NEWS26 March 2021

Tuning in: Key lessons from MRS Digital Ethnography Summit

Covid-19 Innovations News Trends UK

In a year in which Covid-19 has forced researchers to resort to online research, what opportunities for the industry exist in digital ethnography? We report on the highlights of the Market Research Society’s Digital Ethnography Summit.

Virtual group

Increasing intimacy
Digital ethnographies can allow a more privileged access to people’s daily routines and insight into their lives than an in-person approach sometimes can. Konrad Collao, founder of research agency Craft, said that a digital approach aided its project with UK Coaching to better understand the experiences of coaches from ethnically diverse and lower-socio economic backgrounds.

“The digital ethnographic approach allows us to get much further than any traditional pre-task ever would,” he said. “It allows us to get into very considered and reflective conversations with people who have been thinking about the subject matter.

“One of the temptations is to be obsessed with the technology, and to think of it as a digital ethnography with the emphasis on the ‘digital’. Yes there are nuances, but ultimately the basics of building a genuine partnership with people is all about the personal touch and honest. It is about not necessarily relying on the platform.”

Change mindsets
There is a need to alter perceptions of digital ethnography as an interesting ‘add-on’ to the main research project rather than a methodology in its own right, said Emma Goff, CMI UK – seasonal and gifting at Mars Wrigley. “Often these projects are seen as nice-to-haves,” she said. “It is changing people’s mindsets to see they are really fundamental to understanding our shoppers and consumers.”

Goff recommended that good ethnographic studies should strive to work with other organisations in partnership; build in lots of time for thinking and co-creation, and fleshing out the right questions and approach; and consider the research’s impact and how could it be used to drive value for the business.

Karina Taylor, qualitative researcher at Watch Me Think, which worked with Mars Wrigley on a study of festive shopping behaviour, said that the studies could provide large amounts of data for further analysis, which showed its value. “You might not always get the answer, but you still have raw data sat there, and you can mine it and re-examine it in a new light,” she added.

Keep it natural
Ethnography is supposed to be conducted in a natural setting, but how do you achieve that? Angus Smith, senior research executive at Illuminas, said that there is a conundrum for researchers about how to observe people’s natural behaviour within an artificially-constructed online setting.

“Any digital ethnography is to some extent artificial – respondents wouldn’t linger on an online platform like this without our intervention,” he explained.

“The challenge for digital ethnography now is to find ways of making these constructed and contrived social settings feel as natural, normal and engaging as possible. It takes time. There’s no quick solution to making an online community feel as real it can be.”

Listen and learn
Digital listening can also support interviews in a digital ethnography project. InSites Consulting worked with Philips North America to understand the Black haircare experience, and used social listening to capture spontaneous conversations within the Black community at a macro level while immersive ethnographic tasks such as video and mood board creation provided deeper insights.

Emma Kirk, research director at InSites Consulting, said that the approach allowed the researchers to examine more than 1,000 conversations in an online forum called Lipstick Alley to collect search terms, memes and recommendations to help give a fuller understanding of what interested the community.

“This approach allowed us to not only observe the actual language used, but also the subtle forms of communication through imagery or cultural references we would have likely missed had we jumped in with a list of questions,” Kirk said.

Covid-19 has forced many researchers to resort to online ethnography, and while the approach has its strengths, it does not work for every project. Speaking on a panel on the rise of digital ethnography in 2020, Rhiannon Price of Northstar said that sometimes online conversations lacked sufficient depth.

“I think digital is primarily self-reported, so we do have a barrier there,” she said. “Are we getting the truth? We are solely reliant on what people are choosing to show us, tell us and report. That has been the biggest obstacle. No matter how many ways you cut it with an online experience, the responses tend to be less deep than if you were there in person.”

Anouk Vincenti, insights manager (provided by Adecco on assignment at Google), told the same panel session that digital research had its pros and cons.

“We can’t replace the depth and context we get from an in-person approach, and there will be things we will want to know and do face-to-face,” she said. “But there’s very much an idea that innovation is needed. There is a want and need for different types of approaches that can only be done online.”