The hard-to-reach places

Gaining access to the wealthy, the poor or minorities is difficult for market research purposes, as without the right location, timing and incentives, response levels will be low, says Alicia Clegg

But what if you are trying to reach wealthy consumers with a hectic social diary, or business leaders for whom time is, quite literally, money? At the other extreme, how does a researcher win the trust of someone living in impoverished conditions or find people who are willing to talk freely about matters that are difficult to deal with and made worse by stigma and prejudice?

Knowing how to connect with hard-to-reach groups, whether affluent socialites or truanting teenagers, is a skill that has to be learned, but one that repays the effort. Across media disciplines, brands and government agencies are rejecting techniques from the age of mass-marketing in favour of more focused approaches that concentrate resources on the groups they most want to reach. This in turn puts pressure on market researchers to ensure that the people they talk to really do fall within their clients’ target audiences.

Flattery gets you everywhere

Venue is also important. For researching luxury markets it is wise to choose somewhere stylish that complements the brand and panders to the ego of the respondent. McGowan says/ “If you are dealing with people with a certain lifestyle, it’s no good divorcing them from their surroundings.”

McGowan’s approach is broadly endorsed by Sanjay Nazerali, founder of brand consultancy The Depot, who likens the business of wooing the wealthy to “seduction”. For the scene of one metaphorical seduction, Nazerali persuaded a society magazine to host a private lunch for style-conscious readers. The purpose of the session was to help his client, a high-end department store, develop better marketing strategies, but as far as the participants were concerned, the event was purely an opportunity to talk fashion and gossip.

Nazerali says: “You have to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Yes, you’re there to do a professional job as a moderator, but you need to hide this by supplying great conversation and entertainment value.”

Regaling ladies who lunch with champagne and amusing anecdotes may seem worlds apart from winning the confidence of asylum seekers or the residents of an inner-city estate, yet strip away the cosmetic differences and it turns out that the techniques a skilled researcher will use to gain access to a tight-knit community are fundamentally the same, whether they are dealing with privileged elites or the economically disadvantaged.

On their territory

Cultural insight can spell the difference between failure and success when researching minority populations. Sharma gives an illustration of this from a brand-building study that she recently completed for the Islamic Bank of Britain: “If you’re asking Muslim women to take part in research, it’s essential to use female recruiters and moderators, and to make it clear that the group won’t include men.”

One way to gain access to a minority group is to hire an insider to advise on cultural matters and lead the recruitment drive. A variation on this approach is to use a technique known as “snowballing”. This is where an initial recruiter enlists their friends and acquaintances, who in turn do the same. More typically associated with social research, the approach is increasingly being used among wealthy consumers. But does the technique, ingenious as it is, live up to its reputation?

Snowballing’s attraction lies in its ability to penetrate niche markets rapidly. The downside is that by working through friendship networks the sample can end up ignoring whole swathes of the target population; talking, say, to the country set while ignoring footballers’ wives and entrepreneurs, or people of moderate means who spend heavily on a particular category. Ledbury Research director Marc Cohen says: “There’s a danger of recruiting a group that is very homogeneous. The reality is that wealthy people come by their money in many different ways. You really need to be talking to all of them.”

By way of introduction

Letters of introduction are useful for gaining credibility with business leaders, too. But an introduction that does no more than establish the researcher’s credentials is doing only half of its work; used skilfully a letter becomes the hook that pulls in the

recipient. Philip Wilson, managing director of agency Duckfoot, says/ “The trick is to set up a hypothesis that arouses a reader’s curiosity.” As an example, Wilson cites a project for financial services adviser Grant Thornton, which began provocatively by inviting business leaders to discuss the “stranglehold” exercised over the market by the big four auditing firms. As an added inducement to take part in research, Wilson recommends offering the participants a summary of the project’s findings.

Time is an asset that most business leaders lack, making last-minute cancellations and no-shows an occupational hazard in business-to-business (B2B) work. This puts the onus on researchers to find time-saving options such as running surveys online and keeping questionnaires succinct. HPI Research international partner Paul Laver says: “Getting eight chief executives together is a tall order, so the best solution is often to settle for a triad.” Nazerali is prepared to go to extreme lengths in pursuit of his quarry: “You have to adapt to their schedules; if need be, take a cab or get on a plane with your interviewee.”

Sometimes, however, it is the subject matter of a project that makes recruitment an uphill struggle. The trickiest situation is where people are too embarrassed or even too frightened to talk to researchers. Where this is the case, the only option may be to engage in covert operations.

Mark Cuthbert, managing director of research agency Progressive, recently conducted research for the Scottish Executive’s Big Plus adult literacy and numeracy campaign. The aim was reach people who kept their problems a secret from their family and employers, and to find out what would motivate them to seek help. The difficulty was that this meant talking about issues that the target audience, by definition, were desperate not to acknowledge.

Sneaking in the back door

“We used a lot of distancing techniques, so that people could talk about ‘friends’ rather than themselves,” says Cuthbert. “What was encouraging was that by the end a lot of them were saying ‘maybe I could do with a little bit of this [help with literacy and numeracy] myself’.”

Money talks

Wealthy consumers and cash-rich business leaders should, in theory, be less motivated by the prospect of cash than less advantaged respondents. It is for this reason that some agencies offer inducements that money can’t buy, such as tickets to a fashion show or a donation, of perhaps &£250, to a charity of the respondent’s choice.

But does the theory stand up to scrutiny? Comments from contributors to this feature suggest that the least and most affluent in society have more in common than first meets the eye. McGowan says: “People who have money often like money. Given a choice [between philanthropy and a cash thank you] it’s surprising how many rich people will take the money for themselves.”

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