So you think you know how to set up and run international qualitative research work? Fine, but that’s just one side of the story. Just as pertinent is the need to maintain and ensure quality when undertaking such studies.

Co-ordination styles vary according to personality and country. Each has its merits and drawbacks. What follows is a basic checklist of some of the practices used to maintain high standards in this area, and in the overall quality of the ensuing research. This by no means exhaustive list is based on some 20 years experience of multi-country research.

Cheapest is not best

It’s often difficult to demonstrate the value of co-ordination and to charge accordingly. Clients view it as just a matter of making phone calls and sending e-mails. In fact, the success of a piece of multi-country research relies very heavily on the more intangible aspects of good co-ordination. It depends on

  • Knowing whom to use where
  • Knowing local cultures and customs
  • Knowing what techniques and methodologies work where
  • Being able to anticipate problems
  • And above all, experience.

So, when asked to co-ordinate, try to avoid some of the following:

  • Choosing the cheapest agencies
  • Choosing cheaper options, such as a linguist, using the client’s ‘favored moderator’ (usually English speaking) to moderate groups in other countries instead of local moderators, unless there are good reasons for doing so.
  • Not including a briefing session and a de-brief with the local moderators
  • Working from just tapes/transcripts rather than local analysis and input
  • Not attending any of the groups in other countries

All of these could affect and impact on the quality and authenticity of the research undertaken.

Importance of local input

Many companies don’t bother to involve local agencies in terms of seeking their advice and input, when undertaking research in their countries. This can be very shortsighted. Local agencies

  • Often know their markets best
  • Generally have experience of numerous product categories (including the one you are testing)
  • Know what works and what doesn’t, locally
  • Have a better understanding of local culture and customs
  • Can provide a local interpretation of the results and thus a different perspective, too
  • Can provide valuable inputs in terms of language, methodology and checking stimulus materials for validity

This may not always be the case, but it’s important to at least involve and consult the local suppliers rather than treat them as just ‘moderators’. Greater involvement leads to better understanding and co-operation all round.

Importance of Teamwork

This is often key to achieving quality and results in international research. It’s important to involve project leaders/moderators from different countries working on the project as equal partners. Suppliers take ownership of the project, get involved and contribute more fully than they would as mere ‘executors’ of a brief. Besides, the interaction between all parties can produce a richness of data and perspective that cannot always be achieved through a single perspective alone.

Issue of perspective

Personally, I believe that several heads are always better than one. This means that the way multi-cultural studies are analysed, interpreted and designed is crucial. If a single market carries this out, it can provide a single and somewhat limiting perspective on the results. A multiple perspective involving each country and gaining their additional perspective can produce far richer and better results. A variety of suppliers can also bring different and invaluable perspectives to a project.

A global perspective, in addition to a multiple perspective definitely helps, too. Working with suppliers who have only ever worked locally can sometimes be limiting in this respect. It is important to understand the needs and requirements of clients who need to work globally and not just locally. Thus, using a supplier with such experience is often far more productive.

Market knowledge

Knowledge of your supplier is, naturally, very beneficial. As a rule people pick foreign suppliers who share a common ethos and approach to qualitative research. This, however, isn’t always possible, and then it’s important to ‘research’ not just the company you are considering but also the individual who will be managing the project.

Qualitative work also requires an understanding of a company’s particular ‘style’ of research, since different countries will demand different approaches. Some are more factual and rely on reportage; others provide deeper analysis, insights and perspectives. Depending on what your research requirements are, this can often be crucial.

Knowledge of the market to be researched is also recommended. Lack of it has implications for sampling, methodology and costs. For example, how many and which cities do you cover when doing research on a food product in Germany? One or more? Can you run mixed gender groups in Saudi Arabia? Can you recruit off-street in the Middle East? What religious groups should you include in your sample in Beirut? The list goes on.

Stimulus materials quality

A piece of research can be seriously devalued by the quality (or lack of it) of the stimulus materials used. Often, very little time is devoted to checking the quality and authenticity of translations and visual materials. Concepts, storyboards, commercials are often conceived in one language and then translated. As a result, they don’t always produce the same response across markets. It is important to get such materials checked locally by the clients/ad agencies/research suppliers to avoid such problems and costly mistakes.

Analysis and interpretation

Often, the best way of getting local input while still maintaining comparability across markets when analysing results can be achieved via a two-stage analysis process.

  • A local analysis is done at the local level. This provides an understanding of the market, local issues and culture.

  • A global analysis is carried out, taking into account the key aspects of local learning but incorporating these within the global framework of the research.

This process will enable the identification of commonalities across markets and an understanding of the differences. Possibly even more important, it enables us, through careful analysis and experience, to identify ‘true’ differences between markets as opposed to more superficial ones.