Digital Ethnography Workshop

A toolbox for investigating online consumer tribes

Onsdag, 21 marts, 2012 - 09:00 to Torsdag, 22 marts, 2012 - 17:00

In recent years Digital Ethnography, or the application of qualitative ethnographic enquiry to online data has become an expanding field of research. In this two day workshop we offer a crash course in the basic methods of digital ethnography and a tutored hands-on experience within a mini research project. We will convey an approach that builds on a combination of available open source tools for quantitative analysis with interpretative qualitative analysis.

The course will be run by two researchers from the Center for Digital Ethnography (, Italy’s leading research environment for qualitative approaches to digital data, and a market leader in commercial online consumer research, with clients like Chicco, Nestlè, Barilla, Grappa Nonnino and Gazzetta dello Sport:

Alessandro Caliandro who has just defended his Ph.d on the methodology of digital ethnography at the University of Milan and who has been responsible for developing the research methodology of the Center for Digital Ethnography will take charge of the first day’s introductory crash course.

Massimo Airoldi, who works as a junior researcher at the Center will give a hand in tutoring hands on research experiments during the first and the second day.

The course is open for PhD students, post-docs, faculty and whoever else might want to acquire hands on experience with digital ethnography. Participants can chose to follow the first day’s introductory lecture, or, to continue to participate in the tutored research exercise in the afternoon of day one and morning of day two.


Elanor Colleoni:


Day One


9-12     Introduction to Digital Ethnography (Alessandro Caliandro)

13-15   Designing a Research Strategy Online (Alessandro Caliandro)

            Developing research questions for group projects

(Alessandro Calliandro & Massimo Airoldi)

Day Two


9-12 Tutored research experience (Alessandro Calliandro & Massimo Airoldi)

13-15 Presentation and discussion of research results


In this short course, a netnographic approach based on a brand new language will be presented.

In particular, two main heuristics will be presented and discussed: web tribe and narration of self.

Web Tribe. Differently from classical tribal marketing (Cova 1997), a ‘web tribe’ can be conceived of as a social space rather than a social group made out of people ‘in love with’ a particular brand. Specifically I define a web tribe as a flux of communication or a discourse that: a) flows through and springs from specific ‘places’ of the 2.0 web (forums, blogs, social networks, etc); b) converges on specific brands or products; c) converges on specific topics of conversation.  

Narration of self. Even though the ‘tribal discourse’ converges on a specific and common brand, it doesn’t converge on the same social values, that is to say that online consumers don’t agree about the value to assign to the brand, and, in the same way, they don’t agree about the identities one can express through the brand. Nevertheless, online consumers find an agreement on a different ontological level: the narrative level; as though they converge on the narrative repertories they use to valorize the brand and themselves. Thus these loosely-connected consumers succeed in creating a cultural bond (even if transient) by means of the narrative schemas they use for narrating themselves through the brand.


Netnography, a linguistic blend of ‘Internet’ and ‘ethnography’ coined by Robert Kozinets (2010a), is a qualitative emphatic research methodology utilizing adapted ethnographic research techniques to enable researcher to deeply immerse in online consumer conversation.  Largely on account of the emergence of the social media phenomenon and user-generated content, the internet has become a place where thousands of highly involved consumers exchange personal experiences, concerns and opinions on huge variety of products and brands as well as on product usage. Besides, users go even further and discuss possible solutions for product-related issues, modify existing products or even develop innovative products themselves.

By the passive and unobtrusive observation of forums, blog and other social media content, companies are able to gain unbiased consumer insights. Instead of directly asking and thus inevitably biasing the consumer’s response, the netnography approach aims to understand the emotional, social, and cultural context of consumers’ product experiences in a merely observant fashion.

Thus, it is not a case that Robert Kozinets defines netnography as a secret weapon for marketers and companies (Kozinets 2010b), since it helps them to orient their own business decisions. In particular netnography turns out to be very useful for purchasing innovation in three business domains: Product Design (see the ‘Nivea Case’ [Bilgram et al. 2011], and the ‘Lego Factory Case’ [Arvidsson 2006]), Communication Design (see the ‘Listerine Case’ Kozinets 2010b), Brand Reputation (Hearn 2010; Arvidsson 2011a). 

Anyway, it is difficult to achieve substantial results if the researcher lacks of ‘right’ heuristics for coherently organizing the consumer online conversations and for extracting sense out of them. Actually, although it is quite easy to scrape from the Internet large amounts of conversations, it is not equally easy to interpret a messy mass of online post. Also this goal turns out to become even more impervious if one relies on ‘wrong’ or ill-defined social categories. One of those is certainly ‘online community’ – a notion, for example, featured by Kozinets’ netnographic approach.    

Given the structural fragmentation and fluidity of the Internet it is basically impossible that a social entity as a community could thrive on the web, since (in a strictly sociological sense) the term community denotes a social formation marked by dense webs of interpersonal interaction and durable attachment to the shared territory. On the contrary, as Adam Arvidsson (2011b) recently pointed out, online consumers can be better understood as members of Digital Publics. 

There are accumulating evidences that most forms of online consumers action involve such looser and more transitory forms of engagements with brands and products: posting once or twice in a blog, looking up an online forum on motherhood to ask a question about branded product and then never coming back again, liking something on Facebook and so on. And while marketing approaches tended to focus on the crucial role played by a small community of influencers (a community in the sense that they interact with each other), in crating and diffusing buzz and opinion, recent approaches that rely on the potential of big digital data, have instead pointed at the role of large mass of loosely connected individuals (Watt, Dodds 2007).          

Sidst opdateret: Communications // 12/10/2012