Webnography: Developing Unobtrusive Online Research

Stephen Dann & Ed Forrest

School of Marketing- Griffith University

Nathan Campus, QLD 4111


This paper examines current Internet marketing research domains and methodologies and proposes and proposes a new methodology --termed Webnography.

Market research on the Internet offers many advantages over ‘off line’ ‘traditional’ research. Indeed, "On the net, you rarely need to leave your desk. You get the same information-- or better-- in a fraction of the time and for pennies on the dollar. You can use tools like FTP, Gopher, and the World Wide Web to locate information from governments, universities, corporations, industry associations, and data providers all over the planet. You can monitor Usenet discussion groups. You can conduct market surveys. You can search through thousands of on-line journals, magazines, and journals. You can capture demographic, statistical, and behavioral data from your company's own Internet traffic. You can do split-run tests of advertising concepts, package designs, and pricing ideas" (Emery, 1995).

To date, the emphasis of much of marketing research development in cyberspace has been on the adaptation of existing research methodologies of paper surveys, and mailed out questionnaires to web-pages and e-mail. In this regard, many of the unique features of the Internet have not yet been used to their full advantage for market research. The purpose of this paper is to outline the development of a marketing research technique designed to capitalize on the opportunities presented by Interest Clusters in the USENET and Webthread environments.


Aspects of the Internet which offer the greatest opportunities for marketing researchers are: the global nature of the medium; the absence of time dependence for certain aspects of online communication; the predominance of text based exchanges, particularly in public forums such as USENET and the World Wide Web. Granitz and Ward (1996) proposed the use of USENET Discussion groups in their analysis of virtual community structure on the Internet. As part of their study’s findings they noted that computer mediated discussion forums, such as USENET groups, offered opportunities for analysis of "even the most rare or bizarre interest" as the Internet offered "unprecedented access to narrowly defined groups of consumer from around the world." As described by Ellsworth & Ellsworth (1996): " Usenet is a worldwide community of discussions called newsgroups. No one "owns' Usenet-- it is a self-regulating network of newsgroups. Some have said that the Usenet is the CB on the Internet. It resembles the conferences found on BBSsystems, both commercial and non-profit. Usenet is a group of people posting public messages, often called articles , that are organized by subject category. They are tagged with a standardised set of labels for distribution from site to site. Generally, Usenet does not allow commercial messages-- though discussions of products you have purchased and how you feel about them is ok as long as there is no financial gain. For most groups, no unsolicited advertising is permitted. Some alt. groups have a specific charter stating that commercial messages are fine, and the biz. domain encourages commercial discussions ( you will see biz. at the beginning of the name of the group: biz.computers). The Usenet messages are organized into thousands of topical newsgroups (approaching 13-15,000). You read and post at your local Usenet site. That site distributes the postings to other sites. The group names are always in lowercase separated by periods... comp.fonts, misc.for sale, rec.skiing, sci.archaeology, oralt.fan.monty-python. The group topics are organised hierarchically, going from the genera to the more specific level" (Ellsworth & Ellsworth, 1996).

A Critical Research Question

To this end, the following research question is proposed: "Can a marketing research technique be developed to utilize the advantages of the USENET and Webthread discussion forums for marketing research? The paper examines the current marketing research, the opportunities identified for online research, and proposes a new methodology of Webnography.

Webnography describes the combination of techniques associated with content analysis, and ethnographic research to analyze ‘interest clusters’ that have formed in the USENET and Webthread environments. ‘Webthreads’ refers to delay time discussion groups hosted on Web sites. These sites are differentiated from the‘WebChat’ forums insofar as Webchat sites are orientated to real time discussion, and require the user to maintain a virtual presence in the chat room to access the information. Interest clusters are defined as discussion areas, which are, focused on a single topic or product area, for instance coffee. The purpose of the interest cluster is for the exchange of information between users, and potential users of the product, brand or service. In order to utilize Webnography, three criteria need to be present: the participants must be present in an information cluster; communications must be transcripted, or capable of being logged in a datafile; for unobtrusive Webnography, access must not require the researcher to have virtual presence within the IC forum.

The advantage of Webnography is that it has been developed specifically to utilize the advantages presented by the USENET environment: anonymity, observation without telepresence, delayed time communication and transcripted exchanges. It also allows for both computer assisted content analysis of the participant’s posts, in conjunction with participant observation techniques.

Inherent disadvantages in the method are related in part to the environment of the USENET, which emphases the reliance on textual communications, the absence of visual communication cues. Further limitations include sample biases such as: biases towards higher technological skills levels which are required to operate in the USENET and Webthread environments, biases towards higher levels of literacy for communicating in a text-only medium, and inherent self selection biases.


Ellsworth, J. & Ellsworth, M. (1996) The New Internet Business Book, (Wiley, 1996) 270-3.

Emery, V. (1995) How To Grow Your Business On the Internet, (Coriolis Books, 1995) 338-9

Granitz, N. A. & Ward. J. C. (1996) "Virtual Community: A Sociocognitive Analysis" Advances in Consumer Research 23 161-166.

Moore, E. G. Mazvancheryl, S. K., Rego, L. L. (1996) The Bolo Game: "Exploration of a High Tech Virtual Community" Advances in Consumer Research 23 167-171.

Tambyah, S. K. (1996) "Life On The Net: The Reconstruction of Self And Community" Advances in Consumer Research 23 172-177.

Fischer, E., Bristor, J. & Gainer, B. (1996) "Creating or Escaping Community: An Exploratory Study of Internet Consumers’ Behaviours" Advances in Consumer Research 23 178-182.

James, M. L., Wotring, E. and Forrest, E. J. (1995) "An Exploratory Study of the Perceived Benefits of Electronic Bulletin Board Use and Their Imapct on Other Communications Activities" Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 39, 30-50.

Jones, S. G. (1994) Cybersociety: Computer Mediated Communciation and Community Sage Publications: London.

Sardar, Z. & Ravetz, J. R. (1995) "Cyberspace: to boldy go" Futures 27(7) 695-698.

Sardar, Z. (1995) "alt.civilizations.faq: Cyberspace as the darker side of the West" Futures 27(7) 777-794.

Rushkoff, D. (1994) Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace. HarperCollins: London

Hoffman, D. L. Novak, T. P. Chatterjee, P. (1995) Commercial Scenarios for the Web: Opportunities and Challenges JCMC 1(3)