Editor's note: Barbara von Corvin is senior project director at research company Happy Thinking People. Johannes Pirzer is junior project manager at Happy Thinking People. Thomas Diehl is a consumer and user experience expert with household products manufacturer Leifheit AG. 

How well do digital ethnographies work – and how do they compare with our pre-pandemic experiences with face-to-face in-homes? This is the question that many research agencies and clients across the globe have been forced to address over the past 12-18 months as proven face-to-face or in-person approaches have been sidelined by the pandemic.

In this case study from fieldwork executed during the pandemic in 2020, research company Happy Thinking People and German multinational household products manufacturer Leifheit will document how a two-stage online ethnographic approach worked extremely well, even exceeding client-side expectations. We share the methodological approach, key learnings, benefits and suggest a number of watch-outs. 

Digital ethnography is, we conclude, a suitable candidate for the new normal in qualitative research and offers an expanded digital tool that can deliver in-depth insights from a distance.

While qual was originally slow to transform itself fully digitally, the pace of recent change has been remarkable. Digital is certainly not new for qualitative research – online communities (MROCs) have been mainstream for at least 10 years in many geographies and mobile ethnographies have been broadly adopted since the early 2010s – but there has been a notable digital expansion and acceleration over the past 12 months, spurred on by the pandemic. 

A number of qual methods have been positively impacted. Online depth interviews and mini-online groups have gained global acceptance as positive experiences have dispelled doubts over issues of depth of insight, reliability and consistency of results.