The Ethnography-Technology Nexus

Posted on August 29, 2016
Posted By: Ellen Steiner

The world has moved from the “age of information” (1990 – 2010) into the “age of the customer.”  This is no longer the “customer-centric” paradigm that companies have embraced over recent decades. It’s a period characterized by the rise of the empowered customer who is armed with more information than ever before, and has the ability to engage with individuals and companies anywhere and at any time. Utilities are not immune to this disruption, and consumers, not ratepayers, expect more from their service providers.

With the widespread proliferation of internet access and smart phone ownership, researchers have unprecedented access to people’s everyday lives enabling us to develop a deeper understanding of consumer behavior, thus allowing us to better meet these evolving customer expectations.

The energy researcher’s toolbox of today is often characterized by traditional quantitative tools, a set of in-depth interviews, and every once in a while, a focus group. While these methods are useful, we, as an industry, must expand our toolbox to include technology-enabled tools. One such tool, online ethnography, sits at the nexus of traditional ethnography and technological innovation and has particular value to the energy and energy efficiency research.

Traditional ethnography has its roots in anthropology, where it is used to develop a holistic understanding of human societies and culture through observing people in their naturalistic environment. Although many academics might cringe,[1] in today’s world, market researchers often use ethnography as a synonym for naturalistic observation. The propagation of Facebook, Twitter, and smart phones has integrated the reporting of what people do, when they do it, and why they do it into normal, everyday behavior. This growing willingness of customers to share their experiences through social media has prompted the development of online ethnography (also referred to as mobile ethnography, or virtual ethnography.).

Online ethnography utilizes digital methods to capture customers’ perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and decision-making surrounding a company, brand, product or service -- often in the moment when a product or service is being used, consumed, or sold. Ethnography allows the researcher to both see what people do in real life (as opposed to an after-the-fact survey where respondents must articulate an answer that they may not completely remember), as well as uncover the meaning, the context, and the stories within the data. Traditional market research often requires participants to recall their thought processes and emotions from past purchases and usage behavior. Online ethnography moves the data collection to near real-time, gauging reactions to stimuli in the moment. Benefits of online ethnography include:

  • More real-time insights -> Deeper understanding of behavior in real-world context
  • Less reliance on recall -> Data collection in the moment
  • More comfortable with social media -> Research process feels familiar
  • Less intrusive -> More authentic responses

Of course, there are some drawbacks to online ethnography as well, including:

  • More time spent -> Findings in weeks not days
  • Small sample sizes -> Can lead to inappropriate conclusions
  • More data points -> Data management challenging

Now that researchers can ride in people’s pockets and purses and have them capture the path they take as they decide which lightbulb or thermostat they’ll purchase, and document every in-store, online and other influence along the way, more researchers can afford both the time and the budget to carry out ethnographic market research.[2] Some of tools often utilized in online ethnographies include:

  • Online Diary Studies. This form of longitudinal research has users log their activities, thoughts, and observations over an extended period of time. Diary studies are particularly useful for understanding long-term behaviors, such as usage scenarios, attitudes and motivations, changes in behaviors and perceptions, and customer journeys.[3] In the energy space, these are particularly effective in understanding how customers are using an incented energy efficiency measure, such as a ductless mini-split heat pump, to illuminate education and outreach opportunities to increase persistence of conservation behaviors. Online diary studies have become increasingly popular due to the ease of response and the multitude of response types including video, selfies, voice recordings and texting.
  • Mobile Shop-alongs. These in-store ethnographic interviews are intended to uncover the thoughts, influences, attitudes, and motivations as people shop for a product or service. Traditionally, researchers were sent along to a store to follow the customer around and observe the shopping experience, or use hidden cameras to track shopper behavior, but these opened up privacy concerns, as well as concerns that customers may not act naturally or be as candid, since they knew they were being observed. Mobile shop-alongs help solve these challenges by recruiting willing participants to record themselves with audio and video while shopping at a store, giving researchers direct access to people’s shopping behaviors. Shop-alongs are often utilized in upstream and mid-stream programs that include retailer partnerships in order to understand the customer experience on the sales floor and the efficacy of the salesperson in selling efficient measures.
  • Market Research Online Community (MROC). An MROC is a type of online research community where a targeted group of people are recruited to take part in a set of research activities around a shared topic of interest such as a new energy-efficiency program, over a set period of time. Members log-in to a site where they are asked to participate in discussions, video entries, exercises, polls, projective exercises, etc. The richness of this type of tool is not just in the data collection from each individual, but the insights gained through the interaction of the research participants. MROCS lend themselves well to ideation around new energy efficiency and DR programs, co-creation of new utility value-add product offerings, and pre- and post-launch advertising campaign feedback. 


[1] In academic circles, ethnography is seen as a method or strategy and participatory observations as a tool among many in the ethnographer’s toolbox.

[2] Over the Shoulder (2016, April 9). Using mobile qualitative to answer big data’s little questions (Web blog post). Retrieved from:

[3] Flaherty, K. (2016, June 5).” Diary Studies: Understanding Long-Term User Behavior and Experiences.” Retrieved from:

Authored By:
Ellen Steiner’s strong energy efficiency industry experience includes workforce education and training, marketing and outreach, and issues surrounding the design and evaluation of HVAC programs. Steiner’s special focus is developing innovative methodologies to tackle evaluation issues.

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