BOOM! The explosion of digital ethnography

It is no longer just the young who are comfortable with digital tools and practices. During the global pandemic, those previously reluctant to engage have embraced technological advancement. Where there is a need for closeness with research participants and to understand real world behaviour over time, digital ethnography is now a viable and desirable alternative to traditional qualitative methods. Dr Sarah Jenkins of Magenta Research provides a tour around this exciting method.



Ethnography aims to understand people’s behaviour by building a picture of how they are influenced by the world around them. 

Traditional ethnography, where the researcher immerses themselves into the world of the participant and walks a mile in their shoes, has many benefits but is often challenging to implement.

Traditional ethnography benefits are long established: intimacy and closeness with the research participant and being able to assess and evaluate participant’s decisions and mindsets in the context of their wider behaviours and actions. 

However, done properly (e.g. not just an extended in-home depth interview) it takes time to build up rapport and trust with your participants in order for them to ‘forget’ you’re there and therefore not influencing their behaviour. The skill and time taken often makes traditional ethnography cost prohibitive, and the logistics of meeting sample requirements (such as geographical spread etc.) adds to the challenges.

The time and depth of insight captured often means we’re faced with small numbers of participants. Some clients and commissioners struggle to get buy-in from stakeholders and feel there is a need for more ‘bums on seats’. 

Digital ethnography can sidestep many of these challenges

By utilising technology such as smart watches, wearable cameras, smartphones, motion cameras, fitness and GPS trackers, we can capture a wealth of data from participants with little disruption to their natural behaviour. As a result digital ethnography offers:
  • Discretion: Being unobtrusive is key to successful ethnography (we need to see people carrying out behaviours as naturally as possible), and digital ethnography is even better for this as it’s more discreet.
  • Authenticity: Mobile ethnography is conducted on the participant’s terms, often in a place where they’re comfortable, such as their home, without the pressure of a film crew and a moderator
  • Greater scale and scope: While we are still aiming for depth rather than breadth, it does enable more bums on seats – not just good for pleasing stakeholders, but also enabling a broad ranging view for the researcher (for instance, it is ‘normal’ to include 20-30 participants, as opposed to 5 to 8 for face-to-face ethnography).
  • Inclusivity: We’re not reliant on participants travelling to a specific venue etc., good for including the differently abled in research.
  • Broad geographic spread: Digital ethnography allows us to reach a wide range of locations (including rural areas) without the logistical headaches.
  • Multiple ways to interact: There are a range of ways participants can communicate with us: words, pictures, emoji and videos are all key.
  • Available 24/7: Digital ethnography allows for interaction at all times of day and night – often driven by the participant themselves.
  • In the moment feedback: We can access participants directly as they are mid-behaviour.
  • Greater objectivity: Digital ethnography doesn’t force behaviour in the way face-to-face can, e.g.when the researcher wants the participant to engage with a particular product or do a certain behaviour while we’re with them. With digital, this      can happen naturally at the time and place participants typically engage.     
  • Potential for longitudinal research: Each participant can be engaged over a period of time which is great for journey work!
  • Built in analysis tools – useful to a point but not the be all and end all.

The one key downside is that participants need to remember to engage with the research.     

But there are ways around this too. For example, for one study, we provided participants with medicine watches, which were pre-programmed to vibrate 3 times a day, at times we wanted participants to remember to tell us where they were, who they were with and what they were doing. 

The immediacy of digital ethnography gives us unfiltered access to participants’  lives
Online blogs, communities and bulletin boards have been around for some time and can be used to ask participants to show us their behaviour in a given context. However, content captured through these methods are often either: 

  1. planned (which means they can be ‘staged’ to a degree, deliberately or otherwise) OR
  2. reflective (i.e. recorded after the event, so risk losing detail, misremembering emotions etc.)

Despite the best planning, you can’t always be with the participant at the point they experience the part of a process you’re really interested in. Digital ethnography is reliant on first-hand observations collected in the moment. As such there is more likelihood of us capturing real behaviour and in-the-moment reaction, ‘warts and all’. 

Examples might include capturing emotions at the point participants receive a piece of communication, at the point of engagement with a product or service or at an appointment they’re attending; understanding people’s needs states at a particular points in time; or how, when and where participants engage with a particular product or organisation as they go about their daily lives. Digital ethnography allows us to be present at these moments. 

However, it’s worth noting that digital ethnography (like its traditional counterpart) is often used in conjunction with other qualitative techniques, which may include blogs and online communities or face-to-face elements.

So, why is digital ethnography increasingly popular? 

There are a number of factors which have come together to make digital ethnography one of the most desired methodologies of the moment:

  1. Widespread uptake of tech and comfort with social media across age groups. It is no longer just the young who are comfortable with digital tools and practices. In particular, during the global pandemic, those previously reluctant to engage have embraced technological advancement. 
  2. Increase in digital communication tools that can be used for research e.g. safe and secure tools such as WhatsApp and private Facebook groups allow us to piggyback on existing, natural, behaviour.
  3. A new breed of more sophisticated, fit for purpose platforms. There are a wide range of digital platforms which have been designed for the research category to communicate with participants. These have all adapted to incorporate digital ethnography approaches. 
  4. The rise of online recruiting as a means of sourcing participants.  This has resulted in a much wider net being cast meaning we can identify and include a wide range of brilliant participants who reflect the client’s target audience. 
For these reasons, digital ethnography is completely unaffected by our current inability to meet participants face-to-face, enabling us to get a snapshot of consumer behaviour despite the difficult times 

In summary, digital ethnography is ideal for any brief where participant closeness is the focus and there is a need to understand real world behaviour over time.  

You can read an example of the depth of insight captured from digital ethnography here. This was undertaken with participants during lockdown, and has provided a wealth of insight on what’s going on in households and with people's lives during this time. 


AUTHOR BIO: Dr Sarah Jenkins is an award-winning researcher with 20 years’ experience delivering high quality insight for global clients as well as more innovative and agile start-up companies. Sarah is a published author and started her career conducting social policy research before moving to Ipsos MORI where she worked in their Social Research Institute before moving to Head of Qualitative within their Media team. Since founding Magenta in 2016, Sarah has worked extensively with brands to establish genuine consumer behaviour and identify brand opportunities. She has used digital ethnography extensively and runs the MRS training on this highly desired methodology.