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Online support for vulnerable consumers: a safe place?

Joy Parkinson (Griffith Business School, Griffith University, Nathan, Australia)
Lisa Schuster (School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia)
Rory Mulcahy (School of Business, University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydoore, Australia)
Heini Maarit Taiminen (Jyvaskylan yliopisto kauppakorkeakoulu, Jyvaskyla, Finland)

Journal of Services Marketing

ISSN: 0887-6045

Article publication date: 10 July 2017




This paper aims to examine the service experience in an online support community of consumers to understand the nature of social support and how it is experienced and enacted by vulnerable consumers.


A netnographic study was conducted to examine vulnerable consumers’ participation in an online support group for weight management. The Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC) program was used, and additionally data were coded using open coding. A hybrid approach to data analysis was undertaken using inductive and deductive methods.


The findings suggest online social support groups can be used as an online “third place” to support vulnerable consumers, with vulnerable groups engaging with the online support group differently than those in the normal weight group. Social support was also found to be bi-directional in nature.

Research limitations/implications

This study only investigates one online support group. To gain deeper insights, other support groups should be examined over a longer period.

Practical implications

This paper demonstrates that transformative services have the hidden capacity to optimize their services to enable vulnerable consumers to co-create social support in a safe place, thus providing a non-judgmental environment with the end goal of improving their health and well-being.

Social implications

Findings reveal how services can enable marginalization and stigmatization to be overcome and inspire social action through the use of online support groups.


This research is unique in that it used a netnography approach to examine how vulnerable consumers interact in an online service setting, reducing self-report bias and allowing for a natural research setting, thus allowing a unique understanding of how vulnerable consumers experience and enact social support.



Parkinson, J., Schuster, L., Mulcahy, R. and Taiminen, H.M. (2017), "Online support for vulnerable consumers: a safe place?", Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. 31 No. 4/5, pp. 412-422.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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