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Breaking Ground: Digital Ethnography Research

Technology is enabling us to add depth and breadth to the standard fare of qualitative research methodologies we deploy at Austin Williams. One approach is digital ethnography. Here’s a quick look at how it works and why it adds greater value than your typical set of one-on-one interviews and/or focus groups.


Think of it as in-depth, online qualitative research. It takes place on a one-on-one and group basis over three to five days. In the first days, we pursue a broad exploration of their lives and the category, and in the latter ones, we hone in on the specific branded product or service experience.

Each day, respondents perform relevant exercises and tasks that allow us to get to know them on a deeply personal level: whether it’s photography that helps us not only to learn about them—but also to see their world firsthand—journal entries or even fictitious letters to themselves.

Though the exercises are completed individually, there is also an opportunity to open answers up to the larger group to benefit from a social conversation and dynamic, seeing what others gravitate toward and where there may be agreement or debate.


There are several advantages to using this task/exercise approach over traditional qualitative research:

  • The online social sharing aspect provides deeper insights and opens up discussions that otherwise might not have been facilitated in front of a physical moderator and group roundtable.
  • Respondents have time to think and reflect on their answers in their own time, which tends to yield more thoughtful input.
  • The extended time of the research—days versus hours—facilitates the tracking of habits and behaviors beyond just a single sitting.
  • Digital recruitment and participation allow for a broad(er) geographic dispersion to account for different values and behaviors in different parts of the country.


Thumbs up! This new web-based way of doing qualitative research:

  • Isn’t more costly.
  • Isn’t more time consuming.
  • Generates much better results.

Have you had any experience with digital ethnography—or other technology-based research techniques? We’d like to know.


Austin Williams is an outcomes-driven full service advertising, marketing, digital and public relations agency, creating ideas that inspire action for clients in healthcare, higher education, financial services, nonprofits and professional services.


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