Marketing Communication Anthropology: Social Branding, Media Machines, Netnography The blog of Robert Kozinets, USC communication/marketing professor

September 30, 2010

Is Netnography the Greener Marketing Research?

Revelation, Inc., a Portland, Oregon online marketing research company, has a big name that sets some big expectations.  I somehow got on their email list, and they asked if I wanted to see their latest report. It is called “Avoided Carbon Emissions from Online Immersive Research.

Hmmmm. That’s an interesting angle on online research-that it is good for the environment. They take the positioning pretty far, too. They have commissioned a scientific, math and formula filled paper that was prepared by “Fluid Market Strategies” that looks at the question. Fluid  is a Portland based consulting firm that specializes in energy services and sustainability consulting. You can receive it, too, just by inserting your email address into the appropriate box on their site.

Intriguing. The report compares using traditional in-person focus groups and their own online “immersive” research, which sounds like an online panel, similar to the setup that CommuniSpace has. (Revelation, please reveal the correct answer to me if I am wrong).

They went to some trouble to rigorously estimate the greenhouse gas (or GHG) emissions of the in-person focus group and subtract those from the same research  conducted using their immersive online software approach.

In person, you have things like transporting participants and researchers, using hotel space, using up food and energy moving around. Researcher and client travel accounted for the lion’s share of GHG emissions, 68 percent. With the online method, you have the use of the computer, the servers, the researchers, and participant’s use of energy. A whopping 98 percent of emissions came from the researchers’ use of servers. You can already see the difference.

They found that, with a large focus group (N= 20 participants), the in-person groups create almost 2.5 times as much GHG emissions than the online ones. Per project, they work it out to about one half of a metric ton of CO2 emissions per research project.

 How much is that? It is like:

  • canceling two typical plane trips; 
  • shutting down a typical 10,000 square foot office for one day;
  • or avoiding nine typical business trips (1,100 miles) by car.

Pretty interesting. That is per research project

I see no reason why netnography would be at least as efficient as this, when compared with in-person techniques such as ethnography (researcher travel), surveys (paper use, mail, energy in transportation), or focus groups.

Now, some negations. Of course, picking the number 20 for a focus group is way off. We’re usually talking 8-12 participants in a focus group. And moderators and business people do not always have to travel by air to get where they are going. And some applications (such as using virtual worlds) are very, even ridiculously energy-intensive. So there are some it-depends aspects to the conclusion that online always produces less carbon than offline research. But it is compelling nonetheless.

Think about it-run a major netnography instead of a bank of 20 focus group and you save yourself the carbon of forty plane trips. And, I think, in many cases you probably will end up with different and deeper insights.

Yet another great reason to consider netnography. It’s Green! Or, maybe (cynics, arise….), yet another great excuse for greenwashing…you be the judge.


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