Netnography is online ethnography conducted in a specific manner. It is an interpretive research method that adapts the traditional, in-person participant observation techniques of anthropology to the study of the interactions and experiences that manifest through digital communications (Kozinets 1998). The word "netnography" is a portmanteau combining "network" and "ethnography" and was a particular kind of research process which was developed and named in 1995 by Robert Kozinets during his dissertation research at Queen's University on Star Trek fans. Netnography was originally a consumer research method, but use of the method has spread to a range of other disciplines, including education, library and information sciences, hospitality, tourism, computer science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, geography, urban studies, leisure and game studies, and human sexuality and addiction research.
Netnography is similar to an ethnography in five ways:
- It is naturalistic: it seeks to study online social interaction by participating within and observing it;
- It is immersive: it involves the researcher as a the key element in data collection and creation;
- It is descriptive: it seeks rich contextual portrayals of the lived experience of online social life;
- It is multi-method: it can involves a range of other methods, such as interviews, semiotic visual analysis, and data science; and
- It is adaptable: it can be used to study many types of online sites and technology-related communications and interactions
Netnography aims at a meaning-focused cultural understanding. Use of the term implies the ethnographic collection and interpretation of publicly-available, interactive digital communications as the main source of research data. However, depending upon need, researcher skills, and topical focus, netnographies can also extend to include a range of other data collection and analysis methods including content analysis, semiotic visual analysis, interviews (online and in person), social network analysis and the use of big data analytic tools and techniques (Kozinets 2015). Regardless of which particular data collection and analysis methods are used, the sine qua non of a netnography is the active search for a cultural understanding of interactive online communications and information.
Although earlier versions of netnography emphasized the link to online communities or virtual communities (e.g., Kozinets 1997, 1998), terms that were prevalent in earlier days of Internet research, contemporary netnography emphasizes that a focus on the study of online interaction and experience (Kozinets 2015). Miguel del Fresno writes about netnography as online communities consumption unrelated but online sociability based on the exchange of information (del Fresno, 2011). Whatever the particular orientation, netnography is invariably focused on cultural understanding and insight.
The Ethnographic Basis of Netnography
In the field of marketing research, netnography was originally conceptualized as a faster and less expensive method than traditional in-person ethnography, and one which is more naturalistic and unobtrusive than focus groups or interviews (Kozinets 2002). However, the benefits of netnography extend far beyond being cost-effective and current.
People use technologies of many kinds, computer-mediated communication, and digital information on which to base many of their decisions--from choosing dating partners to learning about religion, from thinking about gender and lifestyle to making choices for entertainment and good products and brand choices. Utilizing the panoply of online communication and information options, including social media, advertising, government and corporate websites, people interact with other 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; cf. Langer & Beckmann 2005).
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 the need for researcher interpretive skill, and the lack of informant identifiers present in the online context that can lead to difficulty generalizing results to groups outside the 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, as well as by careful sampling and interpretive approaches (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 Types and Processes
Netnography follows six overlapping steps:
- Research Planning
- Data Collection
- Ensuring ethical standards
- Research representation
- Kozinets, Robert (2010). Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online. Sage.
- 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
- Kozinets, Robert V (1997), "I Want to Believe: A Netnography of the 'X-Philes' Subculture of Consumption, Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 24, ed., Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 470-475. (First print appearance of netnography method). available online at http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=8088
- 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, available online at http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=8180
- Kozinets, Robert V. (2010), “Netnography: The Marketer’s Secret Weapon”; NetBase White Paper. available online at https://www.academia.edu/5320738/Netnography_The_Marketers_Secret_Weapon_How_Social_Media_Understanding_Drives_Innovation_Netnography_The_Marketers_Secret_Weapon_How_Social_Media_Understanding_Drives_Innovation
- Kozinets, Robert V. (2015), Netnography: Redefined, London: Sage.
- 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
- 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)