Want to conduct research without borders? Get some culture.

Want to conduct research without borders? Get some culture.


Jul 09, 2013

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We are living in an era of rapid globalization. Technology, notably high speed internet, is seemingly erasing borders and bringing once separated cultures into constant contact.  Businesses now have quicker and easier access to new and developing markets and non-profit organizations with an eye towards development, environmental conservation, or human rights can conduct work in just about every corner of the globe.  With these new opportunities opening up, it’s not surprising that international online market research is growing rapidly.

While increased globalization presents many exciting possibilities, we need to think about the way differences in culture can both positively and negatively impact conducting research.  If we want to see the positive benefits of international market research (and avoid the negative aspects), we must take the time in advance of projects to learn about and asses our audience in order to formulate a more relevant research plan. This plan must take into account all phases, from design to fielding to analysis.

Why is this crucial? Are there really that many pitfalls when you conduct global research? Forget the obvious issues such as time differences that can complicate international research, and think outside the box for a second. Different cultures take serious offense to things that many others find insignificant. For example, you wouldn’t want to ask questions surrounding personal income when conducting research in Japan, as this is perceived as highly personal. Lead with this and you risk alienating and offending your respondents. But address  issues like this in the design phase, and you can expect  a much smoother study.

Other problems that can arise, such as sample issues due to uninformed assumptions, can have a detrimental effect on fielding. When we have expectations of reaching certain groups abroad that we are able to reach in the U.S., we can be in for a very rough ride. Illustrating this is the heavy skewing of the online sample universe toward younger ages in developing countries such as Brazil and Korea.  Generational difference in technology is more pronounced in countries where mainstream use of technology is a newer phenomenon. Assuming that you are easily going to reach the 50 plus crowd in these markets is an error that can throw the whole project askew.

Another misstep often occurs in the final research stage. Our analyses can misinterpret the feedback/data if we view it through our own cultural lens and not the lens of those we are trying to learn from.  For instance, in the United States we have a very individualistic self-identity.  However, many other cultures are more communal based and thus group identity takes precedence.  This means that when analyzing questions that explore how a product contributes to one’s identity, it might be the case that how that product fits into the group is more important than how it plays into their individual identity.

As you can see, cultural barriers can easily pop up if we don’t think about them through the research process.  But the tricky thing about culture is that we don’t think about it in our daily activities – we perceptive it as common sense or ‘normal’.  Culture provides us with the ways of interpreting and understanding the world.  You can imagine that when people from different cultures communicate misunderstanding is common because people are perceiving things through different lenses.  Research is essentially communication, and for effective communication across cultures we need to overcome the barriers the best we can.

The Conflict Research Consortium at the University of Colorado identifies three cultural barriers that can obstruct cross-cultural communication: 1) Cognitive; 2) Behavior; and 3) Emotional (http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/problem/cultrbar.htm).  The very first step is to be aware of these issues; however, awareness is by no means the solution to improving international research.  We simply need to know a bit about the culture before we design our research projects.  Will this pre-research add to our prep time, and possibly require more resources? It’s very likely. However in the end, learning about the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional aspects that influence communication in specific cultures will not only allow for a smoother research process, but, more importantly lead to deeper, more relevant insights.

Our research work with iModerate over the past several years has developed into a true partnership. Their unique fusion of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies in a single study has offered new insights into key topics and markets of interest for our organization, which in turn, we are able to quickly turn into action steps. They are flexible, responsive, and extremely engaged in the entire project process, from conception and design to final data processing and delivery. They have even gone above and beyond by volunteering their time, resources, and expertise to assist with a special target market project on women. iModerate has their finger on the pulse of the research industry and consistently provides creative suggestions and solutions to enhance our current work. This ultimately allows us to provide our leadership with the strategic insights and opportunities that helps us to advance the common good.

Kristin Thomsen, Manager, Market Research, United Way Worldwide