In the latest post in our series by global moderators from the Liveminds network, Moowa Masani tells us how to counter the challenges of carrying out online qual research in emerging markets, particularly in Africa
A few years ago I managed the West African leg of a global study commissioned by a European innovation agency. Fieldwork involved telephone interviews with local industry experts and social commentators. The young project coordinator, who was inexperienced in fieldwork in Africa, grew frustrated with the pace of the work despite having been told that his timelines were unrealistic and at one point made comparisons with work in Indonesia. This young man had clearly never been to Africa – definitely not for work assignments. Eventually the project was delivered, thanks in part to calm reassurances coupled with time spent coaxing and cajoling local recruiters to deliver the experts I needed to interview.
In all honesty the fault did not lie with the local recruiters; a combination of logistical factors exasperated by infrastructural problems led to the project running as it had. This project was not unique in this sense as each project I have worked on brings its own particular set of challenges.
Three key issues affect any research carried out in emerging markets, although they are usually magnified in online qual:
1. Technology and infrastructure
The obvious issues crop up here: failed connectivity brought on by power cuts, poor cellular network signal, high data costs and still relatively low penetration of smartphones, etc. There is not much that the researcher or even the client organisation can do to build on a local tech-ecosystem or reduce costs for participants. However, projects can factor in the various challenges in these markets, allow more time for set-up and fieldwork, focus on data friendly mobile collection methods (using feature phones where possible) and allow for offline sessions.
2. Local cultural context
People paraphrasing their responses and painting the best possible picture is a universal trend and, given the online culture that has developed on social media platforms (often either uber-PC or bullying), not one that is limited to respondents on the continent or to market research. It follows that consumers trying to anticipate where their responses will go will likely either not want to offend or else provide over-claim.
Local context presents its own challenges. A researcher with no experience of the various issues that might exist in a market cannot rely on direct consumer responses and should work with local agents acting as cultural interpreters wherever possible. Here, roles and responsibilities of researchers have to be defined and redefined – the insights needed could come from a junior team member rather than the senior agency contact person, for example.
3. Researcher bias and expectations
All research begins with a hypothesis it seeks to either prove or disprove. Researchers without in-market experience have only consumers to rely on, so can easily be led down (the wrong) rabbit hole.
Our bias as researchers should also be acknowledged – at least in so far as the hypothesis we take to a project is loaded with our own and our client’s cultural experiences and expectations. In this case there is an opportunity to engage in novel research processes; one that is iterative taking insights and lessons with one set of respondents and adapting interactions with subsequent research subjects. This would result in a collection of feedback that builds upon experiences throughout a project, laddering up to differentiating and useful insights for the client brand, rather than repeatedly interrogating the same misdirected points.
Researching human behaviour is never an exact science but by bearing in mind potential tech, personal and cultural challenges one can surmount many of the challenges of carrying out online qual research in emerging markets, particularly in Africa.
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