often confusingly curated.

2: Family
A primary visitor typology we developed was the family attendee, who makes the Summer Exhibition an annual event.

3: Experience
Visitors desired easier means of comparing and contrasting different pieces and their prices.

4: Money
With all pieces of art up for sale, there was a strong, unavoidable commercial topic and opportunities for improved price evaluation.

The RA used these findings to re-develop the Summer Exhibition of 2015 in terms of design and marketing, resulting in a year that set sales and visitor records. Further to this, our research led directly to institutional change within the RA itself and the institution has increasingly focused on utilising audience insight.

But, most importantly, this project also changed how Northstar looks at examining business within the experience economy. It is clear that we, as market researchers, need to move past the method of asking a question and getting an answer if we are to get at a true understanding of consumer motivations and needs.

Northstar successfully melded anthropological approaches to commercial research realities and put into practice commercial ethnography that was time effective, scalable and economically viable. This shows what can happen when our industry is less insular and consistently looks outward and toward adjacent disciplines for inspiration.