The gifts of our colors may be different, but God has so placed us as to journey in the same path — James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans
Netnography is the observation of human behavior on the internet. Today, businesses of all sizes use expert netnographers to to observe how people interact on the internet. This article introduces readers to netnography.
As a child, I heard stories about the Masai-a tribe mainly residing in Kenya and Tanzania. I was told the Masai could stare down a lion. They also happen to be one of the tallest people in the world with an average height of 6ft, 3 inches. I was very keen to observe the tribe in person.
About a decade ago, I received an invitation to attend a family wedding in Kenya. It was more than just a wedding for me. Not only was it my first time outside India but it was also an ethnographic dream come true. Africa, to me, is the continent where it all began — home to our ancestors and rich in natural beauty beyond comparison. My trip to Kenya proved that and much more.
Today, the modern tribe lives on the internet. Naturally, the internet represents a giant social experiment. It is of interest to business and to society in general. That’s where Netnography comes in.
The word “ethnography” is made up of two words ie ‘ethno’ which means of people and ‘grapho’which means I write. I attended a class where a professional ethnographer explained his modus operandi. It ranged from simply carrying a diary along and observing people go about their daily lives to actually finding good representatives of a tribe or community who could explain their way of life. Thus, methods of collecting data range from observation, inquiry, surveys to interviewing members of a community.
Often, ethnography is guided by themes or issues that the ethnographer wants to study. The idea is to insert minimal bias, be less intrusive, gather and document data. Ethnography can be used to discover unexpected issues, identify certain best practices and survival techniques. For instance, the Masai have survived for decades on very little.
Ethnography is also a great qualitative research technique that can be used to understand health systems. In combination with genetics, Ethnography can enrich the body of human knowledge about disease, resistance and history of races.
Netnography can take many forms including studying the behavior of communities on bulletin boards or social media networks to gather data about the qualitative aspects of consumers that is hard for an algorithm based on pure statistics to obtain.
The term Netnography was originally coined by professor Robert Kozinets in 1995. It is a portmanteau of two words i.e. the internet and ethnography. As per Wikipedia, Netnography is an online research method originating in ethnography which is applied to understanding social interaction in contemporary digital communications contexts. Today, the primary use of netnography is to study consumer behavior online. In a paper entitled “Evolving netnography: how brand auto-netnography, a netnographic sensibility, and more-than-human netnography can transform your research”, Professor Kozinets writes:
“The basis of netnography is rather simple. It is grounded by the principle that the perspective of an embodied, temporally, historically and culturally situated human being with anthropological training is, for purposes relating to identity, language, ritual, imagery, symbolism, subculture and many other elements that require cultural understanding, a far better analyst of people’s contemporary online experience than a disembodied algorithm programmed by statistics and marketing research scientists.”
In 1998, Professor Kozinets believed that netnography may prove useful for three general types of studies, and in three general types of ways: (1) as a methodology to study “pure” cybercultures and virtual communities, (2) as a methodological tool to study “derived” cybercultures and virtual communities, and () as an exploratory tool to study general topics.
Netnography can be classified into four broad categories based on it’s utility or value and focus. As seen in the image on the left, the axiological (value) is mapped on the y-axis and the focus of the study is mapped on the x-axis. Based on this 2x2 grid, we have four types of netnography i.e. auto, symbolic, humanist and digital.
Auto netnography is the equivalent of auto ethnography in that it contains personal and autobiographical elements. Symbolic netnography is used to create identities and online communities whereas digital netnography combines statistical trends (data) with social data to drive business decision making. Humanist netnography is designed to study issues affecting society.
Business As It Should Be
When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be! — Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
I don’t know who is happier? The Masai who are possibly oblivious of the world issues outside their tribe or the rest of the world which knows a lot and yet remains ignorant and unhappy. The broader question then is: do we know how life should be? Perhaps, we don’t. Let’s face it: Utopia is just the stuff of fiction.
For a business, the question translates into: do we know how clients envision products to be? Often, the clients don’t know what they want. In the process of netnography, a company may discover a latent need that the clients did not know at the outset. Reality is somewhere between what the business thinks its products should be and the unknown needs of a client. Netnography can help bridge the divide.
- Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online by Robert Kozinets