The Coming Age of Digital Ethnography

By Jake Sorofman | February 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

The lead story in this week’s New York Times Sunday Business section caught my eye. It’s a fascinating profile of Dr. Genevieve Bell, Intel’s director of user experience research—essentially, their resident futurist responsible for discovering innovation opportunities in subtle moments of human behavior.

This approach to participatory observation—known as ethnography—is certainly nothing new. For ages, marketers have known that the truth is often found between the lines, in the dark corners and shades of gray revealed by what people do, not necessarily what they say.

Often, it’s found precisely in the dissonance between what consumers report as fact and what’s observed as truth.

Today, ethnographers play an increasingly important role in tuning into the voice of the customer. Surveys and focus groups, it turns out, often suffer from groupthink and false reporting. And big data, while a powerful source of insight, can hide the truths only found in human observation and inspiration.

My colleague Andrew Frank and I have published research which seeks to correct the imbalance between head and heart—to ensure we don’t ask too much of data or expect it to deliver the whole truth and nothing but the truth (see “Introducing Gartner’s Intelligent Brand Framework” [subscription required]).

Stay tuned for more on this particular research in a future post.

In the meantime, consider what happens when you bring this now somewhat ancient idea of participatory observation to the digital domain. Here, sensors, quantified self and the Internet of Things become a source for new insights revealed through close observation of reflexive, utterly human patterns of behavior.

As the digital and analog universe becomes wholly instrumented for measurement, this approach to digital ethnography will go mainstream and it will shine light on the truth like never before.

But the question this all raises: at what cost? This is something that Richard Fouts, Mike Gotta and I explored last year in our Maverick Research project, “Personal Surveillance as the New Barter System” [subscription required].

The instrumentation of everything will only fuel an inequity that consumers will seek to correct by demanding remuneration for the personal data marketers seek to collect.

Consumers will rise up, demanding a fairer exchange of value for the recycled byproducts of their connected lives.

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