Qualitative Market Research In China

Qualitative Research in China

Overview of Qualitative Research Services in  China

Broadly speaking, Qualitative research has these characteristics:

  • Looking for scientific ways to answer a question.
  • Employs the use of procedures that are predefined in looking for ways to answer a question.
  • Data taken are generally from small samples but modes of collection are both extensive and very detailed.
  • Findings are not predetermined; instead, it becomes a result of systematic application of predefined procedures.
  • Directs to gaining understanding of the research problem as applied in a specific local setting.
  • Applications of findings are not within the direct sphere of the study.

Qualitative research services in China can effectively be used if the direction of research points to the attachment of cultural values, indigenous human behavior and opinion, and societal framework of target populations. It leads to provide answers to how people interact, organizes, and relates personal and collective feelings to the world.

Focus Groups in China

Use of focus group discussions in China is a commonly used qualitative research method. Focus groups are generally divided into mini groups and standard focus group discussions. Normally, mini groups are formed with 3-4 participants lasting about an hour and a half to two hours.  Length of time is kept to a short duration to maximize participation among group members and benefit from their in-depth insights. Standard FGDs involve in-depth discussions with 6-8 respondents lasting around two to two and a half hours, and occasionally pushing to 3 hour groups. Duration of discussions normally falls within the given range for each of the methods though it could be adjusted depending upon the judgment of the researcher and the depth of the insights to be collected. This method is ideal for the following industries:

  • FMCG products
  • Elite consumers for industrial companies (like chemical, industrial companies, etc.)
  • Healthcare professionals, such as endocrinologist, nurses, etc.
  • Industrial respondents in certain industries (IT managers working in medium sized companies, procurement managers from food companies, admin managers responsible for office supplies purchase, etc.).

Application of the FGF method needs to be no longer than 3 hours to avoid exhaustion on the part of the respondents which obviously affects the outcome of the data to be collected. It is also advised that the number of respondents should not exceed eight participants to maximize the time in conducting in-depth interviews for each respondent. Recruitmenters always make it a point to do 2 over-recruits per session in order to ensure that scheduled interviews will not be postponed so as to save time and costs.

All throughout the process, quality control is employed and respondents are carefully recruited and screened before entering the FGD room. Standard screening questions will be asked based on what is specified in the screener. As the interview progresses, the researchers will take each respondents individually through unstructured questions to enable articulate and creative answers from respondents. All respondents need to provide supporting documents such as a kid’s mom would need to deliver their ID card, birth certificate, pictures of milk/toys, etc. to check and be sure that they are the right respondents.

There are also instances especially when project is considered very special that interviewers pay a visit to the respondent’s houses for security identification checks. Furthermore, review of screening questions will be made before entering the FGD room as well as the identification of the respondent to ensure that everything is falling in place as expected.

Online Focus Groups in China

An online focus group method is administered to gather insights and opinions of the respondents regarding consumer products and B2B research. This method proves to be both economical and fast due to the use of online focus group software for data gathering and reporting. Due to the onset of technology, online focus groups became popular and trained research professionals make use of a discussion guide in acting as moderator in group discussions. Researchers schedule online focus groups and create plans to efficiently manage the engagement. Online focus groups can be done through a chat-based focus group platform, a video-based platform, or a combination of chat, audio, and video functions using live streaming capability ushered by technological innovation. This type of method is ideal for consumer and B2B research in gathering information regarding the conduct of tests and validation of business concepts, evaluation of product performances, feedback from consumers and etc. Ideally, there are about 8-12 participants joining together for discussion through the online platform. They have access to a variety of tools and features like video and images as well as communication tools. Combination of audio, chat, and video properties in video based online focus groups are desirable to locations where there is good internet connectivity. Through this method, participants interact with the moderator while under the presence of an observer. Duration ideally lasts from one to an hour and a half to achieve maximum results. It is the duty of the moderator to run across structured questions, manage to initiate a discussion, and make the necessary recording. Additionally, respondents have the tendency of sharing openly with moderators than in face-to-face engagements. As a result, online focus groups effectively gather data from highly engaged and receptive participants.

To deal with the issue on communication, researchers plan that the online questions should be in the common language used by Chinese consumers to ensure that they are understood. Responses tend to be different especially when translation agencies are not able to manage well the decoding and encoding processes in translation. On the other hand, some issues like commitment of the respondents, respondent verification, high cost of online software, and government regulations on the conduct of a discussion platform will possibly hinder the desired aims of this method.

Online Bulletin Boards in China

Another way of using technology in conducting Market Research in China is through the use of a Bulletin Board System (BBS) or commonly known as online bulletin board. This type of qualitative research method belongs to the category of online focus group which involves the use of computer software. The conduct of research is initiated by the moderator who can posts questions through the computer for the respondents to answer. Discussions are made over a period of time. It can be made once or twice a day, or once a week or monthly depending on the depth of information needed for a research project.

  • Respondents will have enough time in analyzing and answering questions.
  • Allows respondents to be imaginative and encourages to explore other ideas that might be helpful in answering the questions through the introduction of visual images.
  • Online bulletin board offers options of when to answer and share thoughts allowing respondents to participate even if they are busy. As a result, more respondents can participate.

Purchasing and maintaining BBS software proved to be costly. Its use cannot guarantee that the respondent is the one answering the questions. The BBS software should be supported with Mandarin Chinese characters in order of respondents to understand the questions. Moreover, translations have to be accurate to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation. In times when questions are in English, only those Chinese fluent in English can participate. As a result, the respondents will not reflect a true representation of whole of China.

