Digital Ethnography for PR, Part 5: The TEACUPS Framework

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.

Evolving Spradley

Dr. James Spradley’s master ethnographic framework is considered to be the gold standard for ethnography, as a template for conducting credible, robust study. However, in the context of digital ethnography, the limitations of digital research may not always make Spradley’s framework the best choice.

In the ideal scenario, digital ethnography would be complemented by analog ethnography, including in-person interviews, surveys, and other tools for exploring how audiences behave. However, time and budget may not permit exhaustive ethnographic research studies which make the most of Spradley’s framework.

Given these constraints, how might we adapt the framework?

Other Frameworks

Five other frameworks have evolved over the years to accommodate different ethnographic study needs, including:

  • POSTA: First created by Pat Sachs and Gitte Jordan for spurring innovation in corporations
  • POEMS: Created by Vijay Kumar and Patrick Whitney for video analysis
  • AEIOU: Created by Rick Robinson to help Xerox PARC interpret videos of user experiences
  • AAAA: Created by Paul Rothstein for UX/UI design methods
  • Outside In: Created by Patty Sotirin for undergraduate students to conduct single-semester ethnography projects

When we examine the use cases for each of these frameworks, few fit our needs to understand a digital audience through social and digitally published content.

ethnographic frameworks

We know from our last discussion on ethnography that, thanks to meta-data and new machine learning technologies, all but two of Spradley’s dimensions are accessible to digital research tools. Only Goals and Feelings are impossible to divine solely through monitoring.

If we use more common nomenclature, we can reduce Spradley’s 9 dimensions to 7:

  • Time: derived from meta-data
  • Events: derived from content like tagging and hashtags
  • Actions: derived from user content
  • Conversations: derived from user content
  • Users: derived from social media profiles
  • Places: derived from meta-data (such as GPS and EXIF tags)
  • Stuff: derived from user content

We arrive at the whimsical TEACUPS as our digital ethnography framework most appropriate to the goals and limitations of our tools and capabilities. With TEACUPS, public relations professionals can organize and understand their audiences, competitors’ audiences, and the audience at large. Using TEACUPS, seek to identify gaps between different audiences and where your efforts can fill those gaps.


As you conduct your own ethnographic research for public relations, consider the TEACUPS framework for your digital ethnography needs. It’s appropriate to the digital world, acknowledging the limits of what users share, and organizes user data and meta-data cleanly.

When possible, supplement digital ethnography with other ethnographic and anthropological research methods for the most complete picture of your audience possible.

We hope you found this ethnography series helpful and useful in your quest to better understand the people your company serves.

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