Qualitative international market research methods

New market entry always requires a great deal of market research. In a marketer’s own country, it is easier to prepare quantitative questionnaires since the research team shares many of the same values as the survey respondents; the research is normally meant to identify small variations in opinion.

However, in international market research, the research team often doesn’t begin with the same set of shared values or backgrounds. In these cases, Javalgi, Granot, & Alejandro (2011) note that “quantitative methods do not adequately provide an in-depth understanding of the underlying end-user actions or phenomena under investigation.”

Instead, Javalgi et al. strongly recommend qualitative research methods, specifically the following:

  • Case study – an in-depth study of a specific unit, individual or context; for example, the dynamics of an international competitor sales force or the marketing practices in an international competitor organization.
  • In-depth interviewing – a direct interaction between the researcher and a single participant; for example, understanding an international CMO’s theory on advertising in his country or a consumer’s reaction to a new product innovation.
  • Focus groups – a direct interaction between the researcher and multiple participants. The conversations between the participants may help identify cultural norms that may have otherwise been invisible to the researcher.
  • Observation – a researcher watches (usually unobserved) as actions take place; for example, the consumer selection process in a retail environment.
  • Ethnography – places phenomena in social and cultural contexts; for example, witnessing how environmental concerns begin to shape a culture in terms of recycling, purchases from companies with strong CSR policies, etc.
  • Phenomenology – describes the subjective reality of an event as perceived by the study population; for example, the collective German response to Google advertising and the privacy concerns unique to that culture.

Marketers have long gravitated to the empirical nature of quantitative research, since numbers have a reassuring quality to those seeking absolute answers. However, international market research is an area where most marketers find themselves in the training seat. As Javalgi et al. note, one of the best ways to accelerate that training curve is to use the correct tools in the beginning, namely qualitative tools.


Javalgi, R. Granot, E., Alajandro, T. (2011). “Qualitative methods in international sales research: cross-cultural considerations.” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management. 21 (2), pp. 157-170.


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