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Netnography and the secret life of cats

A brief intro to netnography.

Imagine this…

You suffer a serious accident. The doctor says your recovery will take months and require extended bed rest. When the shock wears off, you console yourself with one fact: at least you’ll be able to spend time with Clive, your beloved cat, right? Wrong.

In return for years of care and unconditional love you showered on him – and just when you need him most – Clive flees. Total jail-break. Gone, without a trace.

You rack your brain, trying to uncover the cause of Clive’s dissatisfaction. Was it something you said? Did he outgrow you? Did he find someone else who better meets his needs? Too much dry food, not enough Fancy Feast?

In Clive’s absence, you stew in a sour mix of anger, abandonment, jealousy and grief. Then weeks later, out of the blue, your prodigal cat returns, just as mysteriously as he disappeared, none the worse for wear.

That, in a nutshell, is the crux of “Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.” At least the love and desperation parts.

As for the GPS technology, that’s another matter altogether. It’s also where you come in, dear readers.

Your cat is your customer

Now take the above scenario, but imagine Clive is your customer, not your cat. Customers, like cats, are a cherished and necessary part of our business lives. After spending so much time in their company, we think we know them well. We think we treat them well. Heck, we even think they like us. Then one day – POOF! – they stray from us for no apparent reason.

In that moment of cognitive dissonance, when actual relations with our customer belie what we believed they were, we realize our point of view may be skewed.

So what to do?

Let’s return briefly to cats. Or, rather, the author of Lost Cat, who strapped a small GPS device on her kitty to find out where he went when humans weren’t watching. Or take a similar, but more scientific study conducted by University of Illinois researchers and published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Or the BBC and the National Geographic channels, which rigged cats with GPS trackers and video recorders, then aired the results on TV. (Always room for more cat videos, right?)

In each case, technology provided a window onto previously unseen data and, more instructively, new points of view.

Netnography is your CatCam + GPS

For product developers, marketers, and customer experience folks, the analog to CatCams and collar GPS devices is netnography. Like traditional ethnography, netnography tries to better understand people and their (micro)cultures. Technique-wise, it focuses on using modern methods and technology.

Using tools such as online diaries and customer journey and workflow mapping, netnography allows observation of customers in their “natural habitat," mimicking the approach of stalking your subjects with a cam and notebook, but without the intrusiveness and expense.

What does netnography reveal?

A lot -- and different things then you get in a one-off interview.  Netnography reveals a customer’s behavior, needs, desires, mental models, motivators, triggers, and emotions, among other important data. Beyond that, it allows a customer to engage more directly and immediately with the researched good or service. Equally important, netnographic tools provide a platform for observers to ask customers timely questions and more closely guide their interaction with the studied topic.

In short, netnography provides a fuller, interactive, context-rich picture of the customer experience – from the customer’s point of view.

Example of netnography in a new product study

I know what everyone wants at this point is an example. I'll overview one here, knowing it's not detailed enough, so my apologies in advance. As much as we'd like to be more specific, it is tough when you want to maintain client confidentiality.

There is a study we completed not long ago that followed early adopters of a client's usage based insurance (UBI) offering and related telematics. We used an interactive online journaling approach to gather near real-time consumer feedback from 6 stages: from sign-up and device installation to assessing the impact of driver behavior information on insurance premiums.

So just imagine, if you will, that these early adopters are keeping a "diary" of their experience. But instead of a paper diary, it's a magical diary right out of Harry Potter, where you can jot notes and take pictures or video with your magic wand (your smartphone) as things happen. Even more magical, it's an interactive diary, where as soon as you make an entry, someone on the other side might ask you to elaborate, or might ask you for a video showing what you did, or whatever.

That is the foundation of netnography. You're following people, virtually, in their natural environments, over a period of time, to find out how they actually behave and what they're thinking when they act.

In this study, findings identified usability issues across different stages as well as other barriers to use.  The study captured strengths of the program as well unexpected “wow” moments that the client could use to promote the solution to policy-holders.


Again, if you're interested in more detailed discussion, please sign up here for our March webinar on Netnography

Written by Steve Hansen

Steve Hansen, MBA, is the President of Phase 5 US. With almost 2 decades of experience in client-side marketing strategy, market research, and product management, Steve brings a client’s mindset and drive for actionable results to each project. He has extensive experience in capturing the view “from the outside” with a special focus on product and service innovation. Steve is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.