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The four golden rules for conducting global qualitative research

The four golden rules for conducting global qualitative research

By Lisa Bertlesen, global director, research insights, leadership, research, Siegel+Gale

As brands expand into international markets, the need for global qualitative research has become more pronounced. Understanding the nuances of a country's norms, culture and language is essential when trying to connect with consumers to capture what is relevant and useful for our clients’ brands. Below are a few of my "golden rules" that reveal what is important when conducting global research.

Rule 1: Recognise the importance of pairing local and global teams

When conducting qualitative research, it is extremely beneficial if the lead researcher observes interviews in each country. While this adds considerable cost (professional hours, travel expenses and simultaneous translation), the benefits are two-fold.

Firstly, through close observation, the lead moderator can recognise and capture minutiae that can mean the difference between good and bad data. Subtle nuances can be overlooked, characterized or articulated differently when interviews are conducted in numerous languages, despite back-translations. A lead researcher's presence can minimize these errors—allowing for real-time adjustments on delivery, phrasing and responses to unanticipated reactions by participants.

Secondly the lead researcher is responsible for aggregating research data, spotting themes across markets and conducting the final analysis. By observing research in all countries, isolated findings that may appear insignificant to in-country moderators can be identified and probed as the research unfolds. This ensures a more rigorous analysis and greater consistency in reporting.

Rule 2: Consider your research methodology carefully

Not all methodologies are suitable for each country. As an example, focus groups in Saudi Arabia are typically conducted in restaurants, coffee shops or hotels with CCTV—and mixing of sexes should be avoided for the sake of propriety. In China and Japan, in-depth B2B interviews with high-level managers are more successful if done in person. This is due to the cultural perception that high-level discussions merit the time, attention and civility afforded by a face-to-face meeting.

Rule 3: It's more than words and pictures

The client team should translate, and then back-translate, all research materials. On that point, I always ensure that the back-translation is done by someone in-country (not by someone who speaks the language, but comes from office headquarters). This is a critical distinction, because individuals who don't live in-country lack a complete understanding of the local context (norms, culture, history, etc).

The involvement of local translators is critical. Otherwise, seemingly simple words or concepts can take on a whole new meaning. On one occasion, my client and I discovered that the German word for "buy," kaufen, triggered a negative reaction with our Frankfurt audience. Although technically correct, the word was featured in a TV ad which showed a man yelling like a used car salesman: "Kaufen! Kaufen! Kaufen!" Because we reviewed the materials with the German moderator in advance, we were able to course correct before the research began.

The same diligence should be applied to the use of imagery. Several years ago, I was testing a corporate web page. One photo showed a businessman at a desk. While the New York audience thought he looked "competent" and "successful" to the Tokyo audience he was "arrogant” and "disdainful." A seasoned research team can help you avoid potential gaffs that could damage the brand and what it communicates to people—implicitly as well as explicitly.

Rule 4: Project management has never been so important

Project management for global research reaches an entirely new level of complexity. The rigor required is a step above any domestic initiative and each market can add additional challenges.

Introduction letters may be required. This is especially critical for B2B and is commonplace in countries where protocol is important.

Each country has its own legal constraints when it comes to disclosure of information (e.g., HIPAA regulations in the United States; non-disclosure of any personal information in Japan).

Since I always conduct research in my own market first, I will discuss preliminary findings with the in-country teams prior to their interviews. This is not intended to influence their delivery or analysis, but is meant to lend some insight into patterns in the data and unanticipated responses that may or may not surface within other markets.


There isn't a day that goes by when human beings don't surprise me. Their attitudes, opinions and perceptions converge and diverge in fascinating ways. Multicultural research takes that diversity to a whole new level.
To deliver global solutions, we must not only think globally, but we must have the skills, infrastructure and hands-on experience to back it up. The combination of clear communication, sound processes and a seasoned global research team can go a long way toward revealing the nuance that makes global research so fascinating.
Lisa Bertelsen is the Global Director of Research Insights for Siegel+Gale, a global brand strategy firm.

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