Talking with physicians in Frankfort, visiting spas in Hong Kong, in-home interviews in Moscow, shopping for skin care in Shanghai, and watching men shave in Paris—these are a few of the amazing opportunities I’ve gotten to learn about consumers all over the world. Conducting consumer and market research outside your home country brings with it plenty of interesting experiences and stories, new and rich learning, but also comes with plenty of potential pitfalls. Here are five key areas to focus on when planning international qualitative or quantitative research.
1. Lay the Groundwork
When planning primary research in another country, it’s helpful to first get some understanding of the unique market dynamics, key competitors, consumer habits and practices, etc. If you don’t already have access to secondary research in that market, some smart internet searches can go a long way. It will give you good context for creating meaningful research questions as well as helping you better understand local consumer responses.
For example, before conducting a quantitative survey on workplaces in Australia, I checked out blogs for ex-pats working there—it was a great, quick way to get some compare and contrast insights about unique workplace culture and habits in that country. In another case, before doing consumer interviews about skin care services in Hong Kong, I visited lots of local spa websites to check out the service menus, benefit language, etc. If you’re doing internet research for a country with a different primary language than your own, Google Translate is a lifesaver (not word perfect translation, but you get the gist).
2. Supplier Partnerships
As with any research project, finding the right research partner is key for success. When conducting research internationally, you generally have a choice between using a large, multi-national full service supplier or going straight to a locally-based, often more specialty, vendor. In general, I would recommend using a multi-national firm if you’re planning research in more than one country for the benefits of a single point-of-contact for coordination and logistics. Depending on the country, those firms then either have local offices for execution or contracts with local research companies. If you’re focusing only on one international market (or region), going straight to a locally-based company can get you closer to local experts who know their market best and is often more cost-effective.
When conducting international research, I rely heavily on my local research execution partner to offer guidance on market-appropriate research approaches and techniques as well as recruiting and incentive best practices. I would also recommend giving and getting detailed plans, timelines, scope, etc. in writing up front to minimize potential misunderstandings from language differences or general expectations. When conducting qualitative research, if you’re working through a global firm, make sure you also have a locally-based contact that will physically be present during the research and is familiar with all the details, as tracking down someone in another country/time zone can be difficult if a question or issue comes up during research.
3. Research Logistics
When scheduling research internationally, be sure to carefully check local holiday and events schedules—ideally directly with a local as there may be ‘blackout’ dates for research that aren’t necessarily obvious based only on a calendar. For example, August in Europe is best avoided as many people are on holiday that month or, while Chinese New Year is officially one day on the calendar, celebrations extend far beyond that.
Take guidance from the local recruiter, but when planning qualitative research in other countries, typically plan for multiple extra recruits per group, especially in large urban areas. Traffic, weather and even local attitudes toward time/punctuality can all impact respondent arrival time.
While I’ve certainly tagged along on many in-home and shop-a-long interviews in other countries, it’s important to hire a skilled and experienced local moderator to lead interviews and focus groups. Not only because of potential language differences, but also for the cultural understanding and nuance—both in the interview and the ability to share contextualized insights after.
If you will be physically traveling for research in another country, it’s critical to pre-plan all logistical details and not take anything for granted. Make sure you know what resources will and will not be available at the research site (e.g. copier, projector, wireless internet). If you’re doing in-home or shop-a-long research, will you need to hire a driver or will public transportation be more appropriate?
Conducting research in a country with a different primary language than your own presents many challenges. Many local research companies will have bi-lingual staff, especially those with ties to the large multi-national suppliers, which is very helpful, but these people are usually not professional translators so make sure to secure those resources separately.
Live, simultaneous translation of qualitative research is a very specialized skill so if you need a translator for that, try to get recommendations from others or at a minimum, make sure that the research translator specializes and is experienced specifically in that field. Also make certain that the local focus group facility is set up with the proper tech equipment for simultaneous translation, particularly if some attendees will be listening in the local language and others to the translation.
Translation of questionnaires and research stimuli (e.g. concepts, package copy, advertisements) is another consideration. Most global research firms offer translation of screeners and questionnaires, but many will not translate research stimuli. Check with your research vendor to be sure, but also consider hiring a third party company that specializes in translation for market research.
