Hunting for healthy new ideas

Editor's note: Based in Atlanta, Janet Ziffer is market research technical leader, global marketing research and analytics, Kimberly-Clark Corporation. Based in Hoboken, N.J., Mike Mabey is director client solutions Americas, SKIM Analytical.

Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP) is a Roswell, Ga.-based global provider of products and services that help make workplaces healthier, safer and more productive. Recently, when KCP was looking to undertake a study of office workers in 10 countries, it chose online qualitative message boards as the research methodology.

Although this approach offered many clear advantages given the study’s global scale and ambitious scope, it also presented executional challenges. For while researchers from KCP and its vendor partner SKIM routinely conduct global studies, the demands of working across multiple time zones, cultures, languages and business units are amplified when using a data-gathering platform that allows for long fielding periods, almost limitless open-ended responses and real-time client involvement. Successfully executing such a project requires special considerations with regard to managing time, recruitment, stakeholder expectations, discussion content and reporting.

The challenge in this case was to understand office workers’ behaviors and needs in the workplace globally to identify white spaces where KCP could develop new products and solutions. More specifically, KCP wanted to understand the everyday working life of office workers in 10 countries: the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Brazil, Colombia, China, Russia and Australia. In addition, KCP wanted to actively engage both regional and global teams to help capture emerging global insights and country differences in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Quite a lot of time was spent considering the best and most cost-effective method of conducting the research. Regardless of the method, this would be a large-scale project. Among the potential solutions SKIM considered were a quantitative survey of all 10 countries; in-depth interviews and focus groups in each country; separate quantitative surveys for each country and online qualitative message boards. Ultimately, SKIM settled on a recommendation of online qualitative message boards.

An online message board is an online controlled-access environment where like-minded people are brought together for a period of time to discuss a certain topic with help of a moderator. Boards are a hybrid of one-on-one and focus groups in that one can determine whether participants’ responses to each question are visible to other participants. Moderators post questions and exercises that participants respond to. As with more traditional methods, the moderator can post follow-up questions or probe responses in-depth.

Balancing a global view

For multinational companies like KCP, message boards can be an excellent tool for balancing a global view with the country-by-country insights necessary to develop and market products and solutions effectively. More specifically for KCP:

  • Global online qualitative research gives stakeholders in all participating countries immediate access to what local respondents are saying and enables country affiliates and regional teams to see their customers up close and to offer input as the research occurs. 
  • The ability to probe more deeply for information on a similar question in a variety of cultures at the same time can provide important insights for global teams, as well as compressing the time needed to understand an issue with implications across multiple markets.
  • Using online boards let KCP have a separate board for each country, in the local language with a native-language moderator. This allowed country teams to monitor their board and to have direct input into the follow up questions.

Many different time zones

The initial kickoff meeting highlighted some of the challenges the research team would face throughout the project. With KCP researchers, internal clients and SKIM researchers in six different countries and many different time zones on the call, communication and coordination logistics would be a challenge.

The team decided early on to have a separate board for each country with a native-language moderator for each board. That turned out to be very important for respondent and internal team involvement. Separate boards enabled regional and global teams to participate in the research in real time, leading to better buy-in and better idea and insight generation.

There were 10 boards: one per country, 120 respondents in total, and seven languages. Each board lasted two weeks, so researchers gathered longitudinal as well as point-in-time information, with moderators probing daily for both country-specific information and globally-important issues. Respondents also participated in a series of creative exercises to help uncover awareness and needs in the category. New exercises were posted every two days.

The project yielded more than 7,200 pages of transcripts and because the boards were conducted in the native language of each country, at least 60 percent of the transcripts were not in English. Also, there was a large internal global team of stakeholders, including affiliates from each country, to engage and manage. One of the tools used to help with this process was a parallel internal KCP online message board moderated by KCP personnel for use by the country and global KCP team members.

As one might expect, there were challenges! And they can be grouped into five categories: time; recruiting; expectations; content and engagement; and reporting and insights.

Time is not always on your side! A global study can have significant time-zone challenges. Because of the range of time zones, feedback is occurring around the clock and respondents, moderators and clients are all accessing the boards at different times. From a fieldwork standpoint, it was very useful to have a research partner with global offices to coordinate recruitment agencies and with the team across time zones.

The feedback and requests for moderator follow-up from internal KCP stakeholders was arriving at all hours and there were instances where it was challenging for the KCP global team and SKIM to quickly follow up on new probing requests.

Recruiting varies tremendously across cultures. One thing became very clear during the recruiting phase: How and when recruiting occurs and the degree of effort and length of time needed varies tremendously by country and culture. While it was important that most of the screening criteria were consistent across countries, it was also still important to customize the approach in each market. For instance, in some countries, commuting issues were almost non-existent while in others, commuting issues were a huge part of the day and affected the respondent view of their work life.

Cultural differences can have a big impact on recruiting timelines and speed of participation. For instance, some countries like Colombia and Brazil take longer to recruit and the respondents are slower to get started on the boards. Researchers were initially very worried about having enough participants and participation in these countries. Researchers spent a lot of time on the phone and corresponding with panel providers, each of whom provided reassurance and came through in the end. Later there was concern that respondents in Colombia and Brazil were not participating at the same level as other countries but again, the process required patience. The key takeaway was to remain flexible regarding recruiting times and also about when questions and exercises occur for each country.

Over-recruit … sometimes. This varied tremendously by country. For example, in China there was 100 percent participation but in Brazil, 50 percent of respondents were lost, requiring a new round of recruiting. In fact, for some countries, we recommend a custom recruit instead of a panel because there are instances when the panels simply cannot deliver.

Another very important consideration for recruiting is the language of the study and the cultural implications of language choice. In some cases, it is not smart to conduct a board in English, even if English is a widely-used second language. For instance, Chinese respondents in Hong Kong did not want to participate if English was to be used, even though they spoke and read English. They were concerned they would make a mistake and be embarrassed.

Set expectations – and be prepared to reset them. With any study it is important to manage stakeholders’ expectations. In a multicountry study with wildly different markets across the world it is even more crucial. Multicountry studies also reveal dramatic differences in how cultures interact with the online bulletin board formats. Those differences can affect timing, content, interactions and willingness to provide visual content. Involving local teams can help manage those expectations.

For online boards that last more than a couple of days, there is a continuing risk of client and vendor staff burnout and overstimulation. Boards can be addictive and it is not uncommon to see clients and moderators accessing the boards continuously, day and night. Respondents can also burn out. Therefore, it is important to limit the discussion guide to essential questions because there’s no limit to what each respondent can write (unlike with other methods) and many respondents will spend much more time on the boards than is required.

Managing expectations to avoid scope creep is also a challenge of being engaged with respondents for two weeks. Ensure the internal team is aligned on all objectives and continuously remind them of the objectives in order to prevent scope creep. Even the slightest increase in scope means that data volume and analysis can balloon exponentially because of the number of respondents.

Content and engagement should be customized for culture and language. In developing global exercises and questions, local considerations must still prevail. Will all exercises will work in all countries? Chances are the answer is no.

With any online methodology, because it is not face-to-face, engaging respondents requires additional effort, coming up with creative exercises and varying the type of responses. For instance, researchers programed small max-diff exercises into the online boards, which respondents really liked. They were fun, easy to answer and interesting to think about. Max-diff exercises are also useful because they are less affected by cultural/country variations so one can use the results comparatively and as a rollup across regions and globally.

SKIM designed five main, global exercises to understand behavior and needs in the workplace. Even these five exercises had to be adjusted for culture and language. Different countries and cultures adhere to different social and work behavior norms. For example, some are more willing than others to upload personal pictures and videos. Researchers found that in Brazil and Colombia there was a great reluctance to upload videos. Conversely, Chinese respondents were more than willing to upload pictures, videos and elaborate drawings. In addition, working hours varied a lot; one of the advantages of boards is that respondents choose when to interact, reducing the impact of split days (taking a two- or three-hour break midday), which are common in some countries.

Analysis and reporting planning must start before the research begins. By the end of the study, there were more than 7,200 pages of transcripts, pictures and videos. Don’t wait until the end of the study to start analysis! There is too much information and it is impossible to synthesize and deliver a report in a reasonable time frame.

Online research also enabled researchers to ask for and receive multimedia responses. So, besides yielding pages and pages of written information, respondents uploaded a lot of great images – photos they’d taken themselves, pictures representing their thoughts that they found online – that offered a window into their worlds and thoughts. This really helped the team visualize what the respondents were saying. Again, having individual board moderators helped manage the flow of multimedia responses.

A number of steps were taken at the beginning to manage the information flow. SKIM received daily summary moderator reports from each board in a predefined format, in English to help manage the information flow and to prepare for the reporting phase. These summary reports became essential to managing the volume of information. Dossiers of the resulting information were created for each country, and eventually these dossiers were used to create thumbnail sketches called personas to help synthesize the massive amount of information.

Brainstorming workshop

As a final step for internalizing and articulating the insights from this study, the team participated in a two-day brainstorming workshop with global, regional and country-level team members to immediately make the research results actionable. Teams were created for the workshop and each team was tasked with articulating a country’s point of view.

The ability to really understand the consumer is invaluable in brainstorming new product and service ideas. During the brainstorming session, the different personas that were created in the reporting and analysis phase were used to aid and stimulate stakeholders in brainstorming new potential white spaces and product ideas.

Spontaneously thanked

Even though researchers and many clients have seen lots of online qualitative, there are still many consumers and decision-makers who have not yet participated in something like this. (In our case, after spending two weeks on the online bulletin board, participants spontaneously thanked the moderators for the experience.) So there is clearly room for growth in the number and the types of projects that can be undertaken using it.

For researchers who are considering conducting global online qualitative boards, take our experiences to heart and remember that communication, coordination and the efficient managing of information and respondent and stakeholder engagement will help you achieve research success.

Best practices in global online qualitative

For involving respondents

  • Using a variety of exercises will keep respondents engaged. Using max-diff exercises also generated a lot of interest among respondents and stakeholders.
  • Moderators must be very engaged with respondents.

For managing and engaging a global client team

  • Set up an internal client communication process. For KCP that meant regular debriefs and an internal online board where those involved could comment on trends and ideas they were seeing on the boards and bounce ideas off each other.
  • A great kickoff helps stakeholder buy-in and creates enthusiasm; it also sets expectations. 
  • The internal project leader must be committed to keeping stakeholders informed and engaged. This takes a lot of work and is a critical success factor.

For vendor team management

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
  • Have lots of moderator debrief meetings! This project included two formal debrief meetings each week and multiple country-level conversations.

For managing communication, findings and daily output

  • Create a schedule for delivering information to the team.
  • Create a structure for managing the flow of information from the field and to the team.

For key recruiting and technical considerations

  • When recruiting, do not rely on “one size fits all.” It doesn’t.
  • Conduct boards in the native language to ensure fewer cultural missteps and misunderstandings and to gather richer information.