Digital ethnography: Understanding people not only in a COVID World
Updated: Jul 28
COVID-19 has thrown the world out of balance and created uncertainty and anxiety. The pandemic has impacted lifestyles, what and where we eat, our modes of transport, and has even caused us to re-assess our values.
Tracking consumer shifts during this time will be especially important, as we will doubtless see the birth of new habits and rituals, especially concerning health and hygiene, albeit not all of them will endure beyond the pandemic. Ethnographic research is essential in garnering consumer insights and to map changes, and it is now more important than ever.
with COVID-19 we will see the birth of new habits and rituals.. ethnography is essential to map these changes
Ethnography during COVID is digital rather than physical. That started out as a necessity, with social distancing making consumers’ home visits unfeasible, but in certain contexts it has given us an even better read of consumers and their lives.
We find that Emerging Market consumers are happy to share their lives and their stories online – and over the past months, we have been working with ethnographic consultants on the use of digital media to shape the techniques and processes we employ in classical ethnography.
A simple way to translate traditional research methodology into a digital environment is to hold video conferences with EM consumers. They can stream through their smartphones using WhatsApp or Instagram, like they would with their friends. With this sort of session, we can follow conversations with the facilitator (bottom right), as well as ask questions, and even get a virtual tour of the house.
New tools allow communication beyond a typical two-hour study of a persons’ life. In recent years, we have been setting up WhatsApp groups with respondents. Communication continues long after the visit, and we still get updates from some respondents three years after our Immersion visits.
Working with Third Eye in India, for example, we’ve explored digital processes that could provide more sustained contact with people, and better context around what’s happening to them during the COVID-19 pandemic. One such technique is to set up a virtual panel on WhatsApp with several respondents. Panel members would, over a period of a week, be asked to complete 2-3 daily assignments, recording it with text, audio or video. Some of the assignments could for example be recording their new disinfection rituals or their new cooking routines, or describing situations where they had specific feelings, such as frustration or anxiety.
This ongoing digital engagement with people we meet on Immersions studies, both real and virtual, creates the ability to capture consumers’ changing habits, live and longitudinally. The online medium allows us to have continuous conversations with them, and makes the engagement more dynamic and interactive.
Digital Ethnography becomes critical in gauging shifting behaviour triggered by something unpredictable like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Digital Ethnography becomes critical in gauging shifting behaviour triggered by something unpredictable like the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s also useful in a much broader sense. The ability to observe individual consumers longitudinally is something of a holy grail when it comes to understanding how their habits, needs, motivations and emotions, are changing over time.
As investment managers, we want to understand which new habits and rituals, created as coping mechanisms, are going to produce sustainable shifts in consumption patterns, beyond this current period of elevated anxiety.
The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of Trinetra Investment Management LLP and are subject to revision over time. Trinetra is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom.