What the Digital Ethnographic method can offer food and drink brands
Gathering rich insight at scale – are digital ethnographies the ‘holy grail’ of online market research?
Up until recently you could have been excused as thinking of the ethnographic method as something best left to academics. The word ‘Ethnography’ brings to mind in-depth studies of populations over time, typically in remote parts of the world, looking at culture and rituals. However, they can also be used to great effect in the market research world where they can offer unrivalled insight into consumer lives.
The ethnography is a methodology that, while providing a great deal of rich insight, requires a huge amount of time and therefore often only offers the opportunity to engage with a very small sample. In the commercial world, unnecessary risk is something to be avoided and having access to data based on a statistically robust sample is often critical. While we are all aware of the trade-off between breadth and depth in research techniques, ethnographies sit as far on the ‘depth’ side as it is possible to go.
Often, businesses are simply uncomfortable with this, reluctant to guide business decisions based on the experience of just 5-8 people. And of course, these fears are real – a small sample could include ‘outliers’ which will appear over-represented in the target audience. Although a thorough screening and recruitment process will help mitigate these risks, it is still difficult to overcome these reservations.
The challenges with the traditional ethnographic method
Part of the hindrance of traditional ethnographies is the need to build rapport in a face-to-face environment. This is time consuming, though necessary, as the purpose of the ethnography is to observe someone’s real world behaviours without the influence of ‘Observer Effect’. It takes a long time for consumers to feel comfortable being observed and that is not something that can be rushed.
Another issue faced by ethnographers is the sheer volume of data gathered. Observing a person for hours on end will inevitably result in copious volumes of notes and video footage. Writing up these findings after the session is a mammoth task.
Even with the mass of insight gained through observation, there is always going to be the issue of missing out situations of key significance. It is not always possible for an ethnographer to guarantee that they are there for all the events they want to observe, for example when a child decides to spontaneously play with a toy. The kinds of behaviours we want to observe happening naturally simply cannot be prompted for and this is a real limitation of the traditional ethnographic method.
How digital ethnographies can help overcome these challenges
The term ‘digital ethnography’ can include a relatively broad range of techniques, though what these have in common is that they all aim to gather rich insight from a relatively small sample using digital methods. Participants are usually encouraged to record and document relevant experiences throughout the day, typically through uploading photos, videos or short journal entries. In doing this, participants are sharing what they are seeing or experiencing at the time it is happening. This provides a different kind of insight to many other research methods – allowing researchers to really view the participant’s life as and when they experience it without being next to them and potentially influencing their behaviour, or the behaviour of the people they interact with.
One commercial advantage of the digital method is that this allows a bigger sample size compared to the traditional ethnography. While there needs to be a comfortable relationship between the researcher and participant, less time is needed to build a rapport as the ethnographer doesn’t need to work to try and make their presence fade into the background. Furthermore, while a great deal of analysis is still needed, as long as the research objectives are clear from the outset of the research, the information that is gathered tends to be more focused – images taken by respondents can offer more immediate insight than several pages of notes. Furthermore, specialist software can help researchers group relevant findings together and create themes as they go.
However, through allowing respondents to upload and update as they choose, respondents effectively are doing their own funnelling – deciding what is relevant and hiding what they do not want to be seen. This can be a real concern as the aim of this technique is to get a rich view of the respondent’s life, not simply of what they ‘think’ the researcher wants to see. Furthermore, this method also relies on respondents remembering and being willing to take part for an extended period of time. As with all market research techniques, there will be inevitable dropouts as well-intentioned participants cannot stick to the regularity of response required.
However, both of these issues can be partly addressed through effective project management – particularly through consistent and supportive interaction with respondents as well as regular monitoring of their output. Through offering stable support and guidance to participants, researchers can remind them to take part and engage with them to ensure they want to take part.
Just as this method can take a lot of respondent time, it’s important not to underestimate the time required from the research team over an extended period of potentially weeks. Being on hand to answer the questions of often upwards of 20 respondents every day is a big task and one that will require attention throughout each day. While this can be avoided to an extent through limiting contact hours and rotating shifts, it is essential to appreciate the time that will be required over an extended period of time.
So, when are digital ethnographies the method to choose?
The real strength of the ethnographic method is the richness of insight able to be gathered from everyday life. When the research objective is to gain a deep understanding of a specific element of consumer life, it is definitely worth considering. However, one weakness of the method is that it is often not as well suited to delving into the ‘why?’ behind behaviour. Therefore, it is often best utilised in conjunction with another method like depth interviews.
One area to consider when thinking about using the ethnographic method is whether it would be valuable for respondents to interact with each other. This depends very much on the topic being studied and the research objectives. Allowing respondents to see the images and videos others upload can be valuable and prompt interesting conversation and makes the method more like an Online Community.