Exploring qualitative research in China

Image of the post author Amy Lo

Amy Lo explores her personal experiences growing up across two vastly different continents and how these have shaped her insight career. 

When I was 12 my Dad announced I was to leave my home in Taiwan to attend boarding school in England. The resulting 10 years were to shape me in a way neither he, nor I could ever have imagined. 

Growing up across two continents that are so vastly different in terms of culture, climate and consumption meant living in a state of perpetual adaptation, seeking ways to adjust to the environment around me, both at school and then back at home during school holidays. 

I think this constant need to adapt to my surroundings is the reason I first started to closely observe the people around me, their behavior, their motivations, the things that made them similar and the things that made them different.

Skip to the present and as it turns out my fascination with people, their stories, backgrounds and culture has influenced me in my choice of career. As a qualitative market researcher it is my job to investigate the beliefs, perceptions and essential truths behind people’s behavior – and establish patterns amongst them.

I love this career for the opportunity it gives me to gain insight into our respondent’s lives and, of course to deliver Insight Worth Sharing to my clients. 

There is also a lot of variety; during my first role as a Graduate Insight Executive in Taiwan I spent time with a wide variety of respondents from tech-savvy consumers aiming to optimise a mobile-friendly home page for Yahoo to new mums sharing all about their nappy usage. One weekend we would be speaking to HNWIs about luxury holidays and the following weekend, accompanying Chinese teenagers on their hunt for the perfect pair of jeans! 

During a recent project in my current role at Kadence International in London I found myself face to face with my two ‘home’ nations. The study, for a luxury technology brand, involved investigating some of London and Shanghai’s wealthiest individuals and uncovered some vast and fascinating differences in priorities, preferences and behaviours of the Chinese elite against their UK counterparts. 

This study motivated me to understand more about today’s Asian consumer. How can brands adapt their approach to suit this vast and lucrative market? And, how can we as researchers select the best methodologies in order to gather the richest, most valuable insights?

Growing up across two continents that are so vastly different in terms of culture, climate and consumption meant living in a state of perpetual adaptation. I love this career for the opportunity it gives me to gain insight into our respondent’s lives and, of course to deliver Insight Worth Sharing to my clients. With over 700 million Internet users and a little shy of 600 million smartphone users in China (as of 2016), the future of online qual is extremely exciting.

In true millennial style, I started my investigations through my own social network. My friends from Asia were always posting in feeds, reviewing the latest products they have tried. I observed a willingness to share allegiances to particular brands, which doesn’t represent brand loyalty per se, simply that they are not afraid to share their opinions. Many of my female friends have their own blogs, discussing their views on the latest trends in clothes and make up and my feed is regularly inundated with ‘outfit of the day’ posts with links that take you to web shops where you can make a quick purchase from the endorsed brand or seller. 

Surprisingly for China, a country where censorship is widespread, opinions and voices on the Internet are loud and plentiful. Unlike Western countries, there is little trust in traditional media sources such as TV, press or radio. Instead, word of mouth is an increasingly powerful tool, as people use social media platforms to personally share information and opinions with friends and family. 

This trend has been identified by brands in China, who have made it their priority to create intelligent, comprehensive digital campaigns to facilitate the spread of their products or services. This is also why brands are carefully monitoring their e-reputation. Product reviews on the web have a growing influence on people’s decision making. Brands understand the need to nurture advocates within each and every social circle to build credibility and customer proximity. 

Back to my professional experience, working closely with a wide range of Chinese audiences both in Asia and in the UK, I have learnt that I most enjoy using methodologies that give me longer and closer contact with my audience, these allow me to really get to know each and every one of their stories, background and culture. 

Market research online communities offer a highly effective way for UK researchers to gather insight from Chinese audiences. Logistically simple (no working around time differences); methodologically effective (tap into natural online behaviours to provide a truthful engagement with our target audience) and financially efficient (no expensive flights and hotels!). 

Chinese audiences can often be more comfortable providing their opinions via the Internet particularly with certain more sensitive or divisive topics where they can retain a sense of anonymity. With online research methods, there are fewer concerns about their voices or faces being identified – and therefore a greater willingness to share.

With over 700 million Internet users and a little shy of 600 million smartphone users in China (as of 2016), the future of online qual is extremely exciting for me. Mobile devices are the main mode of Internet access and instant messaging is the top online activity in China. Apps such as WeChat are used on a daily basis, just as you and I use WhatsApp to keep in touch with friends and family. WeChat has evolved from a pure instant messaging app to (quoting the FT in April 2016) an app that is a phone, messenger, video conference, ecommerce platform and gaming console, not to mention noodle delivery service, for a nation of people in love with their smartphones. 

Some companies are already using WeChat as a data collection tool for short quantitative surveys, tapping into its mass user base and taking full advantage of its ability to provide instant responses.

And given that the app is already in most people’s pockets means we can largely conduct many of the conventional qualitative methods through WeChat as well. We’re already gaining insights through both interaction and observation, from in-depth interviews to accompanied shopping, to digital diary logging. It’s amazing – but we’re able to follow the steps of Chinese respondents through the lenses of their smartphones from the comfort of their chairs in London. 

The casual nature, accessibility and users’ familiarity with WeChat helps encourage user interaction, engagement and participation, thereby improving our capability to obtain accurate and honest insights. 

The opportunity to use social media platforms for qualitative research is not completely unique to the Chinese market. We know some have been doing focus groups on WhatsApp, and some are using Facebook as a research tool. There is no reason why something similar cannot become a more prevalent research method in the West, provided we have a similar multifunctioning social media platform and the same abundance of users already familiar with the platform.

Personally, I find the possibility of conducting focus groups and in-depth interviews from my iPhone a very exciting prospect. With social media platforms such as WeChat, in a click of a button, I’m in touch with a group of people 5000 miles away, tapping into every aspect and every minute of their lives and uncovering trends through my very own device. I can do this whilst on the go and, when something I see on the street suddenly inspires me, I no longer have to wait until Monday. I can simply pop a question to my group and wait 5 seconds to see what they have to say. 

Looking back, whilst my 12 year old self may have resented my Dad’s decision to send me away from Taiwan to the UK, in hindsight, it was the best decision he ever made.

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