Mobile Ethnographic Research in a Socially Distanced World
For many, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of ethnographic research is an anthropologist deeply immersed in the environment of other people and cultures.
In market research, ethnography has meant researchers entering the homes, businesses and shopping environments of people to see firsthand how they live, work, shop and buy.
If done right, ethnography is intimate, personal and physically close. It involves entering the physical world of your consumer.
So, what becomes of ethnographic research in the Covid-19 moment? It is still possible?
Using mobile technology, we think it is.
Since the pandemic began, we’ve been conducting remote, real-time, mobile interviews with respondents in their homes. Respondents log in to our platform on their mobile devices for a live, streaming conversation. We send them selfie sticks so they can show-and-tell, giving us panoramic views of themselves and areas of their households.
They give us tours of their homes, showing us areas and items that are relevant to the study topic. They demonstrate behaviors for us. Share thoughts and feelings. And, generally, give us much of what we’d get in a live, in-person ethnographic interview.
Client teams can observe everything that happens, just like in an in-person ethnographic interview.
We think there are a few things about this moment that make Remote Mobile Ethnos work.
- People are hungry for connection – We’re finding that people want to participate in interesting market research studies right now. Even though studies are mediated by technology, people are hungry to connect with researchers and share their thoughts, feelings and lives. In this moment of extreme isolation, people love an outlet for human interaction. Also, they are looking for something interesting to do. For many, participating in a market research study is a new and exciting experience. Experiences like that are hard to come by these days.
- People are comfortable with technology – People are increasingly comfortable with communicating via technology. This was happening before anyone ever heard of the Coronavirus. For years, social media has led the way in making more and more people comfortable sharing various aspects of their lives online. But the pandemic has caused more people than ever before to be comfortable with communicating through streaming platforms. They know how to do it. And they are at ease communicating that way. So, when we ask respondents to join us for a live, streaming interview from their homes, they want to do it and know how.
- Remote ethnos are less intrusive – Finally, there may be one aspect of Remote Mobile Ethnos that is better than in-person ethnos. They are far less obtrusive. If you’ve done ethnographic research, you know that one concern is the obtrusiveness of having a team of researchers and client observers traipsing through a respondent’s home. Sometimes there’s even a camera person in tow. But Remote Mobile Ethnos provide a rare balance of intimacy and distance. They allow researchers to get a guided tour of someone’s life and home but, at the same time, allow the respondent to maintain safe distance.
That’s not to say Remote Mobile Ethnos are not without limitations. It’s harder to feel the full context of a person’s life. You don’t drive to their homes, see their neighborhoods or take in everything there is to see in their homes. We try to compensate for this by having respondents do online homework before the Remote Mobile Ethno in which they reveal much of the context we lose from not being there in person.
Client teams are less able to engage in the conversation with the respondent as they might in an in-person ethno. Clients can message the ethnographer with suggested questions. But they are not as fully engaged in the interview as they might be if they were there in person.
And finally, Remote Mobile Ethnos are shorter. Respondents are more responsible for the quality of the interview than in an in-person ethno. They must be conscious of their internet connections and camera views, which causes them to fatigue sooner than they might in a face-to-face situation. We’ve found that 90 minutes is the Remote Mobile Ethno limit for most people.
But even with those limitations, Remote Mobile Ethnos can be rich in insights and a great substitute for in-person ethnography when being there physically is not an option. So, don’t assume that you have to wait until people are once again comfortable having strangers in their homes before you can do ethnographic research. Remote Mobile Ethnos offer a way for brand teams and market researchers to immerse themselves in people’s worlds and lives even in this age of social distancing.