For millions of consumers, the sight or smell of Campbell’s soup triggers nostalgic associations with comfort, warmth, family, and childhood. But when the 140-year-old company, based in Camden, New Jersey, was refining its designs for its online community, Campbell’s Kitchen, brand managers concluded that traditional surveys and focus groups that tell them such things weren’t providing the insights they needed.
There seemed to be an ingredient missing. So the soup giant turned to the emerging field of netnography to see if it could provide tools for understanding how the Internet was transforming the day-to-day habits and choices of their customers. “We used to be really relevant with consumers around meal planning, and we became less so over time,” says Ciara O’Connell, manager of consumer insights. “We needed to know a lot more about online consumer behavior.”
Netnography is a set of techniques that adapt anthropological research to the world of the Internet. It takes the tried-and-true, more-than-a-century-old technique of ethnography, or the holistic study of specific populations, and applies it to the universe of social media. In the case of Campbell’s, a netnographer would study why and how people swap recipes and soup stories, analyzing how these experiences fit into their daily lives.
I saw the possibilities of this technique when the Web was new. While working on my PhD dissertation in the field of marketing in 1995, I was confronted with the vast research potential of the online or “virtual” communities that were then emerging. I adapted each element of ethnography to create a rigorous and disciplined new process. I also came up with a name for it: Internet plus ethnography equals netnography.
Although netnography is now established in the world of academic marketing research, it is still virtually unknown to most real-world marketers, brand managers, and consumer insight specialists. Those who do use it tend to keep it under wraps.
That’s a shame, because pervasive methods like focus groups or surveys tend to stop at the door of online media. Netnography, by contrast, is built for social media, and it helps researchers follow consumers into online social worlds without compromising their privacy. It offers advantages in understanding the world of social media as it is actually experienced: authentic, somewhat confusing, emotionally intense, often raw. It offers companies a chance to channel the genuine voice of the consumer.
On one recent Campbell’s Kitchen thread, for example, a member asked others what their favorite dip is and what they eat with it. A number of suggestions followed, including Triscuits with onion dip. One user recommended a “surprise spread,” involving chipotle hummus and seafood. Although some Campbell’s soup mixes were recommended, so were other brands: “I like the Knorr spinach dip served in a bread bowl with chunks of bread for dipping,” wrote one customer. “Another one I like is the very simple Mexican dip of Velveeta and salsa using tortilla chips for dipping.” The variety and liveliness of the thread revealed a gregarious and active community.
The netnographer not only studies these kinds of interactions but also looks for deeper connections. For example, one customer recently posted news that “our granddaughter, Megan, on her horse Prince Champion, was the Grand Champion this weekend in the Merriwood Equestrian Horse Show.” Although this may not seem to have much to do with soups or dips or recipe planning, it is a sign of the community’s health. Members relate to one another almost as if they were in a real kitchen, pointing to the feelings of trust, closeness, and familiarity associated with the brand.