Online Ethnographic Research

  • Online Ethnography
    Ethnographic research continues to be a valuable approach in helping marketers gain a deeper understanding of consumer behavior—their perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs that drive their decisions.
    Observing people in their natural setting provides a detailed level of information for interpretation and, ultimately (in the marketing world), an insight or idea that can help a business in a number of strategic ways. However, for all the valuable contributions ethnographic research has and will continue to provide marketers, there are a few drawbacks in conducting field-oriented ethnography that have led to exploring and developing other approaches to observational data collection.

The drawbacks in conducting field-oriented ethnography include the following: the cost to recruit, coordinate, travel, and conduct can be significant; the time needed to establish trust and conduct a field study is often prohibitive for a marketer’s changing needs; and a significant level of “intrusion” still exists as the “natural setting” to observe people includes an ethnographer conducting an interview and a camera operator filming inside someone’s home.

These drawbacks—combined with the proliferation and ease-of-use of digital cameras, as well as a large and continually growing population of diverse consumers online (Decision Analyst has over eight million members in the online American Consumer Opinion® panel)—have led to the development of another approach for conducting ethnography online.

Benefits of Online Ethnography

This online ethnography approach was developed using a Time-Extended™ online qualitative technique from Decision Analyst. This practical and nonintrusive methodology for conducting ethnographic marketing research provides advantages in some important ways, such as the following:

  • The respondents' normal routines are not disrupted since they provide their responses at their convenience.
  • Digital videos and photos taken by participants, coupled with online diary entries, provide unspoken cues and depth of insights that may otherwise be missed.
  • The ability to study consumers’ daily shopping/usage routines over longer periods of time (and closer to their real-life shopping/usage cycle) than what is practical in the field.
  • The online environment allows for a high level of self-disclosure in freely expressing the respondents' feelings in this “me and my computer” time.
  • Consumers have an opportunity to reflect on and give detailed descriptions of their routines, thoughts, feelings, and experiences that they believe are most relevant to explaining their usage and purchasing decisions.

Elements of an online ethnography study typically include:

  • Digital pictures
  • Stories of their photos
  • Diary entries

Online ethnography studies usually last over a set period of days (three to 10) but can be extended to last several weeks or months. Each participant typically spends a total of two to three hours per week providing detailed answers. In addition, the online panel allows us to recruit special subsets of participants that have been identified as particularly interesting via an online quantitative survey (e.g., concept acceptors, “fence-sitters,” etc.). This allows a deep-insight, qualitative drill-down on the small samples of consumers representing key segments of the total target audience.

Conducting online 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 even in traditional ethnographic research. And this depth translates into the silver bullet for marketers—insights into what respondents actually do and how that behavior drives their decisions.

Ethnographic Research Services

Decision Analyst has over 4 decades of qualitative research experience and is one of the pioneers in adapting qualitative research to the Internet. Our moderators can recommend the qualitative technique (online or in-person) best suited to your research needs.

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