Digital Ethnography for PR, Part 1: Introduction

Digital ethnography is a relatively new field of study which promises, when done well, to deepen the relationship between communicators and their audiences by developing and understanding context. In this series, we’ll examine digital ethnography – a field of study pioneered by our colleagues at NATIONAL Public Relations. We’ll explore why it’s important, what it is, major frameworks and limitations, and how digital ethnography will be practiced by PR practitioners.

Content Is a King Without a Kingdom

Marketers are fond of reciting the cliche that content is king. This cliche is questionable in its veracity: what good is a king without a kingdom?

Today, content shock is strangling marketers who’ve been taught that creating more content will cure our woes.

Why has this happened? Marketers and communicators create content without any thought about who the content is for. We create generic, one-size-fits-all communications, from eBooks to blogs to social media accounts to press releases, assuming that we have one giant audience who wants our stuff. The reality is that no such kingdom exists; we don’t have one large audience but many small ones.

PR Doesn’t Know the Audience

Another systemic problem in public relations is “mentions” syndrome / share of voice addiction. We in public relations focus so much on reach and mention counts that we completely neglect the context of what our audience is saying. Ashley Madison, British Petroleum, and political candidates all have amazing share of voice numbers, amazing social media mentions numbers – but would you really want your brand associated with any of their scandals?

PR, in its rush to measurement without understanding principles of analytics and statistics, has resorted to simply measuring conversation volume without analysis of its content.

Analytics Can’t Solve Everything

As we recently described, quantitative analysis can’t fix everything. Quantitative analysis – such as mention monitoring – presents us with a broad understanding of data, but not a deep understanding of it. We count how many people talked about us, but we rarely delve deep into why they’re talking about us.

Further, quantitative analysis can be misleading; share-of-voice is meaningless unless qualitative restraints are placed on the analysis to limit it to a specific context.

Ethnography Provides Context

Digital ethnography is one solution to help remedy many of these ills. The purpose of digital ethnography is to provide context, to find the king a kingdom.

If content is king, context is the kingdom.

We learn context with digital ethnography. Properly and well done, digital ethnography reveals the behaviors, beliefs, and decision processes our audiences experience as they interact with our brands and each other. We learn the people, places, messages, interactions, and qualitative aspects of how we communicate and how our audiences communicate with us.

In this series, we’ll explore ethnography more formally, including major frameworks, limitations, and how to execute a digital ethnography study of your own.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

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Posted on August 22, 2016 in Ethnography, Public Relations, Qualitative, Research

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About the Author

Christopher S. Penn is an authority on digital marketing and marketing technology. A recognized thought leader, author, and speaker, he has shaped three key fields in the marketing industry: Google Analytics adoption, data-driven marketing and PR, and email marketing. Known for his high-octane, here’s how to get it done approach, his expertise benefits companies such as Citrix Systems, McDonald’s, GoDaddy, McKesson, and many others. His latest work, Leading Innovation, teaches organizations how to implement and scale innovative practices to direct change. Christopher is a highly-sought keynote speaker thanks to his energetic, informative talks. In 2015, he delivered insightful, innovative talks on all aspects of marketing and analytics at over 30 events to critical acclaim. He is a founding member of IBM’s Watson Analytics Predictioneers, co-founder of the groundbreaking PodCamp Conference, and co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast. Christopher is a Google Analytics Certified Professional and a Google AdWords Certified Professional. He is the author of over two dozen marketing books including bestsellers such as Marketing White Belt: Basics for the Digital Marketer, Marketing Red Belt: Connecting With Your Creative Mind, and Marketing Blue Belt: From Data Zero to Marketing Hero.
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