Language is just the beginning

Editor's note: Sarah Faulkner is principal and founder of Faulkner Strategic Consulting, Cold Spring, Ky.

Getting spa services in Singapore, interviewing physicians in Frankfurt, shopping for skin care products in Shanghai, watching men shave in Paris and visiting homes in Moscow – these are a few of the amazing opportunities I’ve gotten to learn about consumers all over the world. Conducting consumer and market research outside your home country brings with it plenty of interesting experiences and stories and new and rich learning but also comes with plenty of potential pitfalls. Here are five key areas to focus on when planning international qualitative or quantitative research.

Lay the groundwork. When planning primary research in another country, it’s helpful to first get some under-standing of the unique market dynamics, key competitors, consumer habits and practices, etc. If you don’t already have access to secondary research in that market, some smart Internet searches can go a long way. It will give you good context for creating meaningful research questions as well as helping you better understand local consumer responses.

For example, before conducting a quantitative survey on workplaces in Australia, I checked out blogs for ex-pats working there. It was a great, quick way to get some compare-and-contrast insights about unique work-place culture and habits in that country. In another case, before doing consumer interviews about skin care services in Hong Kong, I visited lots of local spa Web sites to check out the service menus, benefit language, etc. If you’re doing Internet research for a country with a different primary language than your own, Google Translate is a lifesaver (not word-perfect translation but it helps you get the gist).

Supplier partnerships. As with any research project, finding the right research partner is key for success. When conducting research internationally, you generally have a choice between using a large, multinational full-service supplier or going straight to a locally-based, often more specialty, vendor. In general, I would recommend using a multinational firm if you’re planning research in more than one country for the benefits of a single point-of-contact for coordination and logistics. Depending on the country, those firms then either have local offices for execution or contracts with local research companies. If you’re focusing only on one international market (or region), going straight to a locally-based company can get you closer to local experts who know their market best and is often more cost-effective.

When conducting international research, I rely heavily on my local research execution partner to offer guidance on market-appropriate research approaches and techniques as well as recruiting and incentive best practices. I would also recommend giving and getting detailed plans, timelines, scope, etc., in writing up front to minimize potential misunderstandings from language differences or general expectations. When conducting qualitative research, if you’re working through a global firm, make sure you also have a locally-based contact that will physically be present during the research and is familiar with all the details, as tracking down someone in another country/time zone can be difficult if a question or issue comes up during research.

Research logistics. When scheduling research internationally, be sure to carefully check local holiday and events schedules, ideally directly with a local as there may be “blackout” dates for research that aren’t necessarily obvious based only on a calendar. For example, August in Europe is best avoided as many people are on holiday that month. And, while Chinese New Year is officially one day on the calendar, celebrations extend far beyond that.

Take guidance from the local recruiter but when planning qualitative research in other countries, typically plan for multiple extra recruits per group, especially in large urban areas. Traffic, weather and even local attitudes to-ward time/punctuality can all impact respondent arrival time.

While I’ve certainly tagged along on many in-home and shop-along interviews in other countries, it’s important to hire a skilled and experienced local moderator to lead interviews and focus groups. Not only because of potential language differences but also for the cultural understanding and nuance – both in the interview and the ability to share contextualized insights after.

If you will be physically traveling for research in another country, it’s critical to pre-plan all logistical details and not take anything for granted. Make sure you know what resources will and will not be available at the re-search site (e.g., copier, projector, wireless Internet). If you’re doing in-home or shop-along research, will you need to hire a driver or will public transportation be more appropriate?

Translation. Conducting research in a country with a different primary language than your own presents many challenges. Many local research companies will have bilingual staff, especially those with ties to the large multi-national suppliers, which is very helpful, but these people are usually not professional translators so make sure to secure those resources separately.

Live, simultaneous translation of qualitative research is a very specialized skill so if you need a translator for that, try to get recommendations from others or, at a minimum, make sure that the research translator specializes and is experienced specifically in that field. Also make certain that the local focus group facility is set up with the proper tech equipment for simultaneous translation, particularly if some attendees will be listening in the local language and others to the translation.

Translation of questionnaires and research stimuli (e.g., concepts, package copy, advertisements) is another consideration. Most global research firms offer translation of screeners and questionnaires but many will not translate research stimuli. Check with your research vendor to be sure, but also be prepared to hire a third-party translation service for any stimuli. Sometimes language departments at local universities can be a good resource to provide or refer this service.

With any written translation, be sure to request a back-translation as well. Back-translation is a translation from the translated foreign language back into your own language. This can often help catch mistranslations, especially for local idioms and culturally-specific meanings or terminology. For example, “anti-aging” skin care in English might get translated to a nonsense term in the local language that literally back translates to “against being old.” Explaining the intent, giving examples and talking to locally-based bilingual contacts can help find the right terms to substitute.

Response scales and cross-country comparisons. Many side-by-side studies have been conducted and academic papers written on the subject of cultural bias in research scales, so I will not at-tempt to address all the nuances of that here but I do want to just mention the need to be aware of variances in how different cultures use response scales in questionnaires. For example, in Asia, scale order is typically in reverse of scales used for research in North America because Asian consumers are usually more likely to give a more positive or affirmative response vs. their North American counterparts. So, a response scale used in South Korea might list agree options from “strongly disagree” down to “strongly agree” while the same question in the U.S. version of the study should list “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

These cultural dynamics also impact how questions are asked in a qualitative setting to be as non-biasing as possible, so be sure to involve a locally-based researcher, ideally the moderator, in writing the discussion guide and planning any creative activities and exercises within interviews.

If you’re conducting quantitative research across multiple countries and want to be able to compare the results, there are a few things you can do. First, consult an expert (within a multinational research firm or a research consultant with global experience) for guidance on tailoring your questionnaire by market. This could involve re-ordering sections or individual questions, using different scales or response order, or even customizing the instructions you give for filling out the questionnaire. Also make sure your scales themselves are as non-biasing as possible; consider using a numerical scale (e.g., rate from 1-10) vs. a qualitative scale (e.g., rate from “excellent” to “poor”).

Probably the most effective way of understanding a country’s specific results relative to another country is to use benchmarks and databases. If your company conducts lots of multinational research frequently, you might be able to construct your own internal databases and benchmarks for comparison. Otherwise, many larger global research vendors maintain robust results databases by country. For example, if your concept gets a top two-box purchase intent score of 40 percent in the U.K. and 50 percent in Japan, you can compare those results to norms for the category and country for more insight. You may learn, for example, that a 40 percent score in the U.K. is actually in the top 20 percent of that database, while a 50 percent score for the same category in Japan is actually only in the top 40 percent of that database.

Do your homework

Many lessons in effective global research can only come from experience, so talk with colleagues and research vendors and consultants who’ve been there before if you’re just getting started with international market research. The most important thing is just not to assume that everything is the same in other markets as in your own home country. Do your homework, ask lots of questions and leverage the experience of others while you build your own. Doing consumer research in other countries is an eye-opening and fascinating experience. It’s a unique chance to learn about other cultures, appreciate our differences and similarities and gain fresh insights for our business.