Introduction to Netnography

Some of you may have heard of Netnography, for the rest Netnography is a fairly new concept. Netnography is basically a behavioural analysis method which is gaining prominence recently. It is defined as follows :

Netnography is one of the latest online research methodologies which is generally used to understanding social interactions in an unsupervised environment. It is a set of research practices related to gathering data, analyzing data and presenting it in an appropriate format based on the observation of its participants.

The above definition is based on different sources (most notably Wikipedia). 

Research through understanding digital communications

In Netnography, as stated above, the data is derived from digital communications in an unsupervised environment. It has been found out through previous supervised surveys that people tend to be more self-aware and less honest. This does not help improve the customer experience in the long term. 

In 1995, Robert Kozinets used coined the term netnography when he used this tool to analyze online fan discussions about the new Star Trek movies. The motive behind using netnography was analyzing the true reactions and reviews of people to the new movie. In 1995, analyzing online discussions was a way easier task than it is now! In 2018, with the amount of user-generated content being pushed into the web reaching new highs every day, the task is much harder. However, the improvement in technology and data processing has made it easier in recent years.

Netnography finds its main application in market research to validate an idea or consumer research to get authentic reviews from people to improve the overall product and user experience.

Brief Summary of Netnography and its origin

With the exponential increase in the general population’s online presence over the last few decades, researchers have tried to capture the internet’s true potential. “Netnography” is a fairly new concept that researchers are using to gain access into the minds of a widespread consumer base via digital communication.

So what exactly is Netnography? What are its advantages? Who is using it and what are they using it for? To find out, we must first understand its origins.

Netnography is simply an extension of ethnography. Ethnography is defined as “the study and systematic recording of human cultures; also: a descriptive work produced from such research” (Henning, 2011). Some of you may have been the subject of an ethnographic study where researchers observe your behaviors, attitudes, purchasing decisions, etc. in order to discover opportunities or validate concepts. This process can be very expensive and extremely time consuming. The reliability of the data has been a subject of debate as well. Some opinions express a concern for consumer behaviors to be skewed as they know they are being observed and thus might not act in the same manner as they normally would. Because of the surveillance method used in ethnography, the number of subjects that can be observed is greatly limited by time and money. This is where Netnography comes in.

Netnography utilizes various online tools such as targeted forums, focus chat rooms, blogs, etc. to reach its subjects. These tools are set up and monitored by the researcher whom can direct or redirect the dialogue according to the specifications of the client. Some subjects are incentivized to provide their opinions, and others may simply have a vested interest in a product or service and state their opinions for free. So how is this better than ethnographic studies?

In theory, the data that is provided in Netnographic studies is considered to be more accurate. This is because the subject is in a remote location, is allowed his/her anonymity, and is not bullied by a dominant respondent in a focus group. As a much less intrusive research tool, this has a profound effect on the opinions that are expressed. People are much more inclined to provide truthful, unbiased responses in this type of online environment. Netnography is also vastly more cost-effective than ethnographic studies. The main costs that a researcher would incur might be the setting up of the online Netnographic tools and paying respondents to go online and provide their “expert” opinions. Now that we have a better understanding of where Netnography came from and the benefits that it can provide, let us explore why it is important and how it is being applied in the real world.

“‘More than 50% of Fortune 500 companies have made open innovation an integral part of their innovation strategy.’ Open innovation extends to consumers, embracing their ‘knowledge, experiences, creativity and ideas [and] are understood as valuable partners'” (Henning, 2011).

This is an important concept as businesses understand that consumers are not just people to sell to anymore. They are the most important tool in conducting market research and concept validation. More and more companies are now developing ideas for their innovative initiatives by using an open-source strategy. So what exactly are companies needing consumer opinions for?

