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What is Digital Ethnography?

What is Digital Ethnography?

Abstract: Digital Ethnography is the practice of leveraging technology (like smartphones and computers) to study people in their natural environment remotely.

Digital marketing, digital design, digital teaching, digital learning…nowadays, it seems we can do just about anything digitally. If your role has anything to do with generating insights about consumers–their behaviors around purchasing and using specific products or services and the preferences and attitudes that drive those behaviors–then you know digital ethnography is everywhere these days. Everybody seems to be doing it and everybody seems to have a slightly different take on it: what it is and how to use it, when it might be your best methodological choice, and why.

Before delving into the specifics of digital ethnography, let’s take a quick look at how ethnography wound up in the market research toolkit.

Ethnography in market research

Most simply, ethnography is the study of people in their environment using methods such as participant observation and face-to-face interviewing. The classic example features a team of anthropologists traveling to an island or other remote location, living among the inhabitants for months or years, studying and documenting their culture and society. The epitome of immersive fieldwork, properly conducted ethnography generates vast amounts of knowledge about a group of people in the context of their natural surroundings. 

Market research has always looked to the social sciences for tools and techniques as well as theoretical frameworks to guide and inspire research design. Early researchers focused on quantitative approaches to measure advertising reach and effectiveness. The post-WWII economic boom created a compelling interest in understanding individual consumers, driving a new emphasis on qualitative research that could “go beyond the numbers.” At the same time, researchers observed discrepancies between what consumers said and what they actually did. This led to a deeper interest in people’s inner motivations even as new technology–the computer, phone systems, and, eventually, the Internet–offered more and better ways to generate “hard data” about consumer behavior. Eventually, researchers began looking beyond the purchase process to explore people’s experiences owning and using products. This deep focus on context–how a product or service fits into a person’s life–led researchers to adopt and adapt the methods of ethnography.

Thorough and accurate

Focus groups and in-depth interviews (IDIs)–the traditional mainstays of qualitative research–offer highly effective ways to understand respondents’ perspectives about their experiences. But regardless of how rich the conversations are, gaps persist. Respondents often say one thing and do another–not out of duplicity but because we all have a natural tendency to edit our recollections. Moreover, there might be factors in play that respondents assume are irrelevant or don’t even notice and so never mention.

Ethnographic techniques enable us to see people in their natural habitats. We might shadow them without interacting, simply observing them as they do a household task or shop for a particular item. Or we might join them and conduct an interview as they engage in the target activity. The “shop along” interview has become a standard technique, as have various spins on in-home or at-work interviews. In any case, the researcher has access to much more thorough information about the respondent’s behavior and experience and can capture a more accurate picture.

Expensive and time-consuming

Consumer insights teams conduct ethnography over days or weeks instead of years, and they don’t typically need to outfit themselves with wilderness gear. Still, it has been an expensive undertaking–labor-intensive, logistically complicated, and requiring significant travel budgets. That all changed, though, when the digital world went mobile.

The magic of digital ethnography

It’s not overstating the case to say digital ethnography can be a researcher’s dream come true. It improves project outcomes in numerous ways while lowering costs and streamlining logistics. What’s not to like?

How it works

Digital ethnography projects are built around asynchronous interactions with each respondent participating via their smartphone, completing tasks assigned by the moderator, and answering follow-up questions. Tasks might include providing photos and/or videos of specific activities and experiences and keeping a diary. The moderator communicates with each respondent one-on-one and may also invite selected respondents to join a real-time chat, e.g., gathering those of a particular age cohort to discuss a specific topic together.

Digital ethnography is similar to traditional methods in terms of recruitment and incentives, with participation typically occurring over several days or a week.

Putting the respondent in the driver’s seat

Digital ethnography empowers participants

A comfortable respondent is a forthcoming respondent, and digital ethnography can capture deeper, more comprehensive input. In-home interviews and observations have an advantage over focus groups and interviews conducted at a research facility because the respondent gets to remain in their own environment. Digital ethnography goes a step further in preserving the respondent’s comfort zone by taking the research team out of the physical space.

Because the interactions are asynchronous, the respondent can participate at their convenience (within the project parameters). Using their smartphone to complete tasks and answer questions is, for most, a seamless extension of their day-to-day activities which encourages spontaneous and unguarded input. Participation is less likely to be seen as an obligation and more likely to be fun, which keeps respondents engaged and enthusiastic. 

And when the subject matter is sensitive or confidential, e.g., pertaining to a health or medical condition, digital ethnography is less intrusive, letting the respondent control the privacy around their participation.

Faster, better, and cheaper

It’s a universal law that you can’t do research fast, good, and cheap–you have to pick two. The law still holds, but digital ethnography enables us to come closer to achieving all three goals compared with traditional methods.

Projects are designed around asynchronous interactions but can easily incorporate real-time conversations at intervals. Because there’s no travel involved and multiple respondents complete assigned tasks simultaneously, at their own pace rather than by appointment, digital ethnography data flows in faster, and the research team can follow up more quickly.

In addition to the advantages mentioned above that contribute to better quality responses, digital ethnography generates multimedia outputs that make for rich and powerful storytelling. And just as quantitative research might synthesize information from more than one data stream, digital ethnography can incorporate data from various sources. Along with videos, screen shares, and digital diaries created by respondents, a project might tap into relevant data gleaned from social media and existing content, e.g., YouTube or Reddit.

Analysis and reporting tasks can also be completed faster and more efficiently. Data streams into the moderator’s dashboard almost in real-time, and a good digital ethnography platform offers numerous tools for tagging, coding, and sorting the output.

No travel means the research team can focus energy and attention on the work instead of trudging through airports and waiting for hotel shuttles. And the whole project is Covid-proof for everybody.

Digital ethnography in B2B research

For simplicity’s sake, we’ve been discussing digital ethnography as a tool for the consumer insights team, but its value as a B2B research method should not be overlooked. The same benefits pertain to convenience, engagement, privacy for respondents, speed, efficiency, and rich, compelling output for the research team.

The bottom line: when your research objectives include capturing and understanding the context of your target audience’s behaviors, digital ethnography is the most powerful tool available.