Virtual Ethnography Thoughts

by Dina on May 13, 2008 · 2 comments

in Enterprise 2.0,Ethnography,Frameworks & Models,Qualitative Research Perspectives,Social Media

Thought I’d share something we worked on last year – almost at the same time Twitter came into its own. and before we thought up Twitter for Ethnography.

We spent some time developing an SMS-Blog research prototype with Srinivas Mogalapalli at Netcore (Rajesh Jain’s company), built upon the MyToday SMS platform.

This was a module in a larger research project among youth, designed to meet the following broad objectives to:

  • access and connect to consumer learning and conversations around the patterns for both one-hit fads and enduring trends
  • capture insights in the following areas – lifestyle, fashion, relationships, careers, music, technology (gaming, mobile, internet) consumption/retail, entertainment.
  • engage customers in ongoing conversations with us
  • prototype new formats for research using mobile and internet environments

The research process was designed to include the following modules:

Living Diaries
Focus Groups
Personal Inventory/Character sketches
Virtual Ethnography β

Massive changes in the way youth live their lives today, provide the opportunity to augment traditional qualitative research methodologies. To understand where youth is going, new dynamic, flexible, responsive research approaches are required that more effectively capture their attention. Combining conventional methods like focus groups with methods borrowed from ethnography (that include contextual inquiry with the youth in their personal spaces), will allow us to explore their personal spaces and generate a range of possibilities for deeper dives into their minds and spaces.

We will target a) leading-edge segment of college students and young working people, who are ‘ahead of their times’, differentiated from bleeding-edge consumers, who tend to be atypical, mavens and sometimes a little over the edge. And b) regular upscale consumers to assess brand equity in specific.

This research process will adopt the target group’s own culture-of-use (SMS, MMS, Internet), both to get closer to them and speak their language, and to enhance flows of information.

The objectives of the Virtual Ethnography β module were to:

a. To capture real-time, real-life moments and thoughts as they occur – both written and visual. None of the other research techniques delivers this level of spontaneity, immediacy and ‘realness’ in responses.

b. To test this system out as a prototype or precursor to further assessing how we can make effective use of a networked panel in the belief that it will greatly enhance the way you listen to and engage with your consumers, as you will have access to the information as it flows in.

c. Long-term, we would like to help build, and facilitate making continuous consumer conversations possible. These could also be used further as a playground for new ideas, testing solutions, feedback mechanisms.

The Process and Tools:

We will use SMS, MMS, Blogs and an online email group as the key tools to capture data. 25 participants within the target segment will be recruited per city. They will be at different life-stages and of different gender. They will be required to participate for a period of 2 weeks. There will be three components to this process:

a. SMS-Blog
b. MMS-email/flickr-Blog
c. Blog QOD (question of the day)

We propose the following activities with them within each component:


• 4 questions will be sent to each participant every day. The questions will be common to all. These will be quick questions, requiring short immediate responses. We will need to identify close to 60 questions for the two-week duration in conjunction with you. For instance, “where are you now .. who is with you?” or “ did you think of sex today? what triggered the thought?” or “what 3 words best describe why you listen to music” or “take a picture that will show us where you are now and send it to us” or “how would you describe your mood right now?”

• Their responses will be automagically pushed onto a Blog set up on WordPress. Each participant and question/answer will have a unique identifier code which will allow us to read the data separately by segment, and by question.

• Blog categories will be built as the data comes in with the help of tags; demographic categories will be pre-defined as per the recruitment criteria.

• At this stage, we recommend that the participants cannot directly publish on the blog, rather they use SMS to publish to it. This is to keep biases in responses out of the research process.


We will ask them to send in pictures to a common Gmail/Flickr account, with 6-10 word descriptors for each image. A private group at Flickr will be opened, where these pictures will be posted. These pictures and tags will be sucked back into the Blog.

Blog Question of the Day (QOD):

For the two weeks, we will have one question of the day. We will post the question on the Blog and send out the link to the group. Their responses can be captured as comments at that post. The questions will typically require longer responses than the SMS questions and will provide us rich data in a very easy format. We could even run some quick opinion polls at the Blog. While they will be asked to comment for each of these questions, we will ensure that they cannot see each others’ comments to ensure that the research process isn’t biased by one comment influencing another. Each commenter would have to drop in their respondent code, so the comments can be sorted by segment.

Unfortunately, although we got the prototype for this up and running, we couldn’t really put it into actual field research then for reasons that had little to do with this module.

Am now wondering what refinements it needs – and would love to hear your own experiences of using the target audience’s “cultures of use” (mobile phones, sms, social media in this case) as a research tool. Do drop in your thoughts and suggestions please 🙂


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February 8, 2009 at 8:17 pm

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1 mobiyard May 15, 2008 at 7:35 am

wow, that was great post.. thanx for sharing the same…
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