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Key management tools for your international research project

Article ID:
July 2014
Paul Johnson

Article Abstract

Paul Johnson highlights critical research management tools for conducting international research projects.

Editor’s note: Paul Johnson is a former international market researcher who worked in advertising agencies and as a market research supplier and was also an adjunct lecturer in marketing. He is currently retired.

Market research has been seriously involved with international projects since the 1980s when the distribution of goods became more efficient and trade barriers between countries were reduced or eliminated. Management textbooks are crammed with case studies of international product placement decisions that were bad for the companies and countries involved because research was not conducted or failed to provide the insights necessary to make strategic placements based on cultural as well as economic factors.

For those new to international research this article will highlight some critical research management issues garnered over the last 30 years of “boots on the ground” research. While it is not necessary for direct oversight of most research projects, the experience of working directly with local suppliers in a wide variety of markets has yielded insights as to where to concentrate your management efforts, particularly when conducting multiple country surveys. I have had the good fortune of working on projects that provided direct access to research suppliers, local client representatives and direct contact with research participants.

To start with, research managers must be counselors for their internal clients, requiring some knowledge of the markets in which the projects are to be fielded. U.S. researchers need only conduct projects in NAFTA-partner countries to know how factors such as sample composition and language that we take for granted in most domestic telephone or mall-intercept studies can prove costly both monetarily and analytically. For instance, using a European French speaker to translate an English-language questionnaire for a Quebec audience will generally cause miscommunication among respondents speaking the colloquial French-Canadian dialect.

Project start-up

Let’s start from the project’s inception. The country selection process is generally a negotiation between market research and the requestor. In many instances, if there is a history of international projects, there is a priority generally based on marketing objectives such as market penetration, competitive activity or new product introduction. In cases like this, your marketing research department is often the continuity for work in many of these markets as brand managers change positions regularly on their career tracks. Market research should be ready to show the requestor a profile of the brand where previous research has been completed as well as supporting documents on market insights. For instance in India and Africa, fast-moving consumer products are often repackaged and sold in retail environments where single-serving sizes or individually packaged products are the norm for sales. Knowing how your product and those of your competitors are sold puts your project requirements in perspective for the requestor.

If you are introducing products into new markets, it behooves the market researcher to provide a research requestor with market perspectives. Some of the sources (other than a Google search) include the U.S. State Department, which has economic and demographic profiles of every country for which there are diplomatic missions. Most are available online and can be useful in framing the parameters for your sample composition.

Supplier selection

For most market researchers who work with international studies, ESOMAR has been an authoritative resource for creating a network of reliable and responsible local market suppliers. Since the 1990s when the great consolidation of research firms produced global research organizations like those of Ipsos or TNS, a researcher had to learn the strengths and weaknesses of individual suppliers. But like so many of the multinational research firms, not all offices are equal. The inequality can be attributed to how field management in a particular office has built up. A good way to evaluate a supplier is by the number of project managers who are educated beyond the local markets. Suppliers with staff members who have been educated in the U.K., U.S. or Western European countries are likely to have well-managed field staffs that follow strict adherence to the sample composition that was originally specified. Some unscrupulous firms will use “field managers” who recruit and coach unqualified respondents to fill difficult sample quotas. Some examples of these practices are only caught when the data set reveals consistent patterns of responses to questions across a wide number of respondents.

Another criterion for supplier selection is in open-ended question translation and coding. In most multicountry studies the market researcher must make some code frames based on past experience that can be used as templates in studies where multiple suppliers will be required to translate open-ended questions and provide a relatively consistent format for the analysts and report-writers to work from.

Finally, costs of multicountry studies vary widely by country. Cost-per-interview in many instances is not comparable when looking at projects in Third World countries versus emerging markets. Here is where market research experience has to be a mix of art and science. But the best rule of thumb is, if the price seems to be too good to be true, it is.

Field management

Briefing the questionnaire should always be by telephone or done with applications similar to Skype and FaceTime, along with a written script of what you expect from each question and ask for the supplier project manager and/or field supervisor to repeat their understanding of the instructions for each question. This may be a difficult task, particularly if you are in any time zone that is 10 hours off your own and in countries such as China or Vietnam where English is not as prominent a second language. However, it is worth the time to insure that the fieldwork will start in a manner you had intended.

Daily report sheets should be required of all suppliers as a tool for managing your projects. In countries like India where holidays are frequent, you must negotiate with your suppliers to allot field time that accounts for holidays that happen in different parts of the country on different days for multiple religions.

There is no reason why a supplier cannot have accurate counts of completed interviews within 18 hours after the completion of a day’s interviewing. Any delays should be viewed with suspicion and telephone conversations may be necessary. For example, some cultures frown upon asking questions in a work environment. An interviewer in India who is having difficulty understanding the flow of the questionnaire is unlikely to speak up because they lose face among their peers. A research manager may not report a problem for the same reason. The researcher needs to be ready to ask questions that get past the hurdles in a nonthreatening way before it becomes a built-in problem for the analysts and report writers.

Data sets

Managing the data sets between countries is as important as the questions you ask. If necessary, give every data-entry department an exact location for the responses to any one question. This can be the task of the analyst for the project. Having an understanding of what data should be where in the data set will be useful should anything look amiss.

Even though your market research staff may not be physically doing the data analysis, you should have your data sets available in whatever format you use for archiving or for meta-analyses. While it seems mundane to make this a part of the process, many firms are looking to the future of data warehouses that can be used for building common language inquiries. It is to the benefit of the market research department and the company as a whole to look to securing and managing their knowledge resources.

Questionnaire design

What your requestor needs to know doesn’t change between countries. Yes, currency differs, quantities may differ, competitors may change, demographics may differ, but the required information stays the same. Once you have sign-off on the questionnaire from the requestor, the market researcher has to give final approval to the questionnaires across the various markets in which they are testing. That’s why the data collected must be consistent. For instance, note that prices should be translated from local market currency to euros or U.S. dollars or whatever the company’s home market currency might be. Demographics need common breaks for age, estimates of social class, household composition and so on. Competitors need to be established by market, which means some lists need to be changed to accommodate different nomenclature for competitors in different markets or different entries all together.


Investigating a country’s language profile should be done prior to starting a project. For example, India has over 400 dialects and while Hindi is the national language, there are states that do not require Hindi to be taught. Any representation of the southern states will require questionnaires to be translated into Telegu or Tamil to field in Andhra Pradesh or Chennai.

Conducting marketing research internationally is a challenge that requires layers of additional management devices to insure quality data and good analyses for your requestors. Making some key decisions at the inception of a study can yield multiple benefits in the quality of the information and insights you provide.

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