We see a lot research conducted in the realm of “innovation.” We hear this word a lot, but in this context, we refer to it as developing fresh, creative opportunities in the marketplace. Another area in which Netnography is greatly utilized is exploring new products and/or new industries. We see this often with manufacturers wanting to extend their reach into a new realm to generate more revenue. Since this uncharted territory is obviously not a core competency, they must conduct an ample amount of research before making the leap. One other main use of Netnographic studies is to gain additional perspectives on existing sectors (Henning, 2011). Going back to the example of a manufacturing company, they might not want to make any revolutionary changes, but still would like to explore new revenue streams. In this case, consumer insight or the opinions of experts in the field might uncover a new use for an existing product within one of the company’s already existing competencies.

The use of Netnography as a research tool is limitless. Ultimately, it is a cost-effective, unobtrusive, and accurate way of uncovering the data that companies are constantly seeking. As our global population’s online presence continues to increase and our technological tools at hand become more effective, we will see Netnography become more and more prevalent.

Advantages of Netnography over traditional research methods

  1. Netnography focuses on the online aspect/ the digital communications happening in the target audience while traditional research does not have any particular focus.
  2. Netnography gives you a natural picture of user opinion while traditional research methods are largely influenced by the researcher. The research is only as good as the questions the researcher is looking out for.
  3. On top of that, netnography offers a less intrusive form of research which is largely carried out by observations instead of disturbing the audience’s ecosystem. In a supervised environment, as stated before, the candidates are much more likely to alter their responses. Netnography is not only less intrusive but also provides more data. Users are much more likely to divulge sensitive details and honest, unfiltered opinions in an unsupervised environment. The researcher can acquire all these details through observation alone!
  4. There is a large amount of data available currently which can be analyzed with netnography. This is a cost-saver as it saves time and a lot of efforts. Traditional research methods involve collecting of data which is the most difficult part!
  5. All the data in netnographic research is available freely to everyone and easily accessible at any time. Traditional research methods require protecting the user identities.

How should you conduct Netnography?

Digital Communication Analysis Netnography

Like every other research method, Netnography also needs a lot of planning, however, the benefit here being that the planning and implementing is dynamic and can even happen simultaneously. In order to carry out Netnography, there are three important phases to consider :

1) Decision Making

Well, of course, you need to decide your end-goals and start making a plan based on your goal. These are the things you need to consider before starting with netnography :

  1. Identifying the goals of your research.
  2. Identifying the best target community.
  3. Defining Research Topics and Questions
  4. Selecting appropriate platforms to conduct the research
  5. Presentation of the researcher in front of the community: Have to decide whether the researcher will be actively involved in the conversation or will be observing the conversation.

It is very important to decide how the researcher will be presented in front of the community, as this will completely decide the course of your research. Different goals require different strategies and hence a lot of time should be spent on deciding the role of the researcher

2) Data Collection

There are three methods for data collection and I cannot stress it enough, you need to decide how to meet your goals in the best way possible!

  1. The first consists of directly scraping computer-mediated data from the page of the observed group (e.g. virtual communities, blogs, social networks), texts, images, audios or videos, that is, data whose creation and mediation the researcher is not directly involved in. This is a grey area for ethics, you need to decide your course of action in this case.
  2. The second refers to the data that the researcher himself creates through interaction with community members, for example, e-mail interviews, chat, instant messaging, and other digital media.
  3. This type of collection refers to the field notes of the researcher, about the exchange of information between the members of the communities, their interactions and interpretations, as well as the researcher’s own participation and interaction with the community.

If you are playing an active role in the community, as  a researcher you always need to remember that :

  • You need to act like a new member and not a researcher. The community will be warmer to you this way.
  • You need to start giving before expecting something in return. These are close-knit communities which don’t like people who contribute nothing to the community.

3) Making sense of the data collected/ Data Analysis

The analysis and interpretation is the third procedure. This is the phase where the data collected in the previous step is analyzed and interpreted to derive meaning from it. In the steps of organizing, collecting and analyzing data, the researcher can use several types of tools for analyzing the collected data.

This is usually an iterative process where you need to refine your data a fair few times to achieve the best possible result.

