Introducing Anthropology & Ethnography to your Customer Room: An Inside Look with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

In my Daily Dose video series, I explore the topics that chief customer officers must grapple with on a daily basis. Join me as I discuss what I’ve learned over the course of my 35-year career, so that you can more effectively do the work that needs to be done.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of the video below.

In today’s video, I want to talk about telling customer stories by introducing applied anthropology and ethnography into your listening strategy, and most importantly, into your storytelling. You may remember from your Anthropology 101 class in college that anthropology is the study of human societies and that ethnography is the study of the customs of individual people and cultures. Applied anthropology and ethnography take these studies out of the realm of academia and into the world of business and organizations. In doing so, they can be incredibly valuable tools for organizations to understand their customer journeys—as in an in-depth article about Intel from The New York Times a few years ago—or in today’s case, donor journeys as shown at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital which I visited a few weeks ago.

What I’m going to actually show you is some video footage of their customer room and the anthropologists who work there. Now, like you, they were using a lot of survey feedback and survey information, which is pretty typical. However, when we only use survey information, we don’t necessarily get as deeply into customers’ lives as when we go and observe our customers or speak with them one-on-one. Therefore, we can’t tell the layers of stories and experiences, and who customers are.

Here are today’s takeaways:

  1. Certainly, don’t discontinue your survey work. It’s important, but it’s important to bring more nuance into the conversation, which leads me to…
  2. Go to school on anthropology and the whole process of watching customers in their natural habitats, in their lives, to start to understand the layers of what’s important to them. Bring in people with this expertise into your team, or barring that, educate your team on those skills so they can integrate those practices into your approach.
  3. Start to bring your leadership team along on the importance of applied anthropology and ethnography.

In the video, you’ll see how St. Jude has translated these studies into how they do storytelling differently within their anthropology-driven and very visual donor room. I’m joined by Christian Stovall, director of insights and strategy, as well as two staff anthropologists—Kyle Simpson and Sanne Royman—and Martin Hand, chief donor officer of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Go to school on anthropology and the whole process of watching customers in their natural habitats, in their lives, to start to understand the layers of what's important to them. #CustExp #CX Click To Tweet

On Getting Honest Feedback

Jeanne:                  I love that you’re doing ethnography, and the approach—the way that you are doing it—because it’s not what customers tell you, it’s what you learn that they need, right?

Christian:                  Yes, we’re very fortunate we have a lot of value to offer to the business because not a lot of organizations, especially non-for-profit have specialized resources like this that allow us to get what we call “the voice of our donor.” To get that and to share that with to help them inform their fundraising and awareness activities? It’s fantastic. It’s a very unique service that we can provide.

Jeanne:                 And way beyond traditional surveys.

Christian:                  Very much so. Our organization is such that it is so beloved that it’s a unique research challenge for us to get candid feedback. So having folks that are especially good at listening, in that way, gives us the type of feedback that we need.

Jeanne:                 Yes, so St. Jude is so beloved, right? Because people love your cause and what you do. So you have to find other ways of understanding what your donors: what’s important to them.

Christian:                  That’s right. Our approach has to be very specific and deliberate, and we have to recognize some of those nuances about our business because it’s hard to get candid feedback for this organization because it is so wonderful.

Because @StJude is such a beloved brand, applied anthropology and ethnography help them get an accurate picture of their donor journeys. Learn more in this episode of Jeanne Bliss' Daily Dose...of Reality. #CustExp #CX Click To Tweet

How St. Jude Uses Their “Donor Room”

Christian:                  We just moved into this building; we had a different donor room before. What you’ve walked into is a planning exercise for us to talk about how we collect the research data that we do for our various partners and communicate that through various artifacts. Our focus is primarily on modeling a persona or individuals from the people that we do research with that we can bucket into a particular type.

So, this is an individual who is an extremely busy parent, but who wants to be involved in our cause. So one of their project artifacts is modeling these types of individuals from our research, and then we map their experience with us as they interact with as an organization.

And this is an experience journey map, so we cover Danielle’s journey from how she learns about our organization all the way to becoming the donor to reflecting on what it’s like to be a donor of ours at various points of engagement. We have a heat map on this journey that lets us know where we are delighting her and where we are frustrating her, and those are opportunities for us to remove those “frustraters” and add delighters where needed. We also note a detailed description of the touch point, what’s going on with the touch point, where the touch point is; if it’s online, if it’s a point of sale, if it’s email, if it’s in her home. And this is all based on primary research that we’ve done with; in this case, we spoke to 64 donors throughout the country. We surveyed roughly eight thousand folks.

On the Importance of Personas

Jeanne:                 What’s the importance of doing it by persona that you’ve found?

Christian:                  It’s a useful way for us to humanize these individuals. Because of the way we do the research we can infer this from a known body of people, this isn’t hypothetical, these are individuals that we’ve known. It’s representative of actual real-world behaviors. It’s nothing that we’re imagining might be out there.

By making it human in this way, it allows us to help our business partners do some perspective-taking and to make it human, to show that there is a voice from the donor perspective. Something that we’re trying to pair with this is what we’re calling “service blueprints,” which is from the donor point of view and their experience quality—what’s going on underneath the hood. I think you called this the “meatball”? “Spaghetti,” I think?

Jeanne:                 Yeah, spaghetti bowl.

Christian:                  The spaghetti bowl, yeah. Exactly. So, what is the process to product? This is the process for us to run an individual marketing campaign from our direct marketing team; these are all the steps that are involved; this is all the steps that are involved for an email campaign. So we need to be able to understand underneath the hood.

How does the organization operate? Because often, what we need to be doing is making business process changes or improvements. And if we don’t know how the business operates, and how it ties into these touchpoints, we won’t be effective in helping those insights that we provided about her point of view, her experience quality. Help those be really actionable on behalf of the business partners.

So, we’re talking about ways that we can improve this because we’re relatively new to this space, and we wanted this to be a very welcoming, a very donor-centered experience, and we don’t know what that means exactly because, as I said, we’re working on it.

On the Value of Applied Anthropology & Ethnography

Jeanne:                 So for the audience out there, you were talking about it as anthropology and ethnography. Why is that important, and would you recommend that to others?

Christian:                  I would definitely recommend it to others if it’s an option. It certainly provides a level of quality to the insights that you will get back. There are very subtle, but important ways to collect what we call “the voice of the donor” data that formal training, advanced training, like these individuals have. They very much improve the level of quality of the insights that you get.

But often we see it as just a mind shift. Just being willing to ask yourself, “what’s in it for the customer in these interactions?” and to do some perspective taking from their point of view. I think that having a [mom lens] is a perfect example.

Jeanne:                 So, you’re not starting with a survey, you’re starting with the customer and talking to them and using your approaches in ethnography and anthropology as the starting point many places.

Christian:                  That’s our goal. Our goal is to do a combination of methods, but to very much emphasize the conversation, the listening, the one-to-one, the observational research, following folks home; not in a creepy way. And we’re trying to help bring the business along to see the value in doing that.

Jeanne:                 I think that , again, says volumes for St. Jude and their commitment to it.

Christian:                  Oh, absolutely. It’s one of the reasons that I think that we’re all so excited to be here is that this is a commitment by the organization to do this quality of work, and it has tremendous value.

Download my Customer Room Manifesto to learn more about how you can implement these practices in your own business. 

To learn more about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, visit

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