Special Session Summary Qualitative Research Perspectives in Computer Mediated Environments

Hope Jensen Schau, Temple University
Mary Wolfinbarger, California State University, Long Beach
Albert Muniz, DePaul University
[ to cite ]:
Hope Jensen Schau, Mary Wolfinbarger, and Albert Muniz (2001) ,"Special Session Summary Qualitative Research Perspectives in Computer Mediated Environments", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 326.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Page 326

SPECIAL SESSION SUMMARY

QUALITATIVE RESEARCH PERSPECTIVES IN COMPUTER MEDIATED ENVIRONMENTS

Hope Jensen Schau, Temple University

Mary Wolfinbarger, California State University, Long Beach

Albert Muniz, DePaul University

The objectives of this session were to investigate three diverse consumer behaviors in online environments: online shopping, development and enhancement of personal websites, and online user/brand communities. Each of the presentations employed or advocated a different type of qualitative research, and each unearthed some fundamental, but surprising insights based on their focus on consumer perceptions and experiences.

"Nibbling on the Net," by Mary Wolfinbarger and Mary C. Gilly (University of California, Irvine), was based on qualitative data about online shopping collected from online and offline focus groups. Online focus groups result in informants being able to participate in research in the comfort of their own homes, and within an interactive, familiar and sociable environment. The relative anonymity and almost instantaneous familiarity between participants of online focus groups results in a relatively intimate, disclosive environment. The authors find that goal-oriented shoppers quite strikingly report that they "nibble" at shopping sites, shopping in brief spurts, and making purchase decisions across multiple visits over time. While the majority of online shoppers are goal-oriented and not impulsive, some consumers engage in experiential buying behavior on the Internet, particularly at auction sites, while pursuing hobbies, and finding bargains.

In "Identity Hacking: Consumer Self-Expression in Personal Websites," Hope Schau examined the ways consumers use commercial brands and symbols to represent and communicate identities in two forms of CMEs: personal websites and electronic communities. Through adapting the ethnographic techniques of in-depth interviewing (eight informants face-to-face and electronically), naturalistic and participant observation in online communities inhabited by the informants, and socio-semiotics of informant sites, the study explores consumer self-expression strategies and manifestations. The interview methodology employed live feed of each creator’s website(s) as elicitation devices akin to Heisley and Levy’s autodriving techniques (1991). The findings based on this analysis reveal that personal website creators use CMEs as dynamic servicescapes, communication tools and entertainment. Most importantly, consumers intelligently and conspicuously employ brands in self-identification in their personal websites.

Thomas O’Guinn (Duke University) and Albert Muniz in, "Correlates of Brand Communal Affiliation Strength in High Technology Products," looked at online communities in a relatively new high-tech product category: peronal digital assistants (PDAs). Still early in the product life cycle, a number of different operating systems (Palm, PocketPC, Epoch) are competing to become the standard. Each of these operating systems is the center of a brand community which utilizes usenet newsgroups as one forum for interacting. Grounding their research in the ample literature on community in both online and face-to-face realms, this paper examined strength of communal affiliation in these brand communities. The researchers sampled messages from one month’s worth of posting to each group and coded them on the frequency of occurrence of a variety of community markers. Collectively, the members of these brand communities implicitly understood the importance and power of the community in this product category. Differences between the newsgroups suggest that communities centering on newer brands operate differently than even those a few months older.

Qualitative methodologies are particularly important in the online environment, as CMEs are a relatively new phenomenon that is not presently well understood. Examining these emerging experiences requires a rich understanding of consumers and their behaviors online. To capture the strategies and meanings of consumer self-expression, brand communities and online shopping in CMEs, consumer researchers must modify their research methodologies. Qualitative research should be employed to overcome researchers’ tendencies to rely too heavily on pre-existing "mirror" concepts and theories that will limit our thinking about computer mediated environments.

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