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Whether you work in marketing, product development, or in the tech space, you will inevitably arrive at the junction in the road when you realize you don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s perfectly okay. It means you are stepping into new territory and expanding. However, before you take the plunge into the great unknown, consider first investing in exploratory qualitative research, so that you will be well-prepared for whatever the marketplace throws at you.

First off, let’s define “exploratory qualitative research,” shall we?

Exploratory qualitative research helps companies understand new marketplaces and demographics in which a company has little experience. It can consist of traditional qualitative techniques, such as in-depth interviews, focus groups, ethnographic studies, or blended qualitative and quantitative approaches. The goal is to understand the new marketplace and consumer so that the company can position its product appropriately.

Armed with that knowledge, let’s look at five situations where exploratory qualitative research should be step one before you release a product or do any marketing.

Reason #1 to do exploratory qualitative research: You want to enter into a new market

If you’ve been extremely comfortable operating in one market, but you’ve come out with a new product and want to expand to a new space, first bring in an objective third-party company to help you learn the ropes and understand the marketplace. For example, let’s say your company has manufactured software – and succeeded in this space — but you’re long-overdue to create a cloud-based product. The cloud is a happening space, crowded with competitors, and full of lingo and marketing tactics that you haven’t been using for your software. Qualitative research, in this case, would likely consist of in-depth interviews with prospects who use cloud-based technology. You might want to explore topics with these interview participants, such as:

  • How do they learn about the cloud-based technology that they use?
  • Why do they prefer cloud-based technology over traditional software?
  • What cloud-based products do they currently use?
  • What do they wish a cloud-based product would offer?

Armed with insights based on the interview research, your product team will feel entirely more confident as they refine your new cloud-based product, and your marketing team will have a specific strategy with their go-to-market plan.

Reason #2 to do exploratory qualitative research: Significant market changes

The marketplace is constantly shifting, and with the speed that technology is changing, companies are often left scrambling to adapt. Let’s say you operate a call center, and the trend is now “multi-channel technology” – people don’t want to just dial into a call center; they want to reach a company through social media, on an online forum, or on their mobile device. You need to explore technology that will allow your team to service customers through multi-channel platforms, but you don’t have a thorough understanding of how customers use multi-channel or even know how to implement technology that will meet the new marketplace need. Regardless of the marketplace shift, qualitative marketplace is absolutely essential for helping you make strategic decisions.

In the multi-channel example, you could employ a blended qualitative and quantitative study that would uncover opinions and insights from customers about how they work with a company through different platforms. What do they expect from a company in this new marketplace? What kinds of tech platforms are their preference for contacting a company? What defines “great customer service” in this new multi-channel world? A complementary quantitative survey study would give you data on the marketplace saturation, demographics, and geographic information of your customers. The qualitative and quantitative data, combined, will solidly prepare your team for a significant marketplace change.

Reason #3 to do exploratory qualitative research: You’re expanding to a new country

If you’re trying to expand into a new country, you’ll want to be armed with cultural knowledge first. For example, take the case of the app game TwoDots. The simple and addicting game has been a huge hit, and it held the top iPhone game in 71 countries. The Chinese, however, weren’t buying it. The TwoDots team was puzzled – what was going on culturally that was keeping the Chinese (who spend $2.9 billion annually on mobile gaming) from downloading and playing the game?

If you’re a company such as TwoDots, your best bet is to start off with an ethnographic qualitative research study to help you understand the Chinese marketplace. A blended ethnographic study would answer the following questions:

  • What app stores do the Chinese use (it’s not Google Play and the iStore)
  • How much are the Chinese willing to pay for an app game?
  • Is the game itself culturally appealing (in the case of TwoDots, the developers found that the game started off too challenging for Chinese preferences)
  • What kind of cultural imagery should the game incorporate to make it more appealing? (In China, dragons and terra cotta warriors are popular)
  • What local Chinese partners should a company team up to establish credibility and get distribution?

Prior to TwoDot doing any sort of cultural investigation, they had just assumed that TwoDot would be a smash hit in China. It was only after extensive cultural analysis that they went back the drawing board and re-launched the game, reconfigured for local Chinese preferences. Had they started off with ethnographic qualitative research first, they would have saved millions of dollars and over a year in time trying to figure out how to make their app culturally relevant in China.

Reason #4 to do exploratory qualitative research: You want to understand your current customers

Qualitative research is a tool that you should be using repeatedly. Annually. Here’s why: Your customers change. Their preferences shift, their consumption patterns will evolve, and their economic situation will be altered as the years go by. You may have invested in qualitative research a few years ago, but what was relevant for your customers then may not necessarily be relevant now. Take the example of the Great Recession, and how it changed people’s spending patterns and outlook: If you had done research back in 2008 or even 2010 about people’s feelings regarding financial security, your picture of your customers from back then probably doesn’t reflect where your customers are at right now. Sure, they may still have some insecurity and lack of faith in core investments such as real estate, but chances are, they’re spending more and their overall outlook has changed. If you’re still marketing to them like it’s 2010, you’re missing out. Reinvest in market research so that you can understand how your customers think now, in 2015. Focus groups, ethnographic studies, and in-depth interviews are all fantastic tools to help you understand your audience.

Reason #5 to do exploratory qualitative research: You want to market to a different demographic

Finally, exploratory qualitative research is one of the best ways for your company to understand a different demographic. Let’s say you sell banking products, and you’ve traditionally marketed your home mortgage products to 30-somethings on up. However, you’ve noticed some shifts in mortgage behavior: More and more 20-somethings are now buying homes. You want to create a campaign for this new audience, which includes Millennials and Generation Z. You know they consume media differently, but how is their language different? What do they know or not know about the mortgage application process? What is their impression of banks and the financial industry as a whole? Qualitative research, either using ethnographic research, online tools, in-depth interviews, or focus groups (in conjunction with quantitative data), will help you understand the younger demographic so that you can tailor not only your messaging appropriately, but even the process in which you sell your mortgage products to this age group.

Invest in exploratory qualitative research upfront: It will save you time, money, and frustration

Many companies often come to qualitative research late in the game, after they’ve invested in unsuccessful marketing campaigns, developed products that weren’t purchased, or tried to enter a different country, only to find out that their product wasn’t well-received there.

Exploratory qualitative research, when it’s step 1, instead of step 6 (after numerous failures), will set you up for success. You’ll be armed with in-depth knowledge about your target customers’ opinions, preferences, and spending patterns. You’ll understand what they know about the marketplace, and you’ll know what they’re looking for from a product.

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