What is digital ethnography?

Ethnography - or immersion - is the study of people in a real-world environment. It enables researchers to observe respondents in their natural environment, essentially turning research inside out by bringing the researcher to the participant rather than vice versa. Why is it so popular? Well, observing people in their natural environment paints a much truer picture of how they really think and feel than asking them to fill in a questionnaire or chatting to them on the phone. After all, what people say they do and how they behave in real life can be pretty different!

Digital ethnography defined

So what’s digital ethnography? Well, digital ethnographic research is simply the logical evolution of ethnography. It opens up even more opportunities and enables researchers to understand participants behaviour in more ways than ever before. Thanks to smartphones and tasks such as video diaries and photo uploads, respondents can now peek into the lives of respondents without physically needing to be there. It’s discreet, it’s fast, it’s fun, and it’s flexible - which means researchers can access in-depth insights more easily. As a result, they can capture and assess behaviour and reactions as they happen, delivering true to life data quicker and easier than ever before.

The power of mobile

There are tons of different ways to carry out digital ethnographic research. From blogging and video diaries to online communities or even accompanied shops, one of the greatest things about digital ethnography is the variety. In addition, because it’s fun, participants will be more engaged - which means you’ll not only have better results, but there will also be fewer dropouts too.  The great thing about mobile is that participants are used to using them as part of their everyday lives - which means it a really natural research tool and makes research effortless because people already know what they need to do. Digital ethnography also easily fits into people’s lives, which means they can take part in research whilst carrying out their everyday activities - and no one around them even needs to be aware!

Digital Ethnography

Honest, insightful results 

The true power of digital ethnography comes from the independence it offers. Because respondents are using their own device, it removes the need for a third party advisor or observer - which in turn delivers more honest results. Let’s face it, people act differently when a researcher is in the room with them, and the same is true when they have to stare down the lens of a camera or speak into a microphone. But when it comes to recording themselves on their own phone, it’s completely different. People today are constantly snapping photos and uploading videos using their mobile, which means that when taking part in digital ethnography they won’t modify their behaviour in any way.

In-the-moment feedback

Another big benefit of digital ethnographic research is that it is instant. With digital ethnography, you can gather customer insight in real-time as they interact with products, as opposed to a few hours or even days later when they might have forgotten what really happened. For example, in an accompanied shop, your participant might really rate the level of service in a store but find it hard to navigate - and this in-the-moment feedback as and when it is happening can add a new layer of depth and integrity to your research. And since all data is recorded digitally, it no longer needs to be inputted and results don’t need to be written up - saving time and reducing the risk of data misinterpretation too. 

Flexibility and reach

Another benefit of digital ethnography is that unlike traditional ethnography, it’s not bound by geographical restrictions. Because there’s no need for researchers to travel to respondents, it increases the pool of potential candidates too, which is especially helpful if you are dealing with strict criteria. Not only that, but digital ethnography also saves time and money - and logistically it’s much easier to plan, too! Additionally, digital ethnography is much more flexible than traditional methods, which means if you’re not quite getting the data you were hoping for, you can tweak things as you go along. 

Things to consider

Of course, no methodology is perfect - which means there are still some things you need to consider if you decided to use mobile ethnography as part of your next research project. It’s really important to carefully consider issues surrounding privacy, security and reliability, so be careful to choose the right software for your project. Additionally, make sure you plan things thoroughly and fine tune your screening process to ensure this more relaxed approach for research won't be taken advantage of. 

Ready to get started?

Form video diaries to accompanied shops, digital ethnographic research gives researchDownload Nowers an unbeatable opportunity to peek into respondents’ lives more easily than ever before. It’s good fun, it fits in around peoples busy lives, and it also empowers participants - making it a winning methodology in our eyes! If you’re thinking about using digital ethnography as part of your next qualitative market research project, download our beginner's guide today.