With any written translation, be sure to request a “back translation” as well. Back translation is a translation from the translated foreign language back into your own language. This can often help catch mistranslations, especially for local idioms and culturally-specific meanings or terminology. For example, “anti-aging” skin care in English might get translated to a nonsense term in the local language that literally back translates to “against being old”. Explaining the intent, giving examples, and talking to locally-based bi-lingual contacts can help find the right terms to substitute.
5. Response Scales and Cross-Country Comparisons
Many side-by-side studies have been conducted and academic papers written on the subject of cultural bias in research scales, so I will not attempt to address all the nuances of that here, but I do want to just mention the need to be aware of variances in how different cultures use response scales in questionnaires. For example, in Asia, scale order is typically in reverse of scales used for research in North America because Asian consumers are usually more likely to give a more positive or affirmative response vs. their North American counterparts. So, a response scale used in South Korea might list agree options from ‘Strongly Disagree’ down to ‘Strongly Agree’ while the same question in the US version of the study should list ‘Strongly Agree’ to ‘Strongly Disagree’.
These cultural dynamics also impact how questions are asked in a qualitative setting to be as non-biasing as possible, so be sure to involve a locally-based researcher, ideally the moderator, in writing the discussion guide and planning any creative activities and exercises within interviews.
If you’re conducting quantitative research across multiple countries and want to be able to compare the results, there are a few things you can do. First, consult an expert (within a multi-national research firm or a research consultant with global experience) for guidance on tailoring your questionnaire by market. This could involve re-ordering sections or individual questions, using different scales or response order, or even customizing the instructions you give for filling out the questionnaire. Also make sure your scales themselves are as non-biasing as possible; consider using a numerical scale (e.g. rate from 1-10) vs. a qualitative scale (e.g. rate from ‘excellent’ to ‘poor’).
Probably the most effective way of understanding a country’s specific results relative to another country is to use benchmarks and databases. If your company conducts lots of multi-national research frequently, you might be able to construct your own internal databases and benchmarks for comparison. Otherwise, many larger global research vendors maintain robust results databases by country. For example, if your concept gets a top two box purchase intent score of 40% in the UK and 50% in Japan, you can compare those results to norms for the category and country for more insight. You may learn, for example, that a 40% score in the UK is actually in the top 20% of that database, while a 50% score for the same category in Japan is actually only in the top 40% of that database.
Many lessons in effective global research can only come from experience, so talk with colleagues and research vendors and consultants who’ve been there before if you’re just getting started with international market research. The most important thing is just not to assume that everything is the same in other markets as in your own home country—do your homework, ask lots of questions, and leverage the experience of others while you build your own. Doing consumer research in other countries is an eye-opening and fascinating experience. It’s a unique chance to learn about other cultures, appreciate our differences and similarities, and gain fresh insights for our business.
This was my second year attending IIeX (Insight Innovation Exchange) and it was great to learn about so many innovative new approaches, technology, and suppliers in the market research space. Below are the top 6 themes that I took away from IIeX 2016--what's new and what's next in insights!
Key Insights Industry Trends:
1. The Commoditization of Research Execution
Key take-away: Automating non-value added work can be faster, cheaper and more accurate. However, it can never replace an actual human for creativity, influencing and engaging, convincing and telling stories.
2. Bite-sized, Right Sized
Key take-away: In our information-overload, time-starved world, collecting and communicating data in bite-sized amounts can increase engagement all around.
3. Storytelling Everywhere
Key take-away: Emotion is required for action, whether it’s consumer buying behavior or client/stakeholder decision making, and nothing gets to emotions better than a good story.
4. Rise of Machine Learning
Key take-away: Advances in machine learning mean that computers can take over hours of laborious hand-coding of text and emotion—it’s not perfect yet, but it is much more scalable.
5. Visualization Drives Clarity
Key take-away: Visualization in survey design can help increase accuracy (e.g. visual scales, pictures + words), while in reporting and strategy documents, it’s a way to bring the content to life.
6. Behavioral Research: Actions Speak Louder
Key take-away: Identify research respondents via actual behavior (vs. claimed) to increase accuracy. Also, brain science tells us that most decisions are made unconsciously, so don’t rely only on what people say, but also consider implicit and behavioral findings.
