Companies in all lines of business want and need to anticipate the potential sales performance of their product or service. The birth and rapid rise of independent online communities of users and consumers represents a goldmine of news, views and information that enable the marketing and sales people to test the waters before launching their particular product or service. The film industry is a case in point, as illustrated by an innovative netnographic study of cinema enthusiasts who share their opinions on films before they are released on the big screen.
Firms have been exploiting the internet as a source for consumer feedback for a considerable time, especially within industries such as high-tech and telecommunications where products requiring testing before release. However, by setting up their own online communities, communities which inevitably attract existing users of their products, firms are not necessarily receiving unbiased and reliable views. It is by dipping into multi-brand web-based forums comprising users and consumers who are not pre-sold on an idea that a more balanced perspective can be obtained. This is becoming increasingly common practice within the film industry (among others), offering a golden opportunity for practitioners to gain a clearer view of current tastes and future success stories.
In order to get a feel for what the public wants and how it will respond, film companies provide pre-release material in a variety of formats, from trailers, PR and events through to actual private screenings. The timing of these operations is key – too far in advance and the public is in danger of forgetting once the film goes public, too close to the release date and not enough cinemagoers will get the chance to view. However, earlier in the process it is essential to establish what the popular trends are and therefore assess the likelihood of the “product” (in this case, a film) being a hit. The example of the cinema industry is applicable to a great many other lines of business, as underlined by recent in-depth analysis of online communities and how the contributions and communications found within help companies take the game-changing decision of when to release.
Understanding web behaviour
Conducted over a 16-month period starting in September 2009 and focussing on the online communities CleverMovies, Flixster, ComingSoon.net and Fandango, the study took a netnographic approach designed to understand the previous and current online behaviour and attitudes of film enthusiasts in response to pre-release material. 5232 posts later and a detailed picture was drawn up of the likelihood of a selection of films performing well at the box office. The study included actual membership of the online communities by the researcher in question (in a purely observatory capacity), data collection and analysis using a QSR NVIV08 software solution, and interpretation of the results. The objectives? Firstly to break down and then group together the various characteristics and intentions influencing user behaviour and opinions and then to ascertain the impact certain variables have on their intention to view the films under analysis upon public release.
Exploring consumer intentions
In research circles the “Theory of Planned Behaviour” examines the extent to which antecedents influence human intention. For marketing and sales people requiring an idea of how successful their product or service will be, investigating online communities in order to understand just that is a golden opportunity. The afore-mentioned netnographic film study sought to establish the characteristics and intentions of the contributors to the online community, their level of participation, the ratings attributed to films fed to them during the pre-release phase, and the extent to which the characteristics of each film (for example, the actors featured, the identity of the director, the genre). The correlation between these factors and future box office performance proved very strong indeed.
Planning for market success
The clear patterns that emerge from the netnographic cinema-based research project should catch the attention of companies from all kinds of industries. There exists already a plethora of such online communities representing, among other types of business, mobile phones, music industry, videogames, publishing, and automobiles. The fact that these are multi-branded by nature means that the content and exchanges to be found within are a far cry from the kind of secured, “preaching to the converted” forums where fans of a certain company or brand are already heavily influenced by their existing loyalty to the particular company or brand. By trawling through the many unbiased and open discussion threads within more objective multi-brand communities, companies can get a genuine glimpse of what makes consumers tick and therefore how they (the companies) can plan for market success.
This article draws inspiration from the paper The netnographic method as early warning: Linking antecedents of prerelease behavior of technology-enabled community to future market trends, written by Pradeep Divakaran and published in Technological Forecasting & Social Change 125 (2017).