In-depth Interview

In-depth interview is a qualitative data collection methodology ideally used in the identification of attitudes, opinions, and beliefs of target populations. Conduct of in-depth interviews can be done through telephones or face to face interview that normally extend from a couple of minutes to one hour. This method can be used in place of focus group discussions to give way for the respondents to feel comfortable in sharing their personal views with the researcher. Isolated experiences of consumers such as testing product usability or the compelling impact of product messaging can be also handled effectively through in-depth interviews. The flexible nature of this method allows ease and convenience to both the researcher and the interviewer and will derive effective results as to perception about a particular product or service or depending upon the nature of data being collected. In general in-depth interviews are used to collect history of behavior, reveal experiences that are divergent, provide an avenue to gain easy access to norms of the community, and highlight importance of topics that can be  openly discussed in individual interviews. By way of application, in-depth interviews are efficient-wise if applied to populations with low literacy rates as subjects from this subset find it hard to answer structured questionnaires. One important aspect to consider with this method is the expertise of the interviewer. Experienced interviewers are able to make respondents engage and share their genuine perceptions and point of views. Underlying motivations, feelings, and beliefs are uncovered in the process resulting to a successful research activity. In-depth interviews can be applied through different subjects, to name a few: children, competitors, sensitive topics, and complicated behavior. Interviewers should attempt to be engaging and at the same time conversant to encourage intimate, friendly, and genuine conversation with the respondents. In-depth interviews can be used in business to business research when looking for strategic market opportunities because it can identify behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes of consumers and business buyers. This method can also be used in defining consumer motivation which is an important component of business to consumer research. The experiences, beliefs, and opinions of consumers about a particular product can be defined from a range of questions pointed at them in varying degrees and lengths. It is important to keep in mind that in-depth interviews could be best conducted in conducive and not crowded places to avoid any interruptions that will harm the smooth conduct of the interview. Additionally, interviews should not last more than two hours for one single respondent. This can be done through avoiding unnecessary topics and making use of simple and easy to understand questions.

It is also noteworthy not to interrupt respondents when answering the questions to allow smooth transition of ideas in the interview. As for the method’s effectiveness, in-depth interviews can be time consuming and costly due to the fact that some interviewers spend more time in unrelated issues. If interviewers are unfriendly, respondents tend to be reluctant to share personal feelings about a subject. This will render results to become subjective leaving reports to form biased judgments.


Ethnography is a qualitative research approach involving the collection of data that has relation to ethnicity, geographical locations, and including any group or organization. It determines how culture affects responses or views of a target market regarding an idea or product. This method is conducted by a researcher through immersing and acting as an active participant to a selected culture while documenting observed consumer behaviors.

Applicable method recommendations include:

  • At least 2 Chinese translators will be hired to conduct the interviews.
  • The translators will be debriefed about research goals and to avoid asking leading questions.
  • 2 Chinese translators and 2-3 researchers will be attending every interview sessions.
  • The whole members of a family in a specific target market should participate.
  • Inform respondents that recording of the interviews will be done and that photos of the participants and surroundings will be taken.

Immersion in communities will take more time. It is also that trust and friendship with respondents should be established to promote openness of personal insights. Differences in cultural concepts and perceptions should always be considered as a way of respecting one’s origin.

Creative Workshops in China

Creative workshops are also used as tool to qualitative market research in China as it deals with exploring insights intensively like that of the goals of using in-depth interviews and ethnographic techniques. It is done through creative activities that stimulate development of ideas and reveal areas which need more investigation. It offers a way to learn about the behavior or motivation of participants in connection with the subject of the research. The use of this method involves the participation of 6-12 participants. Workshop method makes use of projective techniques such as association tests, sentence completion or story building, card sorting, and collages. Association tests include word association and mind mapping. Researchers try to draw conclusions on consumers’ word association with product concepts and brands. The sentence completion and story building technique identifies and generates unbiased insights regarding key concepts. On the other hand, card sorting technique makes use of exploring how consumers prioritize and think about key ideas and concepts while collages involves the use of cut out pictures of things, words, and phrases including symbols and maps which make way for the expression of the perception of participants.

Researchers find it hard to design, plan, and set up workshop techniques that fit with the research objectives. Use of this technique is more risky than focus groups due low predictability of outcomes. The facilitator should be well trained in conducting workshops as this requires not only delivering messages and compiling results but also specific skill set in managing the workshops and in dealing with participants.

Evolvement and Development of Qualitative Research in China

Many researchers support the idea that qualitative research is the foundation of quantitative research. Not until 1996, views of qualitative research were introduced by Chen Xiangming. During this time, full understanding of the dimensions of qualitative research has not yet been clearly defined. Gradual transition of the idea became evident as more and more researchers find interest on its blossoming context.

As foreign and local businesses and investors are becoming interested in China, finding ways to understand the country’s culture and market behavior have become a priority. As a matter of approach, Market Researchers in China apply tools to gather insights from consumers in varying media to gain an understanding of how the target populations think, feel, act, and do.

In conducting market research in China, researchers focus on developing tools or techniques in data collection and analysis to ensure that information will be relevant to decision-making. A series of tests are conducted to screen people, information, and other inconsistencies that are brought about by differences in ethnic origin and language. Uses of both conventional and innovative tools are applied depending upon the degree of need as assessed by the researcher. Fieldwork is conducted to gather feelings, perceptions, and attitudes and transform the qualitative nature of these human traits into useful, relevant, and credible business information.

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