Is Netnography a Qualitative or Quantitative Research Method?

The answer to this question is not straightforward. Netnographic research mainly uses strong qualitative signals for arriving at the conclusion, however, it is not unheard of to supplement these qualitative techniques with quantitative techniques.

To answer the question, netnographic research is mostly a qualitative technique which sets it apart from traditional research methods which combine both qualitative and quantitative techniques (focusing more on the quantity of course)

Creating Customer Personas With Netnography

A good marketing strategy is always to create multiple user personas for your product or services. There are usually multiple demographics that will be interested in your product. There will also be different levels of interest portrayed in your product and the data collected from them will be different too. For example, the users of a product can be easily classified into four broad categories :

  1. The new product buyers: These are the people who are new to your product and are just basically testing the waters and want to learn new things about your product. They don’t fully understand your product yet and are looking for help.
  2. The Toddlers: They are learning new stuff and starting to engage with the community and provide useful insights about the product.
  3. Loyal Customers: These are repeat customers or extremely satisfied customers, however, they are happy in their own shell and do not contribute to the community much.
  4. Long-term customers turned into spokespersons: They probably know more about your product than the new employee you just hired. They have turned into a spokesperson for your product. These might be celebrities or well-known names in your business who are using your product. Make sure you use their potential to market your product.

Using the data available to you through netnographic research, you can easily classify all your customers into these 4 groups.

A Case Study for Listerine using Netnography

Netnographic Case Study for Listerine

The below case study is my summary of the complete research which can be found here.

Overview 

1) Source Data: User Generated Content on Social Media

2) Quantitative Analysis: The number of people talking about Listerine as compared to other brands in the same segment

3) Qualitative Analysis: The qualities that make people buy Listerine as well as insights about the product

Research Approach 

The research was primarily based on freely available consumer-generated content on social media to find out :

  1. Overall positive/negative preferences for Listerine
  2. Identifying opportunities for improvement or capitalizing on strong points to enhance them further.
  3. Comparing the user response to the brand as compared to other brands.
  4. Finding out insights about other products from Listerine

Social Media Sources Used 

  • Internet Forums: Online communities where consumers post questions related to the brand and engage in general discussions. A forum is particularly associated with particular topics.
  • Blogs: Blogs are run by an individual or a group of individuals as well offering their opinion on a particular product or a particular niche of products. Blogs enable comments and this might further lead to forum-like discussions.
  • Microblogs/Social Networks: Consumers can leave short/long posts on these platforms  (like Twitter or Facebook) voicing their opinions on a particular topic

Findings

  1. Listerine occupies only a small space in the online discussions.
  2. However, their share in their niche is still pretty high.
  3. The overall sentiment for Listerine users is highly positive (i.e the users are not divided on their opinions)

Positive Patterns Recognized

  1. More than 50% of consumers like the germ-killing abilities of Listerine
  2. Consumers use various ways to describe that.

Suggested Course of Action

  1. Using Consumer Generated Content as a part of the advertising strategy.
  2. Describing the benefits of products in layman terms even if it is not quite correct scientifically i.e talking to the customers in their own language.

Negative Patterns Recognized

  1. More than 20% of Listerine consumers believe that the product is too harsh.
  2. Some consumers complained about the taste too

Suggested Course of Action

  1. Developing a lighter version of Listerine.
  2. Improving the taste of the product!

Summary

Apart from this, through netnography, it was found out that Listerine has been used for several other purposes than the specified purposes. The company can validate these findings and promote the product on those lines. Also, if using the product for such purposes is harmful, the company must add disclaimers on their products and actively dissuade users for using the product for the same.

Conclusion

Netnography is a fairly new concept which has gained a lot of traction in market research, more and more companies are adopting this technique to gain better insights about their consumers. In my opinion, netnography should be coupled with other research methods to provide the best possible outcome.

If you have any questions about Netnography, let me know in the comments section, I would be happy to answer them for you.  This article will be updated frequently as I learn more about netnography, stay tuned!