Editor’s note: Brooke Patton is research and content specialist at market research firm GutCheck, Denver. 

Researchers are incredibly inquisitive and resourceful. We like to ask questions and solve problems. In fact, many research objectives center on understanding problems and asking why they occur. Thus, researchers got their start from this child-like tendency to constantly ask “why.” Today, our unique ability to conduct various methods of research online helps answer this question better than ever before.

Exploratory methods

Exploratory research, one of the primary avenues for qualitative research, is instrumental to understanding the “why” and other factors that have yet to be clearly defined. It is meant to gather descriptive information and provide a better understanding of something. It is not necessarily meant to be used to validate or provide final conclusions. Organizations with less robust research strategies may not be as familiar with exploratory methods. Often it is done through the use of:

  • focus groups;
  • secondary research; and
  • surveys with open-ended responses.

Organizations that don’t invest in an exploratory research phase put themselves at risk for developing weak concepts or missing out on identifying information that leads to course corrections. Subsequently, exploratory research insights gleaned from these methods provide the kind of information that sets a strong foundation for ideation, concept development and creative executions – in addition to other benefits.

Reasons to conduct exploratory research

three tips 1. It’s flexible. Some market research methods can feel rigid, especially when it comes to things like concept or ad testing. But one of the great things about exploratory research is that it’s meant to be flexible and approached creatively in order to get the greatest amount of depth and insight.

For example, a variety of questions and projective techniques can be used to gather respondent feedback in a way that helps you better understand what consumers are thinking and why.

2. It acts as a signal. Depending on the specific objectives of the research, exploration acts as a signal, telling brands what they should avoid or it identifies unmet needs teams should consider solving for. Exploratory research that leverages projective techniques also means results can unveil inspiration for strong consumer insights – often resulting in exceptional concepts and creative. This provides brands with a means to signal what projects to move forward with and which ones require further refinement or should be avoided altogether.

3. It’ll focus your objectives. Many brands set out to dig up a collection of secondary research about an audience or subject in order to move forward with ideation. But there are shortcomings of secondary research that make this route challenging. Secondary research can lack context, relevance and timeliness, and most importantly, brands have no influence over what questions are asked. Thus, custom exploratory research is often a better route.

This is especially true when it comes to leveraging exploration research before conducting an attitudes and usage study or additional phases of research. Specifically, exploratory research can be used to formulate what audience to target, what questions to ask or what answer options should be included when it comes to the next phase of research.

exploratory research

Conducting more exploratory research is unlikely to hurt an organization. Use the following set of steps to get started. 

1. Evaluate opportunities. When it comes to exploratory research, it will either be conducted prior to larger research commitments or when a blatant gap is found in insights. Think back on your research process and plan for the previous year and identify what projects, products, etc., could have used the support of exploratory research and what future projects may fit the same mold.

2. Define objectives. As noted, exploratory research can be used for a variety of purposes, so it’s helpful to know what kind of objective you’re looking to achieve. For example, why someone chose one brand over another can be very different from learning about consumer perceptions. 

3. Select your method. Once objectives are laid out, you’ll have a better idea of what methodology to use. Understanding why a consumer chose one brand over another can probably be solved through the use of secondary research or a quick quantitative survey. On the other hand, understanding consumer perceptions may be a lengthier, more expensive process and require the use of focus groups.  

Implementing exploratory research

Like any research planning, as you start to map out the questions, objectives and methods you’ll be using to answer them, you’ll begin to get a better idea of timing and what needs you’ll have when it comes to actually executing the research or searching for a research vendor. 

Determining when and where to implement exploratory research does require some thought but if done well you will reap the benefits and provide the foundation for a strong research strategy and product success.