Using the face-to-face approach

ChinaDespite its advantages, the internet has not killed off the need for travel when conducting gobal marketing research. Alicia Clegg reports on why immersion in other cultures is still very important.

There was a day, around the time the internet was born, when industry pundits sounded the death knell of distance in market research. A decade on, and researchers are still clocking up air miles. Technologies that allow brands to gather the opinion of thousands of people at the click of a mouse have grown strongly. But the same can be said of studies conducted by researchers recruited locally or shipped out from home. So why – given the greater convenience of online technologies -have traditional methods continued to flourish?First, there is the reality of the Web-connected world versus the PR gloss. Looked at one way, the internet has ushered in a revolution that enables brands to ask questions in Shanghai or Mumbai just as easily as in London or Paris. Get out to the smaller towns and villages of emergent markets such as India and China, however, let alone rural Africa, and the numbers of people hooked up to the Web rapidly fall away.

The staying power of face-to-face methods isn’t just down to the Web’s patchy coverage, however. Often firms choose face-to-face, not because they lack an online alternative, but because they lack confidence in the ability of online research to provide the vibrant insights that bring marketing campaigns to life. So how best to conduct research in a farflung country?The first decision to be made is whether to travel to the market or delegate interviewing and analysis to local researchers. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, research groups that employ staff outside their home market, or engage in formal overseas partnerships, tend to farm projects out. Smaller agencies are more likely to be hands-on in their approach, instructing local partners, sitting in on interviews and taking charge of the final debrief. Large firms with satellite offices emphasise the benefit of eyes and ears on the ground; those without stress the value of personal oversight.

“If you brief everything from the UK, what you end up with is quite insular interpretations because the local researchers lack the bigger picture,” claims Joanne Rodger, partner at HPI Research, a UK-based agency that travels to the markets. Another factor to bear in mind, she cautions, is that research skills in many developing markets aren’t, as yet, on a par with Europe and the US.

Global comparisons
Rodger’s argument that it is possible to take “too local” a view seems, at first sight, to go against the grain. But, the fact of the matter is that businesses hire researchers to alert them to points of commonalty that can be put to use globally, as much as to make them aware of local idiosyncrasies. “The goal is to get to a point where you can make international comparisons, without creating a picture that’s bland and homogenised,” says Laura Roberts, a consultant at brand and consumer insight company Sparkler.

Language is a barrier that non-speakers must work their way round. HPI’s Rodger has experience of viewing focus groups from behind a two-way mirror, whilst following the discussion through translation. Although logistically cumbersome, particularly when there are multiple participants and one translator – “there are some things that you miss” – she, nevertheless, values the opportunity to make a live input. “It gives you a chance to guide the moderator, if they don’t emphasise the right things. It’s also good to be able to pick up on responses that come across as unusual and require cultural context.”

Watching and learning
But speech isn’t the sole, or even the best, medium for exploring the intricacies of another culture. Often, what matters more than listening to what people say is getting out onto streets and seeing what they do.

Paul Thomas, a director at Incite Market Planning, has been a champion of ethnographic-style research since a chance encounter, some years ago, made him realise just how much can be learned through silent observation. Travelling along a pitch-dark road in India, he came across a motorcyclist, parked by the roadside, who had turned the backlit screen of his mobile phone into an improvised torch in order to check the petrol in his tank.

“It was a fantastic nugget of insight that a focus group would never have unearthed,” says Thomas. “In a group people would have talked about the backlit as a status symbol without mentioning its practical uses.” As a result of such observations, manufacturers have begun to make torches a special feature of mobile phones sold to emergent markets.

As a result of such observations, manufacturers have begun to make torches a feature of mobile phones sold to emergent markets.

With multinational brands starting to look beyond the most affluent consumers in Asia’s premier cities to the many millions of people lower down the socioeconomic ladder in small towns and villages, agencies with observational research skills seem assured of a busy future. Not the least of this will be helping brands develop marketing strategies that can cope with the rough and ready nature of retailing and the harsh realities of daily life outside the major centres.

Poor doesn’t mean naive
Thomas makes the point that western brands often assume, mistakenly, that poorer people in developing countries are naive consumers. But, as anyone who has ever spent time in a remote Chinese province or Indian village can testify, underprivileged consumers are often extremely savvy, although in a different way to their wealthier counterparts. “An affluent buyer will focus on the image of the brand; a poor person will ask about the battery life and put their nails down the sides of the key-pad to see whether dust can find its way into the working parts.”

If money were no object, cross-cultural projects would feature in-depth discussions and full-blown ethnography as standard. The reality, of course, is that time and money are always constraints in business; so researchers must cut their coats according to their cloth. This raises the question of whether there are shortcuts for making international research affordable whilst preserving as much local colour as possible.

One course, proving popular, is to turn personal and business networks into fast-track channels for gathering market insights. Brand experience and design consultancy HuntHaggarty is one of several western firms that operate networks of style leaders and cultural commentators in key emergent markets. Used as a complement to grass-roots investigation, expert panels allow companies to get a fix on countries such as China and India that are too vast, and too heterogeneous, to research exhaustively at the national level.

“Having a panel of experts can give you insight into some of the leading trends that traditional techniques, alone, might not reveal,” says HuntHaggarty partner Susie Hunt.

Enthusiasm for information at short-call has encouraged more ambitious forms of collaboration. Worldwide Partners is a networked enterprise funded by over 40 independent marketing agencies around the world. When a participating agency needs market information urgently, explains Lisa Kettman-Kervinen, who directs Worldwide Partners’ activities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the central office issues a call to members. As proof of how effective this can be, she cites how, after hurricane Katrina, collaboration helped a New Orleans advertising agency defeat better known competitors in a pitch to develop a $5m ad campaign to rebuild the city’s tourism.

“We put out a survey asking network members to give their impressions of New Orleans and within 48 hours we had 700 responses,” says Kettman-Kervinen. Based on the feedback, the agency was able to pinpoint, on a county by country basis, how the rest of the world saw New Orleans and outline a global strategy to entice visitors back.

Online as an add-on
As consumers around the world hook up to the internet, there seems little doubt that online research will become more and more a feature of global business. In precisely what guise, however, is less clear. Sparkler’s Roberts, like many researchers, regards online communication as a useful add-on, rather than an alternative to traditional methods. “It’s potentially a brilliant mechanism for reconnecting very cheaply and quickly with interviewees once you’ve left the country and for extending a dialogue.” Others see online as a research tool that has the potential to become the marketer’s channel of choice, if it is adequately supported.

TNS Global Interactive managing director Arno Hummerston is, predictably, an online optimist. He makes the point that when online surveys fail to come up with the goods, often the fault can be traced back to a cultural misunderstanding. Yet had the survey’s author only taken the trouble to consult a local research professional, instead of relying on a general purpose translator, more often than not, he argues, the problem could have been avoided. But might there be times when online methods beat face-to-face?

Hummerston believes so. As an example, he cites the challenges of eliciting spontaneous opinion in Asian cultures, such as Korea, where younger people are expected to defer to their elders. “When people are in a room together, it’s very obvious who the elders are. But when you hold a focus group online or invite people to post comments on a discussion board, it gets rid of the problem.”

If international research were a matter of asking the same question in a dozen different languages, market researchers would enjoy an easy life. Culturally, nations are, slowly, drawing together. But the psychological distance that separates north from south and east from west is still immense. Market researchers who aspire to bridge the divide must begin by recognising cultural difference and adapt their methods accordingly.