What is Mobile Ethnography? [Definition, Examples & Benefits]

mobile enthography concept

In the market research industry, mobile ethnography provides valuable insights and can have several key advantages over other types of market research methodologies.

The flexibility of mobile market research approaches combined with the above benefits creates a strong return on investment.

Our market research company details more about what mobile ethnography is, the benefits of using it, and example studies.

Interested in conducting a mobile ethnography study? We can help with that too. Contact Drive Research by emailing [email protected] or by filling out a form, here.

What is Mobile Ethnography?

Mobile ethnography is an innovative market research technique that combines traditional ethnography with mobile research.

Ethnography in market research involves observing consumers in a natural environment, allowing you to gain a reliable understanding of their behavior, values, and beliefs.

The growth of technology and increasing smartphone adoption presents an opportunity to conduct ethnography projects through a mobile device.

Consumers have also become accustomed to sharing feedback through their smartphones, making mobile ethnography a discreet way to gather insights and gain a deep understanding of the consumer experience.

How Does Mobile Ethnography Work?

Mobile ethnography projects have significant flexibility with how they are structured.

In some cases, you might use location tracking or geofencing to trigger a survey when an individual visits a location where advertising or a specific product is present.

In other cases, you might take a more comprehensive approach such as:

  • Qualifying individuals
  • Creating various stages/missions in the research
  • Conducting follow-up research

While the former approach of conducting a geofencing survey is a more basic design for a mobile ethnography project, the latter approach combines traditional recall and in-the-moment research, allowing you to fully understand the complete consumer journey from beginning to end.

Benefits of Mobile Ethnography

Regardless of the details of the final research approach, mobile ethnography provides several key benefits. For a short synopsis, watch this 60-second video.

Or, keep reading as we discuss the advantages of mobile ethnography below.

Mobile Ethnography Benefit #1: Participant Engagement

Smartphone adoption has continued to grow to the point of being near ubiquitous.

Consumers bring their phones everywhere, allowing researchers to connect with these individuals during key points in the customer journey.

This accessibility level is also largely beneficial for mobile diaries or longitudinal studies that require re-connecting with the participants over the span of several days, weeks, or longer.

Mobile Ethnography Benefit #2: In-the-Moment Feedback

With traditional research, participants are often asked to recall something they experienced days, weeks, or even month prior.

When reviewing results, you quickly realize that many participants may have trouble accurately recalling this information (such as mistaking one brand for another).

This is known as recall error, and it can have a substantial impact on the quality of data you collect, limiting the extent to which you can utilize the findings.

With mobile ethnography, in-the-moment feedback provided by participants is reliable and highly insightful.

Mobile Ethnography Benefit #3: Cost-Effective

When compared to traditional ethnographic research, mobile ethnography is much more cost-effective.

The costs of on-site ethnography add up quickly with logistics, traveling, and on-site staff requirements. This is especially the case if you’re conducting research in several markets.

Recommended Reading: What is the Most Cost-Effective Market Research Methodology

Mobile Ethnography Benefit #4: Quick Turnaround

The other benefit that comes along with mobile ethnography is condensed project timelines.

Less setup, logistics, and travel, combined with concurrent research sessions, allows a project to be turned around much faster.

More specifically, our mobile ethnography research company offers clients a live portal to view survey responses in real time. As soon as someone answers the survey, you will have access to their feedback.

online survey portal preview by drive research

Use this interactive link to preview our client survey portal

Mobile Ethnography Benefit #5: Enhanced Project Scope

The cost-effectiveness and enhanced timeline of mobile ethnography enable a project to be scaled up much more easily.

With a greater scope, several markets or audiences can now be tackled with one project - with minimal increase in project costs and timelines.

For instance, mobile ethnographic studies are often used as an alternative to intercept surveys

Think about the time, money, and resources dedicated to staffing interviewers at each site location in order to survey those entering or exiting the designated area.

All of these nuances are removed with the use of mobile market research. 

Mobile Ethnography Benefit #6: Engaging Insights

One of the key benefits of mobile ethnography is the rich and engaging insights that it generates. In addition to answering traditional research questions, participants can use their smartphones to capture videos and photos of their experiences.

The research findings tell a better story and give the project team a greater understanding of the consumer.

This is enormously beneficial, especially when the research is part of a larger initiative that involves several stakeholder groups such as:

  • Researchers
  • Marketers
  • Executives
  • Engineers
  • Investors

Examples of Mobile Ethnography Studies

1. Geofencing

This mobile ethnography methodology is used to create virtual boundaries around a specific location on a map.

When a participant enters the geofenced area, location detection on a mobile device can trigger a participant’s response by prompting them to take a picture. 

Geofencing surveys commonly have two different approaches: 

  1. Online Geofencing Survey: This is an online survey that uses geofencing technology to guide participants in the study.
  2. Out-of-Home Mobile: Out-of-home advertising can be part of a geofence ethnography study. This study is primarily used to gauge the effectiveness of advertisements in the surrounding area, such as billboards or public relations campaigns.

2. Intercept Surveys

An intercept survey is useful for mobile ethnography research. The survey provides a glimpse into a respondent's natural environment through the use of video and pictures.

This survey allows respondents to answer survey questions and perform other research-related activities on their mobile devices. 

3. In-Home Usage Testing (IHUT)

An IHUT collects feedback from participants about their experience with a specific product or service. A product is delivered to a participant's home and they must use it in their daily or weekly routines.

Throughout the study, participants are surveyed regularly to collect feedback in real time.

Recommended Reading: Ultimate Guide to In-Home Usage Tests

4. Hybrid Market Research Study

A hybrid market research study involves different research methods, including mobile ethnography, interviews, quantitative surveys, or observation.

By combining qualitative and quantitative data, researchers are able to provide organizations with a 360-degree analysis of consumer feedback.

Our market research company recommends conducting a qualitative market research study first, followed by a quantitative survey.

That's because, the in-depth feedback gathered in say, an 8 to 12-person focus group, can specify and narrow down must-have questions and answer options in a larger, more representative survey. 

5. Mobile Diary Study

This type of study can be recorded directly on an app or found online. In this study, research respondents virtually document specific behaviors over a certain period of time. 

For example, let's say a clothing store is looking to gather insight into drivers to purchase and in-store experiences. A market research company can recruit participants that match their target audience to participate in an online mobile diary after visiting the store. 

Shoppers would be asked to complete a short survey after visiting and shopping at the store to share more about their experiences.

Conduct Mobile Ethnographic Studies with Drive Research

Drive Research is a consumer insights provider that partners with organizations to deliver relevant insights through various research approaches.

If you’re interested in partnering with Drive Research to conduct a mobile ethnography project, contact us below!

  1. Message us on our website
  2. Email us at [email protected]
  3. Call us at 888-725-DATA
  4. Text us at 315-303-2040


Chris Coville

As the Director of Research of Drive Research, Chris has 10 years of experience in the market research field and has completed projects with organizations across the globe. He was also named a 2017 40 Under 40 Award winner.

Learn more about Chris, here.


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