Applying Netnography and the Netnography08 Conference: Part 3

Now I want to talk a little bit about the keynote address that I was honored and delighted to give at Netnography08 in Munich, Germany last week. My presentation sought to provide a fairly broad overview of the method of netnography and to look at it from a big picture point of view. How has it been developed? How has it been used? What patterns are there in the way that it has been applied by scholars and other researchers?

I began by reminiscing a little bit about the origins of the technique in my thesis year, and gave some details on that. Then, I went straight to the definition and carefully looked at the origins of netnography in ethnography, and the ethnographic stance of participant- observation. I re-examined the goals of netnography as similar to the desired insights we get from ethnography.

Then, I turned to my assessment, and here was where things got a little bit interesting. I overviewed some of my early work, and detailed how well it did, or didn’t fit with my intended stance, and with the participative ethnographic imperative. After this I started looking at the published works that had used netnography as a method since then. What I detected was a movement, a pretty dramatic one, towards a purely observational stance, and away from a participative one. Some of my own work could definitely be included as participating and even contributing to this trend.

When I looked at the major marketing research firms that were using information in online forums, discussion groups, and the blogosphere, I could detect very similar patterns emerging, a movement towards larger datasets, a classification-and-sorting approach that necessarily decontextualized the communal and cultural elements and characteristics of the data.

After detailing this, I went back to the classics and quoted some of the most important sociologists and scholars, The Masters and Giants upon whose Shoulders we stand. I drew on their wisdom to inform the topics that related directly to online communities and the major ways we were seeing them behave.

I bumped that knowledge against the ethnographic goal of participation again to argue that different types of knowledge and insight are generated through participation. Not better knowledge and insight, necessarily, but different. The different stance and perspective afforded by participation added real value-that was why ethnography was so often held up as the gold standard of innovation-seeking marketing research (in books such as Cagan and Vogel’s classic Creating Breakthrough Products, for example).

In the next part of the presentation, I outlined my own analysis of why this movement away from participation and towards more observational and quantified stances was occurring. My conclusion was that marketing research is still related to models of marketing that are quickly becoming outdated.

Just as marketing was oftentimes still about talking instead of listening, marketing research was still about taking rather than giving. In the margins, I briefly outlined a vision, A New Hope for what marketing and marketing research could one day become. I believe that the participative options opened up by managers doing netnography could play an important role in this ongoing transformation not only of business and marketing, but even of society (yes, lofty big and maybe impractical “vision thing” thoughts for the keynote….).

I enjoyed the talk very much and plan to write it up for one forum or another, maybe develop it into the book I’m planning on writing about online communities and their range of implications.

Before I close this topic of the Netnography08 conference in Munich, I also want to mention that I had a chance to meet some very interesting colleagues there. Prof. Dr. Frank-Martin Belz from the TUM Business School in Munich. He holds the—wait for this (and it’s worth waiting for) “Chair of Brewery and Food Industry Management.” I asked him if it includes samples of beer. He smiled slowly, and nodded. Now that is a dream-job. Seriously though, we found out that we have lots in common with his work on sustainability and communities.

Nice also to see Prof. Dr. Anton Meyer again, to catch up with McKinsey’s Florian Jodl, and to see Fabian Göbel, and to meet Rita.

And here’s a major callout to Maria Horn, the Insights Strategist from the ad agency G2 in Hamburg, who is a regular reader of this blog. It was great to meet you, Rita, Maria, Fred, and all the rest of you.

Finally, a great big thank you to Hyve for their invitation and major Bavarian hospitality. Thanks to Julia J. for her limo services (don’t quit your day job), to Hans G. for soccer commentary, and to Steffen H. for his kind and able tour guiding. Mega-thanks also to Johann for the thoughtful talks and insights. As before, I had a very memorable and enjoyable time in Munich.

I came away from this conference with a renewed sense that German companies like Hyve, Beiersdorf, Adidas, BMW, and Burda are global innovators and early adopters. These are companies that are recognizing, developing, and spreading the use of netnography for marketing and innovation.


  1. pablosan76 June 20, 2008
  2. rpwagner June 23, 2008
  3. hueck June 24, 2008
  4. rpwagner July 17, 2008

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