Overview on Qualitative Data Collection Techniques in International Marketing Research

This article is meant to be a brief review and reminder of some valuable yet often bypassed techniques to collect data on international markets and consumers.

When thinking of market research, surveys are most likely the first technique that comes to ones mind. However, surveys are a quantitative research and, in order to understand customer behavior and the social and cultural context in which our business will operate, we will need to perform some qualitative research as well.

Qualitative methods are most certainly a more appropriate option when in need of researching patterns and attitudes in customer behavior, understand the depth of the environment around the customer, and understand the cultural characteristics then influence a customer – especially when the marketer is not familiar with the country of culture.

There are certain situations where qualitative research alone can provide the marketer with all insights needed to make decisions and take actions; while in some other cases quantitative research might be needed as well.

We will stop by the main qualitative techniques and see how and where they can be employed in international marketing.

Craig and Douglas (2000), mention three major types of qualitative data collection techniques:

– observational and quasi-observational techniques;

– projective techniques and depth interviews;

– creative group sessions (synectics).

1. Observational and quasi-observational techniques

Observational techniques involve direct observation of phenomena (in our case, consumers’ behavior) in their natural settings. Observational research might be somehow less reliable than quantitative research yet it is more valid and flexible since the marketer is able to change his approach whenever needed.

Disadvantages are given by the limited behavioral variables and the fact that such data might not be generalizable – we can observe a customer’s behavior at a given moment and situation but we cannot assume all further customers will act the same.

Quasi-observational techniques are reported to have increased in usage over the past decades, due to the large scale employ of surveillance cameras within stores. Such techniques cost less than pure observational ones since costs associated with video surveillance and taping are far lower than a researcher’s wage; the tape can be viewed and analyzed at a later time, at the marketer’s convenience. When performing videotaping of consumers’ behaviors, they can be asked to give comments and insights upon their thoughts and actions while the conversation itself can be recorded and be further analyzed.

Pure observation: the marketer watches behavior of customers in real-life situation, either in situ or by videotaping the consumers (less intrusive). Videotaping can be specifically recommended when studying patterns of different cultures, since we can easily compare behaviors taped and highlight similarities and / or differences.

Trace measures: consist in collecting and recording traces of consumers’ behavior. Such traces can be fingerprints or tear of packages, empty packages, garbage cans analysis and any other ways a marketer can imagine (it’s all about creativity here!). In eMarketing, trace measures come under the form of recorded visits and hits – there are numerous professional applications that can help an emarketer analyze the behavior of visitors on his company’s website.

Archival measures: can be any type of historical records, public records, archives, libraries, collections of personal documents etc. Such data can prove to be of great use in analyzing behavioral trends and changes in time. Marketers can also identify cultural values and attitudes of a population at a given moment by studying mass media content and advertisement of the timeframe questioned.

Entrapment measures: those are indirect techniques (by comparison to the previously mentioned ones) and consist in asking the respondent to react to a specific stimulus or situation, when the actual subject of investigation is totally different. The marketer plants the real stimulus among many fake ones and studies reactions. The method is quite unobtrusive and the marketer can gather valuable, non-reactive facts. When the respondent becomes aware of the true subject under investigation (s)he might change the behavior and compromise the study.

Protocols: are yet another observational marketing research technique which asks respondents to think out loud and verbally express all their thoughts during the decision-making process. Protocols are of great value for determining the factors of importance for a sale and they can be collected in either real shopping trips or simulated ones.

2. Projective techniques

Such techniques are based on the respondent’s performance of certain tasks given by the marketer. The purpose is to have the consumers (respondents) express their unconscious beliefs through the projective stimuli; to express associations towards various symbols, images, signs.

Cooper (1996) suggested that projective techniques can be successfully employed to:

– indicate emotional and rational reactions;

– provide verbal and non-verbal communication;

– give permission to express novel ideas;

– encourage fantasy, idiosyncrasy and originality;

– reduce social constraints and censorship;

– encourage group members to share and “open up”.

Projective market research techniques can take the following forms, presented below.

Collages – used to understand lifestyles and brand perceptions, respondents are asked to assemble a collage using images and symbols from selected sets of stimuli or from magazines and newspapers of their choice.

Picture completion – certain pictures can be designed to express and visualize the issue under study and respondents have to make associations and / or attribute words to the given pictures.

Analogies and metaphors are used when a larger range of projection is needed, with more complexity and depth of ideas and thoughts on a given brand, product, service, organization. The respondents are asked to freely express their association and analogies towards the object being studied; or they can be asked to select from a set of stimuli (e.g. photos) those that fit the examined subject.

Psycho-drawing is a technique that allows study participants to express a wide range of perceptions by making drawings of what they perceive the brand is (or product, service).

Personalization consists in asking the respondents to treat the brand or product as if it is a person and start making associations or finding images of this person. This technique is especially recommended in order to understand what kind of personality consumers assign to a brand / product / service.

3. In-depth interviews

These techniques of marketing research put an accent on verbal communication and they are efficient especially when trying to discover underlying attitudes and motivations towards a product or a specific market / consumption situation.

Individual in-depth interviews are performed on a person-to-person environment and the interviewer can obtain very specific and precise answers. Such interviews are common in B2B practices of market research, for example when a company conducts a research about a product among their existing corporate customers.

Interviews can be conducted by phone or via internet-based media, from a centralized location: this can greatly reduce costs associated with market research and the results are pretty much as accurate as the face-to-face ones. The only disadvantage would be the lack of non-verbal, visual communication.

Focus groups are basically discussions conducted by a researcher with a group of respondents who are considered to be representative for the target market.

Such meetings are usually held in an informal setting and are moderated by the researcher. Videotaping the sessions is common these days, and it can add more sources of analysis at a later time.

Focus groups are perhaps the ideal technique, if available in terms of costs and time, to test new ideas and concepts towards brands and products; to study customers’ response to creative media such as ads and packaging design or to detect trends in consumers’ attribute and perception. One of the important advantages of focus groups is the presence of several respondents in the same time, providing a certain synergy. Disadvantages refer mainly to the costs involved and the scarcity of good professionals to conduct the interviews and discussions.

To conclude, we have to keep in mind just how important non-survey data collection techniques are in today’s market research. Not only they provide more depth of analysis but they can be performed in significantly less time than surveys and they’re more suitable to be employed during the exploratory phases of international marketing research.

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