Online Ethnography

Digital (Online) Ethnography Research

Ethnography is the study of consumers via observation.

Ethnographic research is a valuable approach to help marketers gain a deeper understanding of consumer behaviors, perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs. Observing people in their natural settings provides objective information for interpretation and analysis.

However, for all the valuable contributions ethnographic research provides, there are some drawbacks in conducting field-oriented ethnography, including:

  • The cost to recruit participants, coordinate travel, and conduct projects can be significant.
  • The time needed to establish trust and conduct a field study is often prohibitive.
  • A significant level of “intrusion” (for example, an ethnographer conducting an interview and a camera operator filming inside someone’s home).

These drawbacks led to the development of digital ethnography, which is also known as online ethnography.

Digital (or Online) Ethnography Elements

A digital ethnographic study typically includes the following elements:

  • Digital pictures and videos taken and uploaded by the participants
  • Stories that explain the photos and videos
  • Daily diary entries
  • Daily reminders and prompts to action
  • Time-Extended™ format (that is, the project takes place over several days)

Benefits of Digital Ethnography

Digital ethnography is based on participants taking photographs, making videos, and keeping diaries that explain the photos and respondents’ behaviors and attitudes. This practical and nonintrusive methodology for conducting ethnographic research provides important advantages:

  • The respondents' normal routines are not disrupted by observers
  • Videos and photos taken by participants provide projective evidence and clues
  • Online diaries yield a depth of insight that might otherwise be missed
  • The ability to study consumers’ shopping/usage routines over longer periods of time than permitted by direct in-the-field observation
  • The anonymity of the online environment allows for open, honest self-disclosure
  • Online ethnography takes place over several days, so consumers have an opportunity to reflect on and give detailed descriptions of their routines, thoughts, feelings, and experiences
  • Online ethnography can be used as a follow-up to traditional focus groups, in order to gather more detailed insights and to continue the conversation

Digital ethnographic studies are usually conducted over 3 to 10 days, but can be extended to last several weeks or months. Each participant typically spends a total of 2 or 3 hours per week providing photos, videos, and diary answers.

Conducting digital ethnography using Decision Analyst’s Time-Extended™ approach generates a level of depth and detail not commonly seen in qualitative marketing research, and often a level of detail not seen in traditional ethnographic research. This depth translates into insights about what respondents actually do and how that behavior drives their purchase decisions and brand choices.

Special Participant Groups or Subsets

Oftentimes, digital ethnographic research can be enhanced or enriched by focusing on particular groups (or subgroups) of respondents, such as heavy users, brand champions or enthusiasts, lapsed users, early adopters, concept acceptors or rejectors, fence-sitters or the undecided, and so forth. These groups of similar respondents can often allow us to see underlying motives and patterns of behavior and develop a deeper understanding of consumer motivations.

Ethnographic Research Services

Decision Analyst has over 45 years of qualitative research experience and is a leader in adapting traditional qualitative research to the online environment. Our experienced moderators can recommend the online and/or in-person qualitative techniques that are best suited to your research needs.

For more information on our Qualitative Research services, please contact Clay Dethloff, Senior Vice President, Qualitative Research, by emailing him at, or by calling 1-800-ANALYSIS (262-5974) or 1-817-640-6166.