Netnography: mining for insight online

12 Jul 2010|Added Value

You own a cellphone brand.  Imagine if you could eavesdrop on a couple of top tech-heads debating the merits of the latest cell phone technology.  Or you’re in the baby category.  What could you find out listening to group of mothers discussing baby food or nappies in the comfort of their own homes?

Turn on your computer.

With hardly any trouble, you can tap into the most astonishing array of information.  Mommy bloggers exchanging organic recipes and hints on surviving the ‘happy hour’ before bed time.  Tweenies lol’ing on Mixit, ramping up their street cred with their latest must have High School Musical gear. Baby boomers Facebooking their far flung children and posting pictures of the Sunday roast they’re missing.

The world is putting its life online.  For brand managers, this is a potential gold mine of insight.

Ethnography, a tool borrowed by modern researchers from anthropologist and sociologists, relies on the researcher immersing themselves in the lives of their subjects –or consumers – to understand the vagaries of behaviour.

How do socio-economic factors affect brand choice?  Does culture play a role in purchasing behaviour and brand engagement?  How do the various social roles we adopt affect how we consume in different occasions? The researcher is in the field, observing and noting those points of similarity and difference that could unlock a new innovation or opportunity.

With the internet, the ethnographer can enter a whole new world – from the convenience of their computer screen.  There are sites out there that invite you to post pictures and video, from everything from the contents of your fridge or handbag to your weekend antics. Blogs abound, covering every topic under the sun.  And YouTube, Flickr and Twitter are awash with everyday insights into the strange quirks of human nature.

Even in South Africa, where the online medium is pooh poohed as elitist and niche, the rich array of voices can uncover a huge amount of information about how lives are lived.  Arthur GoldStuck of World Wide Worx puts the estimated number of active blogs in South Africa at 6 000.  Justin Hartman of blog aggregator, Afrigator, puts the number closer to 10, 000.  Both say there are probably about between 1.7 and 1.9million South Africans on Facebook.  As for Twitter, some statistics say there are up to 80 000 registered South African accounts, although realistically, only 2 000 are probably active.

Not huge numbers.  But there are two things to consider.  One, the South African online space is currently full of vocal people, who are largely connected, educated and professional.  And two, online access, fuelled by internet enabled mobile penetration, is on the rise and so these numbers will continue to increase over time and are moving into the mass market.

Locally, social networks and media have become a normal extension of desk research.  Many brand managers admit to following influential bloggers to see what people are saying about their brand.  Companies like Quirk eMarketing are even developing and using bespoke tools to track reputation; sourcing and assigning relevant to brand name searches from online media to social networking sites on behalf of top clients.  Rob Stokes, who heads up the business, says one of his financial services clients is even thinking of overlaying their reputation research with their communications spend and asking their creative agency some hard questions if there isn’t a positive correlation.

Submarine, a small Johannesburg agency, has been using panels of online experts (uber-geeks with a passion for gadgets) to successfully track trends in cell phone technology and test concepts for a cellular brand.  Traditional research houses like Synovate are also using the panel model to create cheaper, faster insight solutions for clients.

The online ‘crowdsourcing’ of concepts or ideas has hit the creative industry too.  Idea Bounty, a site which opens clients’ briefs to an online registry of about 7,200 creatives, offers a hefty, dollars based bounty for winning ideas. Unilever recently dropped a traditional UK agency in favour of the Idea Bounty model for their Peperami brand.

For commercial ethnographers, semioticians and trend spotters, the online space provides a cornucopia of fantastic ideas.  In fact, digital ideation, or idea hunting, is possibly where online can really deliver the goods.  People are naturally drawn to sharing new, interesting and quirky things.  And getting responses or fine tuning concepts and ideas in real time can half the research time.

Tracking influencers in this space, and exploring the fads and trends and cultural nuances of various markets, can really help brand owners spot early opportunities fast.

Globally, our colleagues have been using the collective power of social media with great effect.  Most recently, our French team conducted a study for Levi’s on our AVid platform where they created a world wide online community of edgy inventive creative professionals, from designer to musicians, to talk about jeans.  The ‘respondents’ blogged, unloaded video and photos and pinged ideas off each other in a rich media environment.  A team moderated the debate 24/7 and stimulated the discussion when the bloggers hit on something interesting.  The study helped Levis to unlock, explore and refine a range of new concept ideas for the brand.  And provided a co-creation platform for the brand with some of its most passionate advocates, all of whom have persuasive and active voices online.

There’s no doubt that what’s happening online opens up a wealth of opportunities for brands, particularly in categories that are predisposed to the medium (technology for example) or for sensitive topics.  We recently conducted a study which asked people about their, um, posterior hygiene.  Much easier to hold a moderated group discussion online, where the anonymity works towards greater sharing and intimacy.

But there are some major ethical issues which face brand owners and researchers alike.

Privacy and transparency

Even though the internet is a very public place, people still have an expectation of a certain level of privacy. All the experts in the field stress that transparency and permission seeking is critical if you want to directly lift insights, images or video for commercial or corporate use.  Or if you want to engage people with your brand.

Similarly, recruiting online needs a deft hand.  Being upfront about your intentions in creating bespoke platforms or communities will pay off, while using people’s energy and time without their full knowledge can backfire.  And with the viral power of negative commentary in the online medium, this could do more damage to the brand than good.

Engage your respondents
People like to be asked their opinion.  And online, many people are loudly opinionated.  Brands can harness this, if they approach it right – by inviting not invading.  Online brand research can be about co-creation with an interested party of invested people, or it can be the online equivalent of telesales; invasive and annoying.

Brands often charge into the online environment.  They build communities for a campaign or a piece of insight, and then withdraw without any kind of follow up.  The interactive nature of the medium means that today’s once off respondents could be tomorrow’s advocates and future ongoing panel experts.

Brands are also not necessarily connecting their online research with other sources of insight work.  Investing in linking and maintaining the insight gleaned from online forums, groups or panels can not only provide a wide range of demographic research, but the rich depth of attitudinal insight.

Category and brand
The category or brand will often dictate the level of engagement you can expect from online respondents.  Passion-inducing brands, good or bad, can almost always expect a rich range of insight, both spontaneous and from organised research.  But unknown or the more boring commodity type brands might struggle to find the insights they’re looking for online.

A skilled insight professional should be able to find the right forum for your brand.  And you can be guaranteed that there’s at least a handful of people out there on the world wide web who are talking about something to do with your category.

Take it all with a pinch of salt
The online medium is great because it’s anonymous.  The online medium is terrible because it’s anonymous.  Without the benefit of body language, tone of voice and context, online can also be a dangerous place to draw insights.

Similarly, people tend to magnify elements of their personality online, where they can reinvent themselves with the flick of a switch.  It’s often hard to know how genuine people are in their convictions or opinion.  And there will always be ‘trolls’, out there just to stir things up.

Sarcasm, irony, disdain and scepticism are just some of the emotions that are hard to discern, even with the benefit of emoticons and a clever turn of phrase.  Unless you’re in a rich media environment, the emotional intent of your respondents can also be really hard to read and interpret.  Researchers need very specific skills to be successful in this space.

You get what you pay for
Lastly, many brand owners are embracing online as a cheap alternative to traditional research, but this is a mistake.  While online certainly has cost benefits, building bespoke environments, moderated or observed by skilled professionals will deliver richer, more relevant insight, but with a different kind of price tag.

By Dr. Inka Crosswaite and Kate Wolters, Added Value South Africa

Originally written for Strategic Marketing Magazine, South Africa. 

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