Researching Markets In China – A Day In The Life

In his latest Thursday Night Insight, Alaric Fairbanks gives us a glimpse into his life conducting market research in China.

Our permanent Beijing office has been up and running for about two and a half years now, and over this period I have been asked by both colleagues and clients outside the country about how working in market research here in China is different from in the west, and how it is similar. On a high level, there are obvious similarities: we have to win and design projects, identify respondents and sources of information, collect data and analyse data…the same as my colleagues elsewhere. This is pretty much as you may expect anywhere.

Things get slightly different, however, on the type of projects: For the first two years, the majority of projects were market analysis and market development, with less interest in more quantitative research projects like customer satisfaction. There is, though, more and more customer sat work happening, as clients become more established, and of course we become more established with existing companies. In our experience, market analysis demand tends to focus on both the factual (i.e. size, structure and trends) and the analytical (i.e. what this means for developing sales). These projects tend to feature more qualitative investigative techniques and, in some ways, are more akin to a jigsaw where you first have to find the pieces.

Clients have, in the main, been larger foreign companies and multinationals who already have a presence in China, but the projects are often commissioned abroad. Often this is because the market research function or strategic decision making unit is located in corporate headquarters, although we are seeing a lot more work commissioned from within China itself. Another reason for foreign-based commissions is the need for third party verification (or otherwise) of information coming from their China-based operations. On a practical level, having a large proportion of clients based in Europe and North America means that face-to-face meetings for commissioning and presentations are not so common, and telephone conferences and web presentations form a larger part of communications. This also means that interesting hours are often worked at commissioning and presentation meetings!

As I already mentioned, an increasing number of clients are from within China and other parts of Asia. Again, the overlying characteristics of working with them remain the same i.e. understanding their needs, proposing a suitable methodology, negotiating timescales and price, etc. Where differences occur, however, are in lead times (longer) and very often in the brief itself. We have seen an increase in the number of specific written briefs, but these are still very much in the minority. Another interesting characteristic is how these clients prefer to communicate. After initial contact, many prefer to rely on instant messaging over the internet, mainly qq or similar services, for day-to-day communication, rather than telephone or e-mail. This is also having an impact on research methodologies.

Methodologies for data collection here include all the usual suspects and, language aside, would be largely familiar to clients and colleagues in other countries. There are, though, some differences in application, for example focus groups tend to work better in smaller numbers, 6 to 8 being optimum. It is often argued that, especially in business, face-to-face interviews are necessary here. Very often this isn’t the case. We recently had a project looking at the market in the ‘biosolids’ industry, meaning we had to talk to respondents in Chinese sewerage works. Initially this seemed quite daunting, until it became clear that these people were extremely receptive; no pushy sales people come and call (for perhaps obvious reasons), and they are seldom asked about the intricacies of their work. Recruitment was aided by the incredible take-up of social networking and bulletin boards among Chinese professionals. As a country undergoing rapid change, it is perhaps no surprise that methodologies and attitudes to them are changing too. From a ‘consensus’ of f2f being the only acceptable technique just a few years ago, telephone and indeed online have increased in importance incredibly quickly, with instant messaging even being used for in-depth qualitative work. Whilst respondents are often very keen to work with different approaches, the market outside China and occasionally inside sometimes sticks to believing outdated truisms.

In this short space available, it is clear that although many principles and approaches are of course similar, there are nuances affecting all aspects of the process. Where this may be more complicated or even contentious is around how this is manifested in everyday work, for example the amount of time required on quality checks, and HR issues and administration. I’ll try to cover these in my next post.

To learn more about our work and our team in China, visit

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