Enhance marketing research with netnography

Doing a netnography search as a first step allows companies to streamline their research efforts and analyze the sentiments and opinions expressed by online consumers.

Market research is the cornerstone that supports the marketing machines of every company. For consumer-facing companies, it is absolutely necessary to be tapped into the thoughts and pulse of current customers, as well as prospective ones, in order to uncover market segments and needs and better position products for consumer adoption.

The problem is that the traditional processes in place to conduct this kind of research are slow and costly and more often than not, biased. Companies pour in resources only to get mediocre results. This pattern has not really evolved over the years and companies continue to conduct their own surveys and studies with the goal of creating data to analyze and act upon.

But what if this data already existed and all they had to do was collect it?

Well, with the rapid emergence of blogs, forums, social networks and the plethora of information posted on the internet, that data is now out there and ready to be collected and analyzed. As soon as companies realize this and begin to leverage this information, they stand to save themselves millions of dollars and end up with better, more relevant information to boot.

It's called netnography -- an ethnographic study using the internet as a proxy for the voice of the customer.

Companies have traditionally relied on a range of qualitative and quantitative market research techniques conducted in parallel or serially, such as focus groups, surveys, interviews and ethnographies -- the direct observance of human behavior. While effective as standalone entities, each approach is subject to bias, and the triangulation process to combine results into one comprehensive output is costly and time-intensive.

While in the past such methods were the only means for gathering this kind of data, today all of this information is already being communicated and recorded on the internet, and companies have the ability to start harnessing this information through netnography.

The literal implementation of ethnography on the internet, netnography is the process of accessing and analyzing sentiments and opinions expressed by consumers chatting in blogs, forums and online discussion groups. With this approach, major companies can conduct research to identify the most frequently mentioned consumer opinions pertaining to their products and marketing methods with a much quicker turnaround time, cheaper price tag and results that are arguably more authentic expressions of opinion and need.

For example, if a major bicycle manufacturer wanted to identify the most frequently mentioned consumer complaints about bicycles in order to inform its marketing campaign, a series of netnographic searches could do a study of the subject much more quickly and for much less cost than more traditional methods would require.

By running a variety of different searches, such as for the causes of problems that occur to bicycles, or the causes of problems to specific brands or types of bicycles, the company can quickly develop an accurate picture of the issues consumers are experiencing. With as few as three searches, they might be able to uncover as many as 300 citations of consumers discussing these issues.

From there, with a minimal amount of analysis, they could then rapidly pinpoint the top concerns being expressed, for example maintenance and safety. The data can then be even further broken down in order to highlight facts. For example, safety is most often expressed in relation to a competitor's brand. This information, in turn, allows marketers to leverage the perceived strengths of their own products and exploit the weaknesses of a competitor's product. A search for "problems with handlebars" could uncover that 90 percent of the citations on this subject were about how a competitor's handlebars break easily, and thus allow a marketer to launch a campaign about the strength of their own brand's handlebars addressing this consumer pain-point.

A netnographic study can also be a very valuable first step in a larger research program. Performing a netnographic study before launching into more expensive and time-consuming methods can expedite the research cycle by providing researchers with preliminary information that enables them to immediately dive into more focused and valuable tasks.

Doing a netnography as a first step allows companies to streamline their research efforts and get more significant results out of the more resource-intensive phases.

The rise of increasingly sophisticated search tools makes it possible to leverage the vast quantities of data on the internet in all kinds of much more deep and meaningful ways.

There once was a time when it was unimaginable that you could look up anything from the history of Afghanistan, to the location of the nearest supermarket, to an old friend from elementary school, in 30 seconds; now it is simply second nature. Google and other search engines prompted a paradigm shift in everyday life. Now, a similar shift is taking place in the marketing world. Imagine if executives could instantly check on whether an idea presented to them will resonate with consumers before spending any further time or money on it, or how to direct their future marketing efforts. They can -- easily, cheaply and quickly -- with netnography.

Michael Osofsky is co-founder and chief innovation officer at Accelovation. Read full bio.

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