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.

Keep in Touch

Want fresh perspective on communications trends & strategy? Sign up for the SHIFT/ahead newsletter.

Ready to shift ahead?

Let's talk