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The Shift to Digital Ethnography

The Shift to Digital Ethnography

Ethnography Goes Digital

Traditionally, ethnographic studies have been conducted face-to-face with the participant in their natural habitat being observed by a researcher. The onset of the pandemic sparked an abrupt migration of market research projects to move online, including 1:1 interviews, focus groups, and ethnographies. 

Previously, researchers gathered their data using cameras, microphones, and notepads. There is a new tool kit used for ethnography in the digital age, including social media, smartphones, online blogs/forums, and specialized research software platforms. The shift to using online tools alleviates many of the previous barriers to using ethnographic methodologies like logistics, scalability, budget, and timelines.

Types of Digital Ethnography

Remote Field Studies Through Online Communities:

Researchers can create an environment for their target audience to share their thoughts and reactions in an invite-only online community built for remote field studies. Researchers devise a plan including specific tasks and prompts for participants to complete and submit. These tasks can include short videos or photo submissions, 1:1 interviews or chats, or group discussions.
There is a level of flexibility with online communities that allow researchers to capitalize on both structured and unstructured interactions within the community. They also allow researchers to be interactive and agile, meaning that the study can adapt to the sentiment of the feedback submitted by participants throughout the project. 

Example: A home appliance company is developing a new blender. They want to observe how potential customers use the product, what ingredients they use, and how they talk about it to understand the benefits and pain points. The product development team can use this data to improve the product before it launches, and the marketing team can use the results to create effective messaging for the product.

Online Diaries:

o Example: A skincare brand wants to track and understand the effectiveness of its products. They can leverage online diaries to track when participants use their products, how they feel before and after use, and the overall condition of their skin before and after the trial period.

Online Forums:

Online forums such as Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook provide an unmoderated platform for interactions and conversations to happen naturally. They hold a wealth of information about participants’ thoughts, opinions, and perceptions about a particular topic.

Example: A building materials supplier wants to know what their trade audience thinks of the quality of their products. Hundreds of active Facebook groups are dedicated to building trades where information, products, and ideas are openly shared. The conversations can be analyzed by researchers for information about a particular brand to assess the sentiment of their products.

The Benefits of Digital Ethnography

Researchers can conduct digital ethnography with participants located anywhere in the world without leaving their office.

Project Scalability

Without the burden of scheduling and traveling to observe participants, digital ethnography is incredibly scalable. More participants can take part in a study, and multiple projects can be run simultaneously, all with the researcher in the comfort of their own workspace.

One of the setbacks of traditional ethnography was the cumbersome process of data collection. With digital ethnography, all of the processes are at the click of a button.

Get Answers in Less Time

Before digital ethnography, it could take months to complete just one study from start to finish. Now researchers can have answers at the tips of their fingers within hours. With advanced analysis tools, unstructured data can be tagged and analyzed within hours. Researchers now have access to rich qualitative data at speeds unheard of before digital ethnography was introduced.

Increased Agility and Flexibility

Most of the time, with traditional ethnography, a set of tasks, questions, and prompts are developed before the researcher and participant ever meet. There is just one chance for the researcher to collect the necessary data needed for the project. With digital ethnography, the researcher can adapt the study along with the results submitted by participants. They have more time to probe specific areas of interest without having to worry about missing something in-the-moment or if they will run out of time.

Digital ethnography alleviates nearly all the scheduling barriers between the researcher and the participant. Having the participants submit everything online and in their own time increases the flexibility of the study and allows for more authentic data to be collected.

Apart from flexibility in when the data is collected, digital ethnography allows for significant geographical flexibility. Since researchers don’t need to be physically present during data collection, geographical constraints are alleviated, and the study can have further reach.

Better Participant Experience

For traditional ethnographic studies, the researcher is present with the participant in their natural habitat, oftentimes being their homes. While this poses no problem for some participants, for others, it can feel like an invasion of privacy, preventing them from participating. Digital ethnography maintains the participant’s privacy, making them feel more comfortable participating in research studies.

As previously mentioned, there are significant time, budget, and logistical barriers to traditional ethnographic research. All of these constraints affect the participants’ experiences as well. Using digital ethnography improves the participant experience by giving them the freedom to complete tasks on their own time.

Getting The Most Out of Digital Ethnography

Narrow Down Your Target Audience

A crucial step in any research project is picking the most suitable target audience. It’s important to consider how the requirements of your target audience will affect the results of your study. A balanced target audience will reduce bias and allow multiple perspectives to be recorded.

Develop Meaningful Tasks

When creating tasks, consider how they tie back to the study objectives. The tasks should engage the participant while uncovering the relevant insights needed.

As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to start with general questions and continue to narrow down throughout the study. This allows you to paint the complete picture and gain a deeper understanding of the participants’ thoughts and perceptions. The tasks should follow somewhat of a journey-like experience.

Maintain Engagement

Keeping participants interested and engaged will ensure they are providing rich insights. This is possible through establishing a relationship between the researcher and the participants, task frequency, and follow-up questions.

Firstly, it’s critical for the participants to develop a level of trust with the researcher. Having the researcher use a short video to introduce themselves and the study and provide background information will help establish rapport early on.

Daily tasks will keep consumers coming back on a regular cadence and help the study feel like part of their routine. It’s also helpful to set reminders for participants and enable them to track their progress throughout the study.

Follow-up questions are an excellent way for the researcher to deepen their relationship with the participants and probe further into topics of interest. Often, this is where the most interesting insights are unearthed.

Applying Your Results to the Real World

Digital ethnography has changed how we learn about our customers by providing a window into their everyday lives, but what can you do with all of the collected data?

You will undoubtedly have more data at your disposal than ever before by using digital ethnography, so it’s important to start the analysis during the fielding period. Themes will emerge and adapt, making it pivotal to tag and organize the data collected continuously. If you wait until fielding has wrapped up, you will likely have missed follow-up opportunities and feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data on your hands.

Since qualitative research focuses more on the why and the how, versus the what, the results will uncover the root cause of a particular behavior or thought process. Applying this knowledge can influence how products are developed, how services are shaped, and how customer experiences are improved.

Digital ethnography is a great tool to gain a very intimate understanding of your customers’ thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors in a relatively short period of time. The insights collected through digital ethnography have the power to shape the future of your business.