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Technology Is Changing Ethnography. Are You Changing Too?

By John Burns, Ph.D.

Ethnographies traditionally involve watching people live and in-person as they use your product or service. Locations can vary: in a home, on the job, in the store – any location where it makes sense to observe customers. The benefit is getting to watch what the customer does, and talking to them about their experience using your product. The downside is the that the cost of conducting in-person ethnographic research is relatively high in terms of time and money.  

These days, however, the technology available on smartphones and other devices makes ethnographies easier and more cost effective than ever. Here are three ways you can use technology to simplify and enhance your ethnographic research.  

Mobile Ethnography

Mobile ethnography involves customers using their smartphone, tablet, or other device to take a short video of themselves using your product. They often also provide a brief verbal commentary about their experience.  Here, they discuss what they like and dislike about your brand and others in the category. In a mobile ethnography, the researcher is not present. The respondent does it all on their own. They follow an instruction guide you send them, and they post their video to a location you specify when it’s ready. At Applied Marketing Science we have used mobile ethnography on studies as diverse as power tools and powdered drink mixes.

A mobile ethnography can’t fully replace an in-person one. For example, a mobile ethnography typically can't show you the full environment of the home or work place the customer is in, and it won’t allow for back-and-forth conversation with the respondent. But mobile ethnographies are an effective, low-cost, relatively inexpensive way to capture excellent ethnographic insights from customers. 

Text Messages

Text messaging is quick, easy, and in use by most people who own a smartphone.  Using text messaging for an ethnography can take several forms.  For example, customers can send text messages of their reactions to a product on the shelf at the grocery store.  In addition, customers can use text messages to fill-in the entries for a diary exercise where they report, for instance, the medications they take, the foods they eat, or the stores they visit. 

Although the text-message format does not provide for lengthy discussion, it provides you with information directly from the location where the customer is using your product. Text messaging also enables you to get this information during or soon after the moment when the customer used your product, ensuring the information is fresh in their mind.  

GPS Location

GPS location tracking allows researchers to know the exact movements of study participants. For example, GPS location can establish when customers enter certain retail establishments, where these establishments are, and where customers go next. It can provide real behavioral data, rather than that captured by customer memory after the fact, or by diary entries – each of which is subject to some amount of unintentional customer error and omission. In addition, when combined with other techniques, such as text messaging, GPS location provides information about what customers are doing, and how they feel about it, when they’re at the location of interest.

Ethnography in the Digital Age

These mobile technologies reduce the cost and time it takes to conduct ethnographies. Mobile technologies can’t fully replicate the in-person ethnographic research experience, but they have far more benefits than shortcomings. In fact, it’s often an effective approach to combine a small number of traditional in-person ethnographies with a larger number of them that rely on mobile devices. This way, you get the best of both approaches to ethnographic research: traditional in-person ones and those using mobile devices.  

Don't let opportunities for insights pass you by. Incorporate mobile, text messaging, and GPS technology into your ethnographies today. Take advantage of the devices your customers already use and improve the quality of your ethnographic insights. 

To learn more about ethnographic research, watch our free webinar on demand.

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