Improve your social networking with virtual ethnography

Social networking is all about niches and groups of people that happen to be online rather than in (callback term!) meatspace. Instead of hovering around the water cooler, we’re hanging out at Café World.

Of course, marketers like me (and you) who are constantly working to understand our clients’ target audiences need to understand the cultures in which they exist. Which is why the concept of virtual ethnography is so interesting.

Virtual ethnography, aka online ethnography, refers to related online research methods that adapt ethnography, the scientific description of cultures, to the digital world. (Gee, is this from Wikipedia?) Virtual ethnography means using online communities as your research lab.

Researchers who’ve practiced virtual ethnography have taken two different approaches:

1.     Go deep. You can deeply immerse yourself in the lives of your subjects by joining their communities, participating, and reaching out. You become an active participant to get insight. This approach is closer to traditional ethnographics standards of participant observation, prolonged engagement, and deep immersion.

2.     Lurk. Some researchers believe the right approach is to lurk. You can gain a lot by purely observing. (After all, wildlife scientists don’t necessarily go out and graze with the zebras.) And you don’t run the risk of changing the community, or exposing you or your clients to ridicule or anger. (Of course, quantum theory states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality but hey, we’re talking marketing here, not physics. Or are we…?)

You can hang out and be social, or just observe. There are arguments in favor of and against both. Choose whichever makes best sense for your situation.

Either way, consider that there are four ways that online interaction and community are distinct from face-to-face environments:

  1. Lack of body language. You can tell a lot about people by hanging out with them and observing their body language when you’re face-to-face, but you forgo those observational methods in virtual ethnography.
  2. Unprecedented eavesdropping. In the online world, you have an unparalleled ability to listen in on conversations and observe behaviors of people as they interact. You can spy without limits. That can be a good thing.
  3. Permanence of interaction. While conversations around the water cooler and on the phone are often ephemeral in the real world, conversations online become a matter of permanent record. (This is why so many prospective employers find Facebook so useful.)
  4. Private vs. public. The social nature of the new medium makes it unclear whether you’re in a private or public space, or some hybrid. This will be debated forever, but not here.

Here are some expert suggestions before you jump in:

Get to know the community. Before you start participating as a member or collecting information, make sure to understand the characteristics of the online communities you’re studying. It just makes sense to familiarize yourself with the territory.

Have a plan. Do you just want to see how many conversations revolve around a particular topic of interest to your client? How people react to some bit of market news? What the gossip is about? Or do you need answers to specific questions, like will this new amp that goes to 10.75 be sufficient for this group of musicians’ who claim they need an amp that goes to 11? Like any part of a marketing plan, your virtual ethnographic research should be planned too.

Collect as long as you gain insight. Unlike data mining, virtual ethnography focuses on the cultural context of online data, which can be tricky in an environment lacking social cues. You’ll be reading text, a lot of text, and will have to base your interpretations of what’s going on in a different way than you would if you were watching people’s behaviors and body language. If the activity as you perceive it stops being informative, you can stop watching or participating. Just know, however, that online communities can evolve quickly (consider Facebook itself) so make sure to return at some point to check out what’s going on.

Focus on what, not who. It’s often hard to identify who’s who online and, let’s face, not everyone is who (or what) they say they are. Virtual ethnography tends to focus on the social act rather than the performer. What is the community doing? What are the ongoing topics? What are the trends?

There are limits. If online ethnography won’t yield the results you seek, you can choose a service like BrainJuicer’s FamCam, which  puts webcams into people’s home to gather (their words, not mine) “Big Brother” style virtual ethnographic observations. The ultimate reality TV, consumers go about their daily lives, forgetting they’re being watched, while BrainJuicer researchers study them to your heart’s content.

Above all, keep in mind that virtual ethnography is new, as is social media overall. Your mileage may vary.

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