Applying Netnography and the Netnography08 Conference: Part 1

The Netnography08 Conference in Munich, Germany

Well, I can’t believe I been absent from feeding this blog for so long. It’s been an insanely busy, and insanely great month and a half, full of travel, presentations and practical applications of netnography to global companies. I’m going to bring you up to date in my blog postings here over the next few weeks. So let’s get started.

I just returned from Munich, Germany where I presented the keynote speech at “Netnography08,” which was, as far as I know, the very first conference dedicated entirely and exclusively to netnography as a practical marketing research method. The conference was organized by Hyve AG, the Munich-based innovation firm that I wrote about previously when I visited them in February (see the posting here). The conference was also sponsored by the Burda Group, one of the largest publishers in Germany and a digital communications pioneer in that space. I have to say that this was very exciting, and an honor, to see a technique that I developed as a Ph.D. student grow to become the focus of an entire business conference.

It was an excellent conference, held at the beautiful posh new Sofitel Munich Bayerpost. In attendance were people from BMW, IBM, G2, Swarovski, Ogilvy, Vivaldi, Ferrero, Daimler, o2, Yahoo!, Siemens, PbS, W. L. Gore, McKinsey, Wrigley, many other companies, a bunch of university people, lots of prominent bloggers, and other media people (I continue to admire and be amazed at how the academic and professional communities combine and merge in Germany). You can see a bunch of pictures taken at the event in this Flickr album.

We had some excellent and memorable presentations that really brought to life how useful applications of netnography are becoming to the conduct of marketing research, particularly emphasizing its role in generating the consumer insight that leads to new product development. Although the presentations were in German (and my German is, ahem, not very good), I was delighted to have a set of capable and very accommodating translators (one of whom was Prof. Anton Meyer of LMU).

I’m going to highlighJörg Blumtritt und Christina Heinzt and briefly overview three of those presentations and what they told us. The first one was by Jörg Blumtritt of the Burda Community Network. Burda’s research team, led by the very insightful and engaging Christina Heinz, seemed convinced of the value of netnography, as above and beyond the utility of other qualitative methods such as focus groups and interviews.

Jörg shared some of the findings of a series of netnographic studies about consumers’ media habits undertaken with Hyve. Interestingly, he noted that the method originally didn’t seem to work. There were no places, no forums, no boards, no real communities that they could find where people went to discuss, for example, how and where they used magazines. But a deeper look into online content revealed that consumers certainly did talk about media and the role of media in their lives. But consumers usually talked about their media habits incidentally. It appeared in the margins as people discussed fashion, business, celebrities, cooking, or TV shows. But it was ever-present.

Jorg presentingThrough the study, Burda felt that they got a much more holistic, embedded, contextualized, honest, and nuanced view of German consumer’s media usage meanings, habits, and rituals than they would have through asking direct questions in a focus group or a survey.

The next series of studies was presented by Michael Bartl and Michael Schmidt, two of the ruling troika of Hyve’s partners (Bartl is the businessman and manager; Schmidt is the creative designer; the other member is Professor Johann Füller, who is the scientist academic). They presented a couple of wonderful case studies with some rich detail.

The first one was done to find creative new ideas for Adidas shoes, and part of this study was written up in a wonderful article for the Journal of Business Research by Johann and his colleagues (you can search it here). In that study, Hyve sought out communities where basketball and other shoe “fans” were gathered to discuss shoes and also to design new shoes themselves. This was low-hanging fruit in some sense, because there are very active, engaged, creative communities. Their study highlighted some of the individual posters on some of the biggest boards, such as the incredibly rich Niketalk board, as well as some other sites, boards, and forums, and it also emphasized some of the new shoe designs.

Michael Bartl talking about online community shoe customizationAfter observing these basketball shoe enthusiasts, they drilled down from hundreds of thousands of postings in thousands of threads to a few hundred that were classified having the highest potential to inform innovative efforts. They then distilled their findings into two rich themes. First, they found that these shoe enthusiasts were also collectors. As collectors, they liked to display their shoes. The photographs that some shoe enthusiasts shared with one another depicted room after room filled with ugly cardboard boxes stacked one upon another. And there were multiple comments about how to display, maintain, and store the precious, collectible shoes.

The second theme revolved around the many pictures of shoes customized by individual users. Shoes were colored, died, cut, decaled, stenciled, painted, reshaped, melted, and altered in just about every substantial way that you could think of. Users were highly motivated to want to express their own individuality by changing the shoes, customizing them, adding their own symbols to them, making them their own.

From these two themes, Hyve came up with designs and recommendations to develop a new type of packaging for the shoes. The new packages would double as display cases, with UV-reflecting plastic allowing them to see the shoes inside and display them, but to protect them from harsh light and its aging effects. Moreover, the display packaging would have a branded seal at the top that, if it remained unbroken, would signal that the shoes remained in their pristine state. The seal would not only have symbolic value but would contribute to increased value on the after-market for shoes (and yes, if you haven’t heard it already, shoes are major collectibles; there’s a great documentary about the entire phenomenon called Sneaker Confidential).

Michael Schmidt presenting the innovation solutionIn addition, Hyve designed shoes with a type of customizing kit, that included special paint, brushes, decals and designs so that the shoes could be easily and effectively customized by anyone.

Both of these design initiatives were adapted and launched by Adidas, and the resulting product was a huge success. Michael Bartl’s presentation really hammered home the impact and importance of netnography and its attendant insights to Adidas’ innovation process in developing this new smash product.

In the next two postings I’ll tell you more about some of the presentations at Netnography08 that really brought to light how netnography is being adapted and used by companies in their innovation processes.

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