I once worked in an organization headed by someone who wasn’t very supportive of what he called “general” consumer research—meaning research that wasn’t focused on optimizing a specific piece of execution or against a very precise business question. I agreed with him from the perspective of always needing clear research objectives and actions to be taken, but thought only doing research against specific products or projects was a bit short-sighted. He certainly wasn’t the only person in my career who preferred to turn to market research only to answer a specific project question, but that’s kind of like taking a single drinking glass to the well every time you’re thirsty.
Before going further, let me take a minute to define “foundational research” so we’re all on the same page. The scope of foundational research is across an entire industry, market, category or consumer group(s) and includes understanding things like: habits & practices, unmet needs, attitudes, beliefs and values, category drivers and motivations, consumer segmentation and profiling, and more. And now, I would like to offer 3 arguments in support of investing resources against foundational research in your organization.
1. Foundational research is a well of information you can draw from over and over again.
A robust category fundamentals study can yield myriad analyses and reports for multiple business objectives and if conducted on a semi-regular basis can replace many other, smaller studies. I was once part designing a comprehensive global skin care category fundamentals study, which was expensive and time consuming, but we put a rigorous analysis plan in place in advance to extract every drop of learning from that research. As a result, from a single study, we derived multiple high-impact business analyses across multiple segments and even developed a new global consumer framework that had huge strategic impact. We went back to that same study over and over again for specific project questions, ultimately saving both time and money.
Qualitative foundational research can also be a “giving tree” of learning, especially when you use ethnographic techniques and storytelling. Specifically, doing in-context interviews with your target consumer segments and observing them performing a task and the environment it happens in or tell you a story about how an interaction with a product or service impacted her life. For example, two segments might say feeding their family healthy food is important, but one takes you to a farmer’s market on a shop-a-long and the other goes straight to the packaged food aisle in her local grocery store. Understanding those two definitions of “healthy” in a tangible way can lead to distinct insights for both groups. These are images, observations and stories you can go back to again and again when designing a new product or marketing campaign or trying to sell a project to upper management or investors.
2. Foundational research helps identify issues and opportunities and where to focus.
By deeply understanding your customers and what’s most important to them, you can get ahead of possible pitfalls and beat competition to the punch. If you identify an issue or opportunity in foundational research, you know where to dive deeper. For example, foundational research might reveal a disconnect in what you think your brand stands for and how customers perceive it, which might lead to a dedicated brand re-positioning project or new advertising campaign to address. Quantitative foundational research in particular can provide a broad picture of your market/category landscape to help shape and prioritize future research plans.
Early in my career, I was working on a declining category within beauty products and our charge was to figure out why and how to reverse the trend. We did extensive qualitative research and coupled that with data from existing quantitative research as well as in-market results (sales/shares) to define distinct market segments, each with its own targeted marketing strategy and recommended product innovation pipeline. This foundational learning allowed senior management to make strategic positioning and investment choices that not only reversed the decline, but actually turned the product segment into a growth engine for the brand within a very short period.
3. Foundational research helps you develop deeper understanding of your customers so you can create on their behalf.
For me, one of the primary objectives of foundational research, especially qualitative, is to get to know your target customer so well that you actually develop a gut level feel for what will resonate with him or her. This is of course important for running a current business, but absolutely essential for future innovation. Steve Jobs famously remarked, “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” This, in a nutshell, is the objective of consumer research for innovation—not to ask customers what the answer is, but to deeply understand their needs, and empathize with them, so you can design a solution to delight them. If you take the time to lay a strong foundation of consumer understanding, it allows you to ultimately move faster by not having to research every small question along the way (ideally, the entire business core team would share in this learning to enable quicker consensus building).
When I was working on an “aging in place” project focused on technology that would help keep seniors living independently longer, I had the opportunity to interview lots of seniors in their own homes, in community centers, and in assisted living facilities. We did talk specifically about health and technology, but just as importantly, I also got to hear their personal stories and understand what was most important to them in their lives. We talked spoke with formal and informal caregivers (family, neighbors, etc.) to get a more holistic picture of their needs from multiple perspectives. It was that foundational understanding that that helped us define the requirements of an ideal product/service and evaluate multiple potential technology platforms.
Laying a strong foundation is the first step in any building project, including brands and companies. Investing in foundational research up front can provide a valuable resource for current and future business questions, a clear picture of the most important issues and opportunities to focus on, and a deep understanding of your customers so you can design to delight them.
Sarah Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting