Netnography is the branch of ethnography that analyses the free behaviour of individuals on the Internet that uses online marketing research techniques to provide useful insights. The word “netnography” comes from “Inter[net]” and “ethnography” and was a process and term coined by Robert Kozinets. As a method, “netnography” can be faster, simpler, and less expensive than ethnography, and more naturalistic and unobtrusive than focus groups or interviews (Kozinets, 2009, del Fresno, 2011, del Fresno 2014). Netnography is similar to an ethnography in five ways:
- It is naturalistic
- It is immersive
- It is descriptive
- It is multi-method
- It is adaptable
It provides information on the symbolism, meaning, and consumption patterns of online consumer groups (Kozinets, 2010) or online communities consumption unrelated but online sociability based on the exchange of information (del Fresno, 2011). Netnography is focused on cultural, symbolic information insights.
The basis for netnography
Consumers turn to computer-mediated communication for information on which to base lifestyle, product and brand choices. Besides perusing advertising and corporate websites, consumers are using virtual communities and other online social sharing formats to share ideas and contact fellow consumers who are seen as more objective information sources. The freely expressed opinion of individuals on the social web provides researchers with data coming from thousands of individuals behaving freely. It also allows researchers to keep record of these interactions, quantify changes over time, and perform insightful analysis using a variety of tools and methods.
The study of communication patterns and content between/within these social groups on the Internet is one method of netnographic analysis. These social groups are popularly referred to as “virtual communities” (Rheingold 1993). However, as stated by Jones (1995), the term "virtual" might misleadingly imply that these communities are less “real” than physical communities. Yet as Kozinets (1998, p. 366) pointed out, “these social groups have a ‘real’ existence for their participants, and thus have consequential effects on many aspects of behaviour, including consumer behavior” (see also Muniz and O’Guinn 2001).
Individuals participating in these "virtual communities" often share in-depth insight on themselves, their lifestyles, and the reasons behind the choices they make as consumers (brands, products etc.) The knowledge exchanged within these public communities is often commercially valuable, as it can help companies develop better marketing strategies, help identify industry trends or candidates for employment, or help product engineers improve their products. Not surprisingly, since these communities often include attempts to inform and influence fellow consumers about products and brands (Handaa 1999, Muniz and O’Guinn 2001), and since one major factor influencing positive brand equity for one brand over another is consumer advocacy (Almquist and Roberts, 2000), commercial firms are often very interested in determining the level and nature of conversation around their brands and products, and looking for methods to influence those conversations.
- Like ethnography, netnography is natural, immersive, descriptive, multi-method, and adaptable.
- Unique among social media methods, netnography seeks to generate cultural insights from contextualized data.
- Netnography follows six overlapping steps: research planning, entrée, data collection, interpretation, ensuring ethical standards, and research representation.
- Computationally assisted netnography adds the careful use of software tools to the protocols of the netnographic process in order to assist with data collection and analysis.
Netnography offers a range of new insights for front end innovation, providing:
- Holistic marketplace descriptions
- Communicative and cultural comprehension
- Embedded understanding of consumer choice
- Naturalistic views of brand meaning
- Discovery of consumer innovation
- Mappings of sociocultural online space
Gaining entry to online communities and cultures
Given the wide range of choices of online communal forms, including blogs, web-rings, chat, SMS, gamespaces, bulletin boards, and mailing lists, researchers should spend the time to match their research questions and interests to appropriate online forum, using the novel resources of online search engines such as Yahoo! and Google groups, before initiating entrée. Before initiating contact as a participant, or beginning formal data collection, the distinctive characteristics of the online communities should be familiar to the netnographer. In netnographic entree, following ethical standards such as full and accurate disclosure of the presence of the researcher is critical (Kozinets 2002).
In a netnography, data takes two forms: data that the researcher directly copies from the computer-mediated communications of online community members, and data that the researcher inscribes. Reflective fieldnotes, in which ethnographers record their observations, are a time-tested and recommended method in netnography. Although some netnographies have been conducted using only observation and download, without the researcher writing a single fieldnote, this non-participant approach draws into question the ethnographic orientation of the investigation.
As with grounded theory, data collection should continue as long as new insights are being generated. For purposes of precision, some netnographers closely track the amount of text collected and read, and the number of distinct participants. CAQDAS software solutions can expedite coding, content analysis, data linking, data display, and theory-building functions. New forms of qualitative data analysis are constantly being developed by a variety of firms (such as MotiveQuest and Neilsen BuzzMetrics), although the results of these firms are more like content analyses of than ethnographic representations (Kozinets 2006). However, some scholars dispute netnography's distance from content analysis, preferring to assert that it is also a content analytic technique (Langer and Beckman 2005).
Distinct from data mining and content analysis, netnography as a method emphasizes the cultural contextualizing of online data. This often proves to be challenging in the social-cues-impoverished online context. Because netnography is based primarily upon the observation of textual discourse, ensuring trustworthy interpretations requires a different approach than the balancing of discourse and observed behavior that occurs during in-person ethnography. Although the online landscape mediates social representation and renders problematic the issue of informant identity, netnography seems perfectly amenable to treating behavior or the social act as the ultimate unit of analysis, rather than the individual person.
