The Association for Qualitative Research
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Chasing the Chinese market

Increasingly, clients want research carried out in China but are UK agencies equipped to deliver, asks Charlotte Martin?

The problem is that few UK agencies have the means to provide market research anywhere near the standard of domestic research. Indeed, there seems to be a general feeling that, in China, the bar is set so low that even mediocre research is considered acceptable. Too often, the goal of fieldwork is that it should be disaster free and, if local agencies are tasked with any analysis, pure reportage is all that is expected. Research in China can turn out to be little more than data gathering.

So how can Western agencies up the ante and get more out of their research in China?

Current methodological approaches tend not to be sensitive to cultural traditions. Chinese cultural traditions are so firmly established and critically important that anyone who's unaware of the moves and who slips up on the dance floor is unlikely to regain their posture.

At their heart lies 'guanxi', or 'relationships', in whose absence business simply cannot be conducted. Esteem, even deference, needs to be demonstrated over time through a series of complex and carefully respected rituals and customs.

The importance of 'guanxi' in business relationships in China has started to filter through to Westerners. Most of us now know to accept a proffered business card in a deliberate two-handed way. And Western companies looking to operate there accept that personal relationships need to be established and proven over time before trading begins.

Yet the research commissioned in China demands that respondents immediately bare their souls to strangers in focus groups. This Western brand of 'tell me everything and tell it now' research runs counter to Chinese cultural traditions.

Look beyond the focus group (in China, too).

While research agencies in the UK are competing to demonstrate their innovative approaches to research methods, when it comes to international research, most revert back to the tried and tested focus group. Clients and agencies alike take refuge in the safety and security that this format brings - everybody knows what to expect, what to deliver and what to charge for it.

But focus groups alone do not give research participants the time and space they need in order to feel comfortable and trusting of the relationships they have in the room. And this lack of relationship makes it hard for Chinese moderators to stop the ranters from ranting and ensure the mice feel comfortable squeaking.

The more personal environment afforded by depth interviews can better promote the respondent-moderator relationship and, by implication, increase the potential for fertile consumer input. Ethnographic research, of course, offers these same benefits, only multiplied by, well, by a lot.

The reality, however, is that few Western clients feel sufficiently confident to dispense with the reassurance of the simultaneous translator and few Chinese agencies have the experience or understanding to grapple with ethnographies and the associated analysis that this demands.

Despite the challenges, it is time to recognize that the benefits of ethnography far outweigh the fear factor: enabling clients and UK research teams to observe consumer behavior first hand or via video is the first and most important step in bridging cultural gaps and showing them how their product or brand fits in China.

This said, focus groups are often the most efficient way of gathering consumer input fast. And, of course, the creativity of the group dynamic means that group discussions remain the best methodology for advertising and product development research. It's just that sometimes, holding longer groups with fewer participants allows time for each participant to 'air themselves out'.

But of course this kind of measure can only go so far in establishing a deeper connection. Plus there is great value to be found in forging some kind of relationship with research participants prior to fieldwork. Relationships are often established more through frequency of contact than through depth of connection.

If a researcher is able to connect with participants through frequent and casual bursts of communication, ice is broken and tangible benefits are seen in the fieldwork. Text messaging, which is extremely prevalent in China, enables these kinds of quick connections that are truly embedded into life.

Participant blogging represents a more expansive version of the same idea. Although this cannot be completed on the hop in quite the same way as text messaging, it remains a tool through which participants can share their thoughts and feelings on their terms, thus bringing the research to the participant, rather than the reverse.

Moderators can post probing comments and questions to bloggers, too, thereby demonstrating encouragement, respect and interest in the participant's contribution and forging the start of a relationship with them. Contrary to many clients' expectations, consumer blogging can and is being achieved in China among large segments of the population. A 2006 Blogg Research Survey estimated that there were 7.7 million bloggers in China and 54.7 million readers.

When reaching less tech savvy consumers who are unlikely to have easy access to broadband, a simple homework exercise can also create the opportunity for moderators to connect with participants. They can visit or, at least, phone each participant to review progress, again making for a more fruitful interview session.

Improving the context in which interviews take place will enable you to get a lot more out of the fieldwork and, in turn, the analysis process. The cultural differences between China and the UK are so extreme that all analysis should be conducted locally or by cultural experts. The art lies in choosing a partner who has been schooled in Western research and analysis techniques.

 

Charlotte Martin
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2007