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Netnography: The Marketer's Secret Ingredient

How Campbell’s and other marketers are using the tools of anthropology online.

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.

SOUP STORIES: To relaunch its Campbell’s Kitchen site, the packaged-foods giant used netnography to study online customer behavior.

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.

The studies my colleagues and I designed and carried out at Campbell’s looked at the “natural environment” of the online world. But our work didn’t stop at the company’s social-media efforts; it involved a detailed look at a vast range of interactions going on around meal planning and recipe sharing. We sought out and studied competitive companies and their efforts. We located and listened to bloggers. We checked out forums and newsgroups. We examined video blogs on YouTube and beyond. We came up with statements about brand impact, best practices, missed opportunities, failed efforts, and key trends.

The results gave Campbell’s a set of powerful recommendations that helped the company create a responsive new version of the site. Unique monthly visitors shot up from 120,000 before the main relaunch in October 2008 to more than one million by January 2009, according to QuantCast. The number, emotional depth, and topical breadth of interactions increased. The company was able to build its brands into meal-planning routines, creating online features such as “tips for busy cooks,” “portion control,” and “search by mood” (for example, users can search for recipes described as “hearty” or “comforting”). There was a new, family-like feel to the redesigned Campbell’s Kitchen, a strong sense that this was a helpful, responsive place to visit.

As for its impact on sales, “that’s a bit hard to quantify,” says Campbell’s O’Connell. Traffic increased partly because consumers are going out less in the down economy, so “in-home cooking is at a 15-year high.” She says the site incorporating all the insights from the netnographic analysis was completed in the spring of 2010. For the most recent fiscal year, corporate revenue for Campbell’s was up just 1percent, to about $7.7 billion.

The insights from netnography, though, could have a longer-term impact on product development. The analysis shed light not only on how and why consumers engage in online interactions but also on what deeply matters to them. With other clients, the goals are often different. Some typical objectives:

Letting consumers drive innovation. Working with Adidas, the Munich-based company Hyve used netnography to study online communities of consumers who collect and decorate athletic shoes. The creativity discovered in these communities led Adidas to an innovation that fueled one of its most successful product launches in recent years.

Unpacking brand meaning. My study of the Listerine brand for NetBase Solutions revealed a wide range of authentic meanings. Some consumers associated the color of the mouthwash with alien beings; some found its smell reminiscent of a grandparent.

Mapping the online market space. At Campbell’s, we were able to create a graphical representation of the vast online resources that consumers draw upon to plan meals, and we strategically located the company’s efforts within that map.

Transferring and translating cultural codes. In past studies of online coffee connoisseurs who frequented Starbucks and Peet’s, among others, I found an insider language rich with local jargon about java that could be used to connect with local users.

Revealing a community’s most powerful players. For the launch campaign of a new mobile phone by Matchstick, a Toronto-based marketing firm, my studies revealed definite narrative patterns in how certain bloggers lead others to use new technology. Revealing who influences others in a community, and how and why, provides a portrait of how word-of-mouth works.

So while focus groups, surveys, and econometric data models still rule the day, there are a few pioneers who are adding this secret ingredient to their recipes. Companies like American Express, Coca Cola, Daymon Worldwide, Beiersdorf (Nivea), BMW, Swarovski, Adidas, and Campbell’s are already benefiting from netnography. They are learning to listen not only to the words of the social medium but to its deeper, and much more profound, cultural message.

Robert V. Kozinets is a professor of marketing at York University in Toronto. He’s also an MIT affiliate faculty member and a marketing research consultant.

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