Research ethics may be one of the most important differences between traditional ethnography and netnography. Ethical concerns over netnography turn on early concerns about whether online forums are to be considered a private or a public site, and about what constitutes informed consent in cyberspace (see Paccagnella 1997). In a major departure from traditional methods, netnography uses cultural information that is not given specifically, and in confidence, to the researcher. The consumers who originally created the data do not necessarily intend or welcome its use in research representations. Netnography therefore offers specific guidelines regarding when to cite online posters and authors, how to cite them, what to consider in an ethical netnographic representation, when to ask permission, and when permission is not necessary (Kozinets 2002).
Advantages and limitations of Netnography
Compared to surveys, experiments, focus groups, and personal interviews, netnography can be less obtrusive. It is conducted using observations in a context that is not fabricated by the researcher. Netnography also is less costly and timelier than focus groups and personal interviews.
The limitations of netnography draw from its more narrow focus on online communities, its inability to offer the full and rich detail of lived human experience, the need for researcher interpretive skill, and the lack of informant identifiers present in the online context that leads to difficulty generalizing results to groups outside the online community sample. However, these limitations can be ameliorated somewhat by careful use of convergent data collection methods that bridge offline and online research in a systematic manner (Kozinets 1998, 2002). Researchers wishing to generalize the findings of a netnography of a particular online group to other groups must apply careful evaluations of similarity and consider using multiple methods for research triangulation. Netnography is still a relatively new method, and awaits further development and refinement at the hands of a new generation of Internet-savvy ethnographic researchers. However, several researchers are developing the techniques in social networking sites, virtual worlds, mobile communities, and other novel computer-mediated social domains.
Sample netnographic analysis
Below are listed four different types of online community from a netnographic analysis by Kozinets (see Kozinets ref. below for more detail). Even though the technologies, and the use of these technologies within culture, is evolving over time, the insights below have been included here in order to show an example of what a market-oriented “netnography” looked like:
- bulletin boards, which function as electronic bulletin boards (also called newsgroups, usegroups, or usenet groups). These are often organized around particular products, services or lifestyles, each of which may have important uses and implications for marketing researchers interested in particular consumer topics (e.g., McDonalds, Sony PlayStation, beer, travel to Europe, skiing). Many consumer-oriented newsgroups have over 100,000 readers, and some have over one million (Reid 1995).
- Independent web pages as well as web-rings composed of thematically-linked World Wide Web pages. Web-pages such as epinions ([www.epinions.com]) provide online community resources for consumer-to-consumer exchanges. Yahoo!’s consumer advocacy listings also provide useful listing of independent consumer web-pages. Yahoo! also has an excellent directory of web-rings ([www.dir.webring.yahoo.com]).
- lists (also called listservs, after thesoftware program), which are e-mail mailing lists united by common themes (e.g., art, diet, music, professions, toys, educational services, hobbies). Some good search engines of lists are [www.egroups.com] and [www.liszt.com].
- multi-user dungeons and chat rooms tend to be considerably less market-oriented in their focus, containing information that is often fantasy-oriented, social, sexual and relational in nature. General search engines (e.g., Yahoo! or excite) provide good directories of these communities. Dungeons and chat rooms may still be of interest to marketing researchers (see, e.g., White 1999) because of their ability to provide insight into particular themes (e.g., certain industry, demographic or lifestyle segments). However, many marketing researchers will find the generally more focused and more information-laden content provided by the members of boards, rings and lists to be more useful to their investigation than the more social information present in dungeons and chat rooms.
Netnography follows six overlapping steps:
- Research Planning
- Data Collection
- Ensuring ethical standards
- Research representation
- Clark. L, Ting. I.-H, Kimble. C, Wright. P and Kudenko, D.
- Del Fresno, Miguel; López-Pelaez, Antonio (2014) Social work and Netnography: The case of Spain and generic drugs. Qualitative Social Work, vol. 13(1), pp. 85-107 DOI: 10.1177/1473325013507736
- Del Fresno, Miguel (2011) Netnografía. Investigación, análisis e intervención social. Editorial UOC, 1ª edición, Barcelona, España ISBN 978-8497883856
- Almquist, Eric and Kenneth J. Roberts (2000), “A ‘Mindshare’ Manifesto,” Mercer Management Journal, 12, pp. 9-20
- Jones, Stephen G. (1995), “Understanding Community in the Information Age,” in Cybersociety: Computer-mediated Communication and Community, ed. Stephen G. Jones, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 10-35
- Kozinets, R (1997): Want to Believe: A Nethnography of the'X-Philes' Subculture of Consumption RV Kozinets - Advances in Consumer Research.
- Kozinets, Robert V. (1998), “On Netnography: Initial Reflections on Consumer Research Investigations of Cyberculture,” in Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 25, ed., Joseph Alba and Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, pp. 366-371
- Kozinets, Robert V. (2010), “Netnography: The Marketer’s Secret Weapon”; White Paper.
- Muniz, Albert, Jr. and Thomas C. O’Guinn (2001), “Brand Community,” Journal of Consumer Research
- Rheingold, Howard (1993), The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- Roy Langer, Suzanne C. Beckman, (2005) Sensitive research topics: netnography revisited Vol. 8 Issue 2 pp. 189-203
- Armstrong, A. and Hagel, J. (1996). The real value of on-line communities. Harvard Business Review May–Jun, pp. 134–141
- Ginga, Daiuchuu (2013), "In the Footsteps of Kozinets: Towards a New Netnographic Taxonimization,", Journal of Internet Appreciation, pp. 418-419.
- A Brief Introduction to Netnography (slides)