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There are all sorts of ways to study people, from anthropology to sociology to ethnography, all with their own approaches and methodologies. In anthropology the focus is culture, while in sociology it’s society at large that is under the microscope.

Ethnography encompasses both culture and society, scientifically describing different peoples and cultures with their customs, habits, and mutual differences. Principally, it is a means, rather than an end. A method of collecting research data, from the perspective of the research subject. So what, then, is mobile ethnography?

Let’s take a look at some context before we dive in.

From near-ubiquitous access to the Internet (in 2019, 91% of all British adults and 99% of people aged 16-44) to innovations in AI and ‘big data’, it’s fair to say that the technological advances of the 21st Century have revolutionised the market research field, making consumers easier to reach (and study) than ever before.

Almost every adult in the UK – 95% according to Statista1 – owns a mobile phone, and in 2019, 88% owned or had ready access to a smartphone2… and that’s where mobile ethnography really starts to make waves.

…But what is mobile ethnography?

Mobile ethnography is a modern research method that takes advantage of widespread access to smartphones. It involves participants filming their responses to certain questions or stimulus via their mobile phone. This creates user-generated video content that is studied by market researchers.

The objective of mobile ethnography is to observe people in their natural environment, authentically and unfiltered. By asking participants to film their answers to open-ended questions, and giving them the opportunity to answer in their own words, market researchers open an authentic, intimate and visual window into consumers’ worlds.

Authenticity

With customer closeness being a core aim for insights teams, you really can’t get much closer to consumers than mobile ethnography. This is particularly true if you work at an international organisation with customers around the globe.

The entire exercise is designed to study any given topic from your subject’s point of view. Ethnography aims to understand peoples behaviour by building a picture of how they are influenced by the world around them. In a corporate environment, mobile ethnography can also be a bit more targeted, researching how different demographics or audiences relate to a brand, product or advertising.

Whatever the subject, mobile ethnography facilitates authenticity by allowing the respondent to share their opinions in a way that is natural and organic. Video also records body language, personality and environment in a way that surveys or data simply can’t.

Mobile ethnography is unobtrusive

To help elevate this authenticity even further, mobile ethnography is conducted on the respondent’s terms, often in a place where they’re comfortable, such as their home, without the pressure of a film crew and a moderator.

Most smartphone users are used to interacting directly with their phone’s camera in one form or another, whether they’re snapping selfies or talking to friends or family via video-chat. Mobile ethnography benefits from this environment, in which respondents can express their personality without so many social barriers.

In-the-moment feedback

One of the key strengths of conducting market research using mobile ethnography is being right there, if not physically. You’re able to gather feedback in-the-moment, whilst experiences are fresh in the mind. Mobile phones are always on us, and always on. This means responses can be submitted during peoples’ everyday lives, no matter where they are.

This unique responsiveness makes mobile ethnography the go-to-tool for customer experience research, which investigates customer satisfaction over the duration of a specific process. These processes could last a number of minutes or a number of weeks, with respondents checking in via their mobile phones to document their experience. For more information on customer experience research using mobile ethnography, take a look at this case study of a project we worked on with Co-op Insurance.

Interactivity and reactivity

Mobile ethnography can also offer the ability to interact with respondents in real-time. This gives researchers the opportunity to probe, guide and moderate answers to keep responses on topic and ask for further information. Not all mobile ethnography providers can facilitate this, though. Take a look at this article to see the pros and cons of a few of the best mobile ethnography platforms.

For researchers with more of a creative flair, this open channel of communication can also be used to guide respondents on what they should film. Added footage of peoples’ environments or of the subject matter is often edited alongside the video diaries to create more engaging videos to summarise & presenting findings.

Go for depth, not breadth

Mobile ethnography is typically best conducted with a small sample size. The aim with this method is to dig deeper and capture qualitative insights, not just quantitative data. By using a handful of participants who are thoughtfully recruited, you can ensure a good mix of voices and spend more time with each, rather than casting the net wide and only obtaining skin-deep sound bites.

Put simply, mobile ethnography helps you tap into the potential of your customers, your employees, or your brand ambassadors. Everybody has a story worth sharing, and by pairing these stories with qualitative video research you benefit from content that can accurately guide your businesses decision making.

Mobile ethnography can have a huge, tangible impact on your business growth and profits. See how mobile ethnography helped Co-op Insurance save £3.5m & boost NPS by 65%.

Interested in finding out more? Check out our rundown of four of the leading mobile ethnography platforms, and discover which style might suit your needs best.

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