Research techniques for Online Ethnography

A method originating in anthropology, ethnography combines observational and interviewing techniques in order to better understand communities and cultures. A form of qualitative research, ethnography combines both behavioral and communications feedback. Whereas many research methods will focus on one aspect or the other, ethnography incorporates both behavioral and feedback-based insights, giving a more in-depth, holistic perspective of a study’s subjects.

The intersection of market research and ethnography 

While ethnography is primarily concerned with understanding the setting or environment in which the subject of a study is embedded, qualitative market research looks at the setting or place as just one factor of many that influence a subject’s behaviors, attitudes, emotions, beliefs and opinions. Unlike ethnography, market research emphasizes actionable data; therefore, ethnographic market research  findings should be pertinent, verifiable and instructive. A strong method of research to accomplish this is online ethnography, as it enables researchers the ability to conduct ethnographic studies in a more structured and scalable way. 

Research Depth

Analysis is where the true value of in-depth, context rich ethnography can be unlocked. Ethnography often features a wide representation of target and potential markets; researchers typically use a systematic approach to chart anomalies and interesting cases. While a broad sampling is useful, ethnography can also be used for follow-ups and other research methods that pertain to select targets.

Ethnography is a powerful way to charter participants’ experience in a regular environment, such as a home or workplace. Variables should always enter consideration such as time of day, presence of others, or physical environment — these all can affect how participants use or perceive brands, products, etc.

The Benefits to using online ethnography

Traditional ethnography is both time-consuming and expensive. Researchers must dedicate significant time to logistics and correspondence. Markets, meanwhile, are changing at an unprecedented rate and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Technological advances like true HD video streaming make online techniques, such as online ethnography, far more feasible. There are several benefits to using online ethnography techniques when conducting research.

  1. Minimal Intrusion
    Experienced researchers are well aware any intrusion into the subject’s natural setting can affect the outcome. Yet surprisingly, traditional ethnography requires the physical presence of a researcher and sometimes even a video crew. Online ethnography techniques minimize this presence, helping participants more accurately portray their daily activities and outlooks.
  2. Cost-effectiveness
    Traditional ethnography requires both the presence of a researcher and a video team. Depending on the project’s scale, researchers must also consider travel and lodging expenses. Online ethnography, specifically using online channels, allow ethnographers to more easily interact with participants, eliminate the need for travel, and typically use streaming footage from a webcam or smartphone.
  3. Study Duration
    Traditionally, participant willingness and budget are the two major barriers in conducting prolonged ethnographic research. Further, participants may begin altering their daily behavior if researchers are present for a sustained amount of time, compromising research quality. Online ethnography techniques minimize the presence of researchers, increasing the pool of respondents willing to participate and reducing the effect that research can have on their behavior and outlook.
  4. Better Inclusion
    Traditionally, teams that conduct ethnographic research divide between those in the field and those in the office. This impedes participation, as well delays analysis and processing. Platforms customized for qualitative research, such as online ethnography, allow the entire team to observe, communicate, and analyze footage in real-time.
  5. Participant Variety
    Generally speaking, few people are open to making room for researchers in their homes or workplace. Further, the more regional variation traditional ethnography requires, the more expensive it becomes. Tapping into vast respondent pools from all over the globe, using online ethnography techniques drastically increase variety while decreasing overhead.     
  6. Online Ethnography and Agility
    Online techniques also increase ethnography’s compatibility with market research. Agile methods, known for iterative processing and customer-centered design, are commonly at the forefront of product development. Along with being expensive, traditional ethnography progresses at a much slower pace than modern production. Online ethnography not only enhances the method, but also delivers insight within a relevant timeframe.

Read our article, “What are Market Research Tools?” to learn how to use market research tools for conducting online ethnography.

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