Online Forums and Their Effect on Buyer Behaviour in the Prosumer Camera Market


Introduction

The photographic industry has changed considerably over the last ten years. Two major catalysts for change have been the development and spread of digital cameras and the rise of the internet. Both of these events have considerably changed the way camera buyers purchase product especially in the semi-professional or “Prosumer” category of digital SLR. As the profit that can be derived from the compact digital market shrinks due to downwards movement of prices, the major camera manufacturers are looking to the higher value digital SLR categories to provide revenue.
How buyers get their information and formulate their purchase decisions is essential knowledge for the marketer and is becoming more complex as the market itself matures.
The following discussion relates to this particular market segment and their information gathering behaviour using online mediums and how that impacts on their buying behaviour, it also discusses how online discussion effects the diffusion of a product into a market. Although I have referenced the broader behaviour as it relates to the market segment chosen the more specific sales related data stems from internal company figures from both Nikon and Sony.

What’s a “Prosumer”?

(PROfessional conSUMER) A person who is very knowledgeable about a subject and likes to purchase high-quality equipment. For example, some digital cameras fall into the Prosumer category. They offer higher quality and more advanced features than the lower-end consumer variety, but still do not possess all the features of the most professional units on the market.

Prosumers represent a growing and profitable market segment for camera manufacturers. By their nature they can be described by the following-
Computer literate
Higher than average income
Higher than average education
Tends towards professional or skilled occupations
Has a good knowledge of photography

Prosumer Product Characteristics in the digital SLR world

Prosumer cameras are high involvement product- the very nature of their features gives them a level of complexity that requires a certain level of knowledge in both the product and its application. As well as being complex they are also relatively more expensive than their lower featured cousins. For this exercise the Prosumer camera is defined as follows-
10+ million pixels
5 or more frames per second
Metal weather sealed body
Large range of lenses and accessories
Between $2000 and $3000 retail price

The current market has three cameras that qualify-
Nikon D300
Canon D40
Sony A700

Opinion Platforms

The advent of the internet changed this process in the following ways, information is now available online, traditional camera retailers and manufacturers to a large extent are no longer the primary source of information camera buying decisions. These groups are powerful because they are seen as independent of manufacturer hype- real users of the product.
It must be said that in all cases the motives of all users must kept in mind, these will be discussed below. The major opinion platforms I will refer to are-

www.dpreview.com
www.photoreview.com.au
www.nikonians.com
www.dynaxum.com


Motives for Sourcing Information/Opinions Online

Schiffman and Kanuk described the basic motives behind the search for information within the buying decision making process, in their 2006 paper – “Electronic word-of-mouth – motives for reading customer opinions online” Kahmmash, Allen and Burton related online forums and eWOM (electronic word of mouth) to these motives

Risk Reduction- The opinions of other users about a product and its use enables potential buyers to reduce the perceived risk of purchase through the advice and feedback from existing users
Reduction of search time- Time scarcity and the pervasiveness of the internet have allowed rapid collection of information about a product; the traditional methods of interaction with a retailer and the time involved in that process have now become largely irrelevant.
Learning how a product is to be consumed- How existing users are applying a product to their own particular needs allows the potential buyer insight into the feature/benefit relationship of a product. A user may have a particular feature that they perceive as essential e.g. a high frame rate, this to them is most important while others may feel high pixel count is the main feature for them. Discussing these options online allows them to learn how best to use a product.
Learning what products are new in the marketplace- Opinion platforms allow a customer to search for information in an individualized manner. Novelty seeking behaviour drives users to seek out what is new and “cutting edge”, the nature of Prosumer means they are looking for the latest.
Determine their social position- Prosumers are influenced by who is using a product. In the case of a camera the more professional photographers using the product, the more the Prosumer feels and associates his own use as of a professional standard.
Dissonance reduction- Once decided on a product users often receive cognitive incongruence related to information about the alternative products they have rejected. Cognitive incongruence may also be caused by conflicting information from other sources (e.g. a friend's recommendation vs. an advertisement). Since virtual opinion platforms offer unbiased information on a host of products, they are an appropriate information source for reducing cognitive incongruence after a purchase.
Belonging to a virtual community- The key to the success or otherwise of the opinion platform is the feeling its members belong to an online community, online communities can and do act as reference groups for its members.

The Prosumer and the online community

In their 2004 paper “How does a Virtual Brand Community Emerge?” Amine and Sitz defined the concept of the online Brand Community by using a definition coined in 2001 by Muniz and O'Guinn –

“A specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand.”

They went on to refine this definition-

“a self-selected, hierarchical and non-geographically bound group of consumers that share values, norms and social representations and recognize a strong feeling of membership with each other members and with the group as a whole on the basis of a common attachment to a particular brand.”

