Editor’s note: Greg Heist is chief innovation officer at Royal Oak, Mich.-based market research firm Gongos. 

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” – Rahm Emanuel 

At its core, ethnography is rooted in our ability to observe human behavior and the interaction of humans as social beings. As practitioners, ethnography calls for us to be both insightful researchers and powerful storytellers. 

Since this discipline emerged as a branch of anthropology (initially used to understand remote, native tribes and cultures), ethnographic work has been primarily seen as an in-person exercise, with physical presence recognized as the ideal way of obtaining a holistic understanding of the people under study.   

And, even as virtual ethnography has emerged as an approach for understanding the behaviors of humans in their physical worlds via digital means, the primary application of ethnography among insights professionals has continued to lean heavily into being in-home or in-store with consumers.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the imperative for virtual approaches to take center stage as the only way of connecting with and learning from consumers. Like so many other adjustments swiftly forced upon us, shifting from a physical to virtual approach has uncovered unexpected possibilities that would have gone unrealized otherwise. This pivot is proving more than just a stopgap in that it has the potential to create unique value to ethnography that in-person can’t. And it does so without neglecting the core tenets of the discipline.  

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What are the primary characteristics of ethnography?

Anthony Giddens, an English sociologist, defines ethnography as, "the direct study of people and groups during a certain period, using participant observation or interviews to know their social behavior."

Given this definition, it's fairly evident that true ethnography: 

  • Takes place over a period of time.
  • Requires direct observation and interaction.
  • Provides insight into social behavior.

Now let’s shine a light on the realm of virtual ethnography through this lens to explore how it embodies the foundational elements of the discipline – uncovering deep, rich, holistic insights – in innovative ways.

Here are four ways virtual ethnography can bring new value and, perhaps, even provide what’s been missing all along. 

1. Be in the “real” moment. 

Mobile technology allows virtual ethnography to be in the moment in ways that traditional approaches are unlikely to capture. For example, while it’s entirely possible to ask a consumer to feed their pet a treat, create a shopping list or prep a meal as part of an in-home interview, these actions will all occur on-demand to sync with the timing of the scheduled session. 

Lacking the social, emotional and environmental influences that are organic parts of these actions creates a critical context gap. For instance, a mom’s experience making dinner after a long day of work while dealing with cranky, hungry kids is very different than making the same meal during a scheduled interview slot.

By contrast, virtual ethnographic approaches can capture these contextual dimensions and how they influence someone’s behavior in a very real-time way. For example, this same mom making dinner could capture the experience – and her feelings about it – as a “confessional video” in an online journal as it happens. This kind of valuable insight is something virtual ethnography can uniquely provide. It’s so much more powerful to capture the emotion of such a moment versus having it reported back after the fact. 

2. Learn more longitudinally.

One of the most significant weaknesses of traditional, in-person ethnographic work among insights professionals is that the interview itself is typically conducted in a singular session of up to several hours. While this allows the team to spend time face-to-face with the participant, generally, when that interview is over, so is the team's observation of the individual's behavior. While travel costs and fieldwork time necessitate these limitations, it's clear that this approach falls short of the ideal of "taking place over a period of time." 

Virtual approaches lend themselves extremely well to longitudinal learning. For example, creating an online journal that extends over a period of weeks allows us to get a much better picture of the experiences, attitudes and behaviors of participants. By interspersing multiple live video interviews during an extended journaling exercise, we can establish deeper rapport, explore the "why" behind things they're sharing in their journal and ultimately gain greater insight into the topic at hand. Additionally, virtual approaches can empower the use of creative, projective exercises that can reveal deeper emotional motivations that may be difficult – or even impossible – for many consumers to articulate in a traditional ask/answer interview setting.  

3. Minimize the observer effect. 

One of the most significant potential drawbacks to in-person ethnography is the presence of the observer effect, which refers to the impact observers may have on the behaviors being studied. For instance, if a family knows they'll be participating in a three-hour, in-home interview on a Saturday morning, it's very likely that the house will be cleaned and the kids will be on their best behavior. And, beyond that, the simple presence of a researcher and a videographer will likely result in the family behaving and interacting differently than if these two strangers weren't present.

By contrast, it's well known that the longer people are observed unobtrusively, the more likely they are to behave in a more natural manner. As an example, we're always on security cameras when we shop, and this omnipresent observation generally goes unnoticed by us.

By its very nature, virtual ethnography can strongly neutralize the influence of the observer effect, with modern technology making it feasible to observe consumers in-home in unobtrusive ways. For example, by setting up a streaming video camera – or even a 360 camera – in the area where they feed their cat and change its litter box, ethnographers can truly be a fly on the wall for days at a time. Beyond this, emerging machine learning technology will enable more automated coding of video content, making it easier for researchers to efficiently identify and code observations from long video captures.

4. Understand consumers' digital lives.

To deeply understand consumers as human beings, we also need to understand them in terms of their online behaviors. After all, our lives in the 21st century are partially lived online. This makes our digital experiences – what we search for, what our social interactions are, what we shop for – an important dimension in any modern ethnographic endeavor.  

With virtual ethnography, finding ways to observe digital behavior – and not just relying on recall – opens the door to a whole new realm of “whys” to understand. For example, if we’re trying to comprehend why various products and brands are purchased in-store, being able to “see” that the shopper has been exposed to several video ads about a new variety of frozen meals in the past week could create powerful insights that a traditional shop-along interview would be unlikely to reveal. Similarly, the understanding of the inspiration a woman has received from her favorite travel-focused Instagram or YouTube influencer could empower valuable insights about how she chooses lodging for an upcoming family vacation.

When weaved together with offline behavior, virtual ethnography truly holds the potential to create a more holistic view of consumers than traditional ethnography.

Leaning into the future

The path forward for virtual ethnography is filled with many possibilities. As technology – and the formation of new data streams – continues to advance, it has the potential to evolve in powerful ways. How might an Amazon Alexa skill prompt consumers to share ideas or insights? Are there opportunities to leverage connected vehicle capabilities to capture moments of truth that occur while driving? How could a smart watch application enable the use of biometric and activity data to better understand how people approach physical fitness in their daily lives?  

While it's unclear when in-person ethnography will ultimately resume, one thing is clear: the future of ethnographic work hinges on our ability to make virtual ethnography as good as – or even, in some cases, superior to – traditional, in-person ethnography. In the end, the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced to us that the future for ethnography remains bright, guided by the needs of client organizations, and limited only by our imagination and will to more deeply understand the complexity of consumers as humans.