Bill Schlackman, the founding father of qualitative research in the UK, used to say that it is not possible to conduct international qualitative research because so much of the subtlety of our discipline comes from a close understanding of language and cultural norms.

In some ways he was right: international qualitative research is, in reality, a compromise discipline. At its best it can give real multicultural insights that enliven brands. At its worst it offers the type of research that leads to brands and marketing activity that neither offend nor involve its audience.

Still, more and more companies are conducting international research. Brands cross borders, as do consumers, so there is a need to ensure continuity of strategy and sometimes execution. This, in turn, means a requirement for insights that can be applied across borders.

The market is booming. Some 15 years ago, international qualitative research was the province of a few specialist companies and freelancers. Now it seems that every researcher offers this service and probably needs to for survival’s sake.

So once you have a qualitative project that needs to be conducted in more than one country, how should you decide whom to use? Well this feature contains the views of three practitioners representing different approaches: a multi national agency; a UK agency that is a member of an independent international network and a UK independent agency working with a more informal network of partners.

Supplier criteria

What should you look for in a supplier? The quick answer, of course, is someone with experience of co-ordination and analysis of international qualitative research..

The disciplines of international co-ordination are, in many ways, different from those of a local project. The co-ordinator acts, to some extent, as an intermediate client. The selection of local suppliers; development of an overall project structure; the briefing of local suppliers; observation of fieldwork and ultimately development of rich and relevant conclusions all require skills that are rarely used in local research alone.

The project co-ordinator needs to be someone who:

  • Has a passion for cultural diversity
  • Is broad-minded, does not appear to be judgemental and can deal with cultural diversity
  • Knows whom to use where
  • Knows local cultures and customs (or can find out about them)
  • Knows what techniques and methodologies work where
  • Is able to anticipate problems.

These skills only come with experience.

The process is neither easy nor fast. You shouldn’t trust anyone who says it is. Different markets work in different ways and what happens in one doesn’t necessarily happen in another. So we can get through two two-hour groups a night in most of Europe. This isn’t so in some other markets, such as Japan.

Company choice

The type of company and research approach that is appropriate for your needs will depend on a number of things:

  • Your exact requirements from the research — and the criteria you’ll use to judge it
  • Your budget
  • Whether you’re looking for a general flavour across a wide number of markets or need to understand thoroughly the dynamics operating within each of the markets
  • The level of local experience required
  • Whether moderators and researchers need to think around the problem or whether standardised procedures are sufficient in terms of administering a discussion guide and reporting back. Is the research exploratory or a simple communication check?
  • Your expectations of and demands on the co-ordinating researcher at the debrief. This will have implications for their degree of involvement at a local level: is it appropriate for the research co-ordination to be organised remotely or should the fieldwork and analysis be supervised?
  • The way you and your organisation value market research, specifically qualitative. Is qualitative research seen as a general dipstick or a vehicle for genuine understanding?
  • The identity — and seniority — of the people in your organisation who will be using the research

Whoever you choose, transparency is key. Are they telling it like it is? Are they pointing out the potential setbacks or does all seem sweetness and light? Are they upfront about how they will organise and manage the work and how the moderation will happen?

Beware of travelling linguists who claim that they can do all the work themselves in any language. If they don’t live in the market, go shopping there, watch television regularly and generally absorb life, how can they understand the cultural nuances?

That isn’t to say that a ‘foreigner’ should never moderate, but we believe that they should never moderate and analyse alone. The added value comes from the combination of local knowledge and global overview that allows researchers to steer a course through local differences to provide global direction while remaining sensitive to their implications within markets.

Buying options

There are a number of options open to the buyer of international qualitative research:

Large international agencies have networks in place that allow them to ensure that there is a reliable level of experience and ability available in any market. They also have moderators in all of their agencies with the skills to use a range of techniques and methodologies in a manner that meets international standards.

Such agencies will often have regular contact outside projects: seminars, regular meetings, share philosophies and vision. They can offer consistency and comparability because they work together regularly. Thus this it may not always be necessary for the research co-ordinator to attend all fieldwork — as long as local analysis is conducted to a laid down template.

Independent agency network members, meanwhile, claim that their people are the best in class. They, too, are likely to develop common working practices because strong working relationships are forged over time through regular formal meetings within the network.

Since relatively smaller companies are involved here, their management is more likely to have a ‘hands on’ approach to projects, thus giving clients the reassurance of more senior involvement.

Companies who work on an ad hoc basis with suppliers in other countries have also developed their own informal network with agencies (or individuals within agencies) that they consider possess the flexibility to work to the varying needs and requirements of the co-ordinating researcher.

The status of the co-ordinating researcher is that of client rather than colleague and this balance of power can be an extremely useful in ensuring compliance, a dynamic approach and keeping the project on track.

International pitfalls

What are the pitfalls that sound the death knell for any international project?

Assuming that a group or interview can be conducted through a simultaneous interpreter and not using a local moderator. We’ve known it happen with disastrous effects. It may be the cheaper option but there’s no chance of achieving spontaneity. If you are working in a country where there really are no indigenous moderators (and there are very few of these left) — at the very least you should consider importing native speakers or training a novice on site.

Assuming that a moderator can conduct the work from a detailed discussion guide without personal briefing. Qualitative research is a dynamic process. While we are looking to gain comparability of results from different countries, this does not mean that we necessarily employ exactly the same approach in each market.

Full briefing of suppliers on the objectives and desired outcome of the study will allow them to give their own input to the flow of the interviews and the enabling and projective techniques being employed. Look for a moderator’s guide which tells the ’whole story’ and treat the local suppliers with respect.

They should be party to exactly what the research is all about; what the action standards are and how the client is going to use the output. What is ‘de rigueur’, though, in terms of fieldwork content and reporting output should be made very clear. Where there is potential to ad lib, this should be clear also.

Ignoring the local knowledge of the suppliers when determining sample

Conducting all of the analysis from a global perspective. Local suppliers will have cultural perspectives that give the finer detail of what is happening in their market. This is a resource that should be ignored at your peril.

Budgetary trade offs

In an ideal world, we would recommend that an observer coordinator and local researchers should conduct all multinational projects. We are also aware that financial considerations may make this unfeasible in some cases.

For English speaking markets in particular, the client’s budget may not stretch to using a local moderator and paying for the co-ordinating researcher to view the fieldwork as well. Trade-offs will need to be made. Should the research be conducted by remote or should the co-ordinating researcher moderate themselves, becoming immersed in the local culture while they are there: watching TV, make store checks/shopping, etc?

Most importantly, moderators need to follow up and explore every cultural reference made by respondents. As foreigners, we assume nothing and this, in turn, can help the research process, as respondents will often make greater efforts to explain their assumptions to an alien moderator. On the other hand, lack of the local cultural references may sometimes mean that the alien moderator may miss inflections and nuances of response.

In conclusion, international qualitative research certainly creates many additional methodological problems in contrast to domestic projects, but with a combination of global market insight, local sensitivity and a passion for cultural diversity, it is possible to achieve results that give as much insight as you would expect from a well conducted domestic qualitative project.