This is particularly relevant to the Prosumer segment, membership is not buy any other virtue but by ownership of a particular camera or the desire to own a particular model. Members are accorded respect and standing based on their knowledge of the product and its application as well as their time and activity within the group.
Sites such as www.dpreview.com and www.nikonians.com provide specific forums for these types of cameras examples of posts with any of the motives described above can be found in the forums related to the three cameras.
Apart from information sourcing as part of the buying process forums are essential for reducing Cognitive Dissonance. Reinforcement that the buying decision was correct leads to a militant attitude to other brands and those who question the camera of choice. Shiffman and Kanuk found that two thirds of the users they surveyed worried about their purchase after they had parted with their money and found the forums helped them resolve this.
Amine and Sitz found that once a camera was purchased the buyers opinion of those who purchased another brand was lower because of their decision.
They also found that negative reviews and opinions were influential in their final decision.

The Product Review- Death by DPreview

The influential review site DPreview reviews almost all digital cameras. Its success in reviewing can be put down to the following-
Independent- It is not allied to any specific brand; although it takes paid advertising from manufacturers it has kept its independence.
Thoroughness- Its reviews are extensive and test all functions of a camera. They are recognised as the benchmark for other review sites.
Originality- DPreview was the first site to offer the combination of reviews, forums and feature comparisons

This has allowed DPreview to wield some power as its 120,000+ users will vote with their wallets.
A review from DPreview on a Prosumer camera is particularly valuable as it takes a complicated set of features and analysis them under a common criteria that can then be compared to other cameras. It is not uncommon for initial sales of a camera in this category to be hampered by not having a review. It is common to see extensive posts demanding, begging and pleading for a specific review.
DPreview and its owner Phil Askey have become the leading industry opinion leader, directly effecting buyer behaviour and leading back to our motives for sourcing opinions. The expense and high involvement of the Prosumer product make these reviews important to the user and manufacturer alike they allow evaluation of a product and form an increasingly inportant part of the adoption process for new products.

The Adoption Process, Prosumers and the web

• Awareness- Unlike the pre internet days awareness of a product can be generated before products are announced, cameras are rumoured months before actual announcements. Product announcements are delivered via manufacturers web sites and are common knowledge very quickly.
• Interest- Forums generate their own interest by discussion. Interest is generated from the manufacturer by the availability of review samples and the employment of brand advocates to influence buyers.
• Evaluation- A product can now be evaluated through the internet alone-
• Reviews
• Electronic word of mouth
• Manufacturers web sites
• Enthusiast web sites (DPreview, Nikonians)
• Trial- Products such as this are difficult to trial over the net but the peer to peer nature of the evaluation process have combined to limit the amount of trialiabilty needed before purchase decisions are made
• Adoption/rejection- In both cases the web serves to reinforce decisions made, expressing opinions both negative and positive enable buyers to problem solve issues and improve the experience with the product.

With increasingly small product life spans consumers have needed to fast track their decision making process to make sure they have the latest and greatest, online opinion platforms enable this for both manufacturers and end users.

Marketing Implications- putting it all together

We have seen that within the Prosumer market segment online opinion platforms play an increasingly integral part in the buying process and the adoption process from our discussions above we can come to the following conclusions-

Most involved online community members are experts in the product but the main benefit for marketers of these people is that they are in touch with many people forming the hub of a social network that spreads beyond the online world. Reaching these people and ensuring they receive correct, accurate and timely information is an important tool. These people are true opinion leaders, that is they “interpret the information supplied by the issuer and then forwards it to his or her immediate circle” Katz and Lazarfeld (1955). Marketing specifically to opinion leaders enables the marketer to reach the opinion leader’s wider audience with a message that has been given credibility through its interpretation.

The role of the retailer is diminishing. The traditional role of the retailer providing product expert advice is becoming less important. The Prosumer market becomes one driven by price not service and advice, the traditional
“Place” being the high street camera specialist is now less relevant. Prosumers are now getting their information online why not their product? Marketers need to realise this and develop their marketing around the delivery of the correct message to the potential end user. The retailer’s role of furnishing place now becomes one of promoting price. This shift is particularly apparent in the consumer DSLR market where large retail chains such as Wal-Mart and Harvey Norman now dominate the sub $2000 camera market. Place has become wherever we believe our consumers want us to be.

The ability to feed back the pros and cons of a camera allows manufacturers to respond quickly to market forces. By researching, through feedback from forums, that current users demand the following-

High ISO low noise
Full frame chips
Image Stabilization
High frame rates
High pixel counts

All these can be researched by spending some time going through the model forums online and is reflected by the latest product offerings from major manufacturers.
The marketing of a product with problems is quickly detected by users and competitors who can throw this quickly into their tactical marketing mix; the prime example of this was Nikons high noise at high ISO problems with their professional and Prosumer DSLR offerings. The Canon marketers exploited this with products that featured high ISO low noise sensors which differentiated the two brands across their whole product portfolios.

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