In this paper, we will be analyzing the article entitled “”Online identity construction: How gamers redefine their identity in experiential communities. In our analysis, we will take a look at a few of the theories of consumer behavior brought up in the qualitative research outlined in the article. Going further, we will examine some of the principles of ethnography that were applied in the research. Finally, we will examine an example of how qualitative research, broke through assumptions about consumer behavior and discovered the real reason behind why a desired customer segment was not patronizing a local business.
Three theories from Solomon
In the article, the authors brought up a number of theories they came across in their qualitative research as they relate to audience insight and consumer behavior. However, as I read through it, there were three that resonated with me that are worthy of further discussion in this analysis. Those theories are; self-concept, real and ideal selves, and virtual identity. Let’s take a look at each of them beginning with self-concept.
Self-concept. Per our textbook, Solomon defines self-concept as; “Summarizing the beliefs a person holds about his own attributes and how he evaluates the self on these qualities(2013, p 171). In the research article, self-concept is addressed in, what I would refer to as a cursory manner. When I undertook reading the article, I was hopeful that more research and insight would be offered on why online gamers arrive at their own self-concept and perhaps what they find appealing about redefining their identity in the online world. Is it to satisfy a fantasy? Is it to compensate for a physical or intellectual downfall in their personal self-image? What is the prevailing motivation? As IMC specialists, this insight into motivation could provide some much needed depth to what makes an audience “tick” and would be a great help in crafting a campaign that speaks to them.
Real and ideal selves. In taking a close look at both the real and ideal self, Solomon posits that; “The ideal self is a person’s conception of how he or she would like to be, whereas the actual self refers to our more realistic appraisal of the qualities we have and don’t have(2013, p172.)”. In the research article, the authors bring to light in an interview with the informant, V. that his real self is a skinny, 15 year old young man. This is in contract to his ideal self, at least as how he sees it of a bulky, upright, strong aggressive bull for an avatar(Pinto, Reale, Segabinazzi, & Rossi, 2015). This shows how the informants used the game to create an image of themselves, albeit in fantasy, that was the ideal self. Oftentimes, as discussed in the article, we are reluctant to discuss the idea of our real vs. ideal selves(Pinto et al., 2015). Much like the informant, V. was in the study? Why? Because it points out what he perceives as a flaw in his self. Understanding the idea of real and ideal selves as well as the reluctance of informants to discuss them can be valuable to IMC professionals in determining drive and motive towards certain products and lifestyles.
Virtual identity. Moving onto the theory of virtual identity, this is essentially what the research article was focused directly on. It is clear to see that the idea of a virtual identity is a popular one given that World of Warcraft alone generates annual revenues exceeding 2 billion dollars(Pinto et al., 2015). In the text, Solomon discusses virtual identities by stating; “Today fictional depictions come to life as we witness the tremendous growth of real-time, interactive virtual worlds that allow people to assume virtual identities in cyberspace(2013, p174.)”. While the research focuses directly on the online gaming world, there are a number of ways that one can undertake a virtual identity in the online world. In fact there was even a humorous country song written about it by Brad Paisley a few years back entitled; “I’m so much cooler online(2007)”. While the song pokes fun at the idea of virtual identity, it is a matter that us as IMC professionals shouldn’t take lightly. Why? Well, because this virtual identity is often how many associate with the real world and it drives their consumer behavior.
Three elements from Ladner
Given that this research article outlines an in depth and laborious effort at qualitative research by exploring the idea of online identity construction, we be doing this evaluation a great disservice by not discussing ethnography as it applies here. For this part of the discussion, I have identified three elements from the text “Practical Ethnography” worthy of our evaluation. Those three elements are; finding meaning vs. finding facts, dynamic theory of identity, and dynamic theory of identity roles. With that, let’s dive in with finding meaning vs. finding facts.
Finding meaning vs finding facts. When discussing finding meaning vs. finding facts, Ladner discusses the approach, he discusses the “factist” point of view. Per Ladner; “The factist view assumes that there is a truth about a given topic and its the researcher’s role to discover the truth(Ladner, 2014)”. The issue with the factist approach, especially as it pertains to researching human and more specifically, consumer behavior is the fact that we has humans are complex creatures with deep rooted emotions. With this comes the hard truth that there is often no “black and white” or truth when it comes to researching human behavior. In the research article, the query conducted does a good job of finding questions to ask, however it is my opinion that the query lacks depth and doesn’t provide enough reason for the motivation of the research subjects. Why does gaming appeal to them? What elements of community and identity drive them towards the gaming world? As IMC practitioners, it is often the “why” that is key.
