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  • Bruce Crandall

International Research: Don’t Let “Whack-A-Mole” Problems Hurt Your Study

For much of my career I have conducted research in the United States. How would I describe it? One word: predictable. Consider the research landscape:

  • Research can generally be done in English

  • There are many reputable companies who provide reliable sample

  • You can easily find suppliers with capable and experienced teams

  • One supplier typically does the full research study

  • Most people take surveys on their laptop or desktop, with few using the phone


Although research in the United States is not perfect, with proper study design and a few precautions you can generally be assured of a good outcome and data that is clean and easy to analyze.


Nearly 10 years ago I moved with a major FMCG company to Asia to oversee research across China, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Indonesia and elsewhere. I soon found the number of issues that could undermine a study felt like a whack-a-mole game with challenges that included:

  • Language translation and analysis challenges

  • Sample deficiencies, particularly online

  • Skill gaps among suppliers

  • The need for several suppliers to complete diverse multi-country studies

  • A population more likely to have a smart phone than a desktop or laptop

  • The frequent use of SMS compared to email

  • Difficulties paying incentives, particularly digital incentives

But it is possible to keep those “popping moles” under control with these valuable tips.


International Know How: Make sure that your account representative or the person leading the team has been there, done that. They need to have lived and conducted research internationally, experiencing the problems and challenges firsthand to ensure they treat your study with the care it needs. I’ll be honest, before living in Asia I wouldn’t have suggested checking on international experience. The truth is, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But take my advice now. Be bold and insist on a team with strong international experience. It will make a meaningful difference in how well things go with your study.


Get a Handle on Language: Take some time to review language issues with your supplier. When I first began research in Asia I learned this lesson the hard way. A simplistic translation might do a great deal of harm. It’s not just the words—you need to get the intent right, particularly with marketing and new product studies. Once my team completed a study in Vietnam only to have the local team reject the findings because they felt that a key product description was far less persuasive in Vietnamese than it was in English. The words were fine, but the feeling was lost— what an uncomfortable moment for us all! Your supplier may not speak the language you need themselves but have them discuss the nuances of the wording with the translators so they get the words and the intent just right.

Further, be sure your supplier has strong enough research systems in place to easily handle multiple languages, particularly in the analysis and reporting phase.


Data Dictation: Have a good discussion with your supplier about the way they plan to handle the international data they gather. I recall a challenging study across 10 Asian markets where we chose a strong local supplier to execute the survey in each market to take advantage of local expertise. Despite a great start, problems emerged when it was time to analyze the data. Each local supplier handled the survey differently leading to hundreds of minor variations across the 10 databases that took time and effort to correct and align for the analysis. Some differences were impossible to completely resolve; thankfully they were minor. However, don’t overlook this issue. It’s a simple one to address if your suppler is organized and proactive.


Be Smart about Mobile Design: Researchers in developed markets often create complex questionnaire designs that computers can handle, including long batteries of table questions on 20-minute or longer questionnaires. Such designs are just asking for trouble on international studies where most people will complete surveys using their phone. While most suppliers can create a mobile questionnaire, have them design for that first, with approaches that let you keep the questionnaire short. Consider it a warning sign if they don’t feel designing mobile first is important.

Watch for one of my upcoming blogs. I'm still deciding between Mobile Diaries or more on International Research. Either way, I'll share something useful. Until then, download our tip sheet: International Research – 10 Tips for Doing it Right.


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