Dynamic theory of identity. Up next for discussion as we delve into ethnography and its application in the research we have the dynamic theory of identity. Brought forth by Erving Goffman, the dynamic theory of identity essentially defines social life as a theatre production(Ladner, 2014). What does this mean? Essentially that our identities and the face we put forward is in a constant state of flux. Take for example a teenager, they often tend to act completely differently with their parents and teachers than they do their peers. In the research article, this is showcased as how gamers act when they’re in real life versus the gaming world, and even further how they act among various groups in which they interact and socialize in the gaming world. The research does a great job of outlining that players take on a persona of self within the game as well as a persona as they interact within their guilds, or groups within the game(Pinto et al., 2015). This theory is of concern to IMC professionals in that we need to root out which identity is making the purchase decision. Taking it back to the teenager example, they would most likely make a different purchase decision in the presence of their parents versus in the presence of their peers.
Dynamic theory of identity roles. Wrapping up this deep dive into ethnography’s place in the research into online identity construction, let’s take a look at the dynamic theory of identity roles. When discussion this theory, Ladner states that identity roles are understood as roles that people perform, with varying degrees of success. These include the roles of gender, economic class, and race or ethnicity(Ladner, 2014). With the dynamic nature of these roles, consumers make purchase decisions on how they identify, or “perform” these roles. In the research into the gaming world, a solid example would once again be the Informant V.. A thin, quiet teenage boy isn’t often seen as a masculine figure. However, in the gaming world, he can take on the role of the large, upright, aggressive bull we discussed earlier in this paper. These dynamic roles often take a place in the real world as well. For example when a girl tends to be into sports or sees herself as a “tomboy”, or when a boy is into dressing in the latest bespoke fashion trends as opposed to jeans and sneakers. As IMC professionals, we need to understand that because someone is a particular gender, economic class, or race, they won’t necessarily act in the manner in which we assume. We need to get “down and dirty” and do the actual qualitative research into who they are, and more importantly, who they think they are.
How this type of qualitative research can benefit an IMC Strategy
All of the qualitative research can and does benefit the IMC strategy. How? Well, we can make assumptions all day long about who our audience is and what they want. However, we would most likely end up wrong a good deal of the time. A perfect example would be qualitative research in the form of social media brand monitoring conducted by a small, local coffee shop. The shop was in a nice part of town, convenient for stay at home mothers to come by and socialize over a cup of coffee. The chain did everything they thought they could do in order to attract stay at home mothers, to no avail. They then employed social media monitoring and polling stay at home mothers online. It quickly became clear that the main reason mothers weren’t coming to their shop was the lack of changing tables in their restrooms. The coffee shop took this information and even went a step further by asking mothers what type of changing tables they preferred. Fast forward a few months and the coffee shop is enjoying a healthy bump in business from local stay at home mothers(Case Study, n.d.).
As you can clearly see, the research conducted and outlined in the analyzed article was conducted diligently and thoroughly. There were, however a few small areas where the research could have gone deeper into the motivations and “whys” of the research subjects. In the end, the example of the coffee shop shows clearly why we should conduct in-depth research and not simply make assumptions regarding what a consumer wants or needs. As IMC professionals, we need to ask questions and dig deeper for insight.
CASE STUDY: How a Restaurant Used Social Media Monitoring to Listen to Customer Requests. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://brand24.com/blog/case-study-how-a-restaurant-used-social-media-monitoring-to-listen-to-customer-requests/
Ladner, S. (2014). Practical ethnography: A guide to doing ethnography in the private sector. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Online (2009, October 02). Brad Paisley – Online. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UE6iAjEv9dQ
Pinto, D. C., Reale, G., Segabinazzi, R., & Rossi, C. A. (2015, 11). Online identity construction: How gamers redefine their identity in experiential communities. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 14(6), 399-409. doi:10.1002/cb.1556
Reed College of Media, West Virginia University. (2018). Week 3 Lesson: The Self, Personality & Psychographics, Social Class & Lifestyles, Managing Private-Sector Ethnography & Clients [Online]. Retrieved from https://ecampus.wvu.edu/webapps/blackboard
Solomon, M. (2013). Consumer behavior: Buying, having, and being, student value edition (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.