Market research: How research has narrowed targets - As markets become increasingly specialised, so does research, writes Robert Gray

At its most straightforward, market research is a simple business.

At its most straightforward, market research is a simple


You ask a sample of people questions and they happily provide you with

the sort of truthful, illuminating answers that make marketing

strategies easy.

Unfortunately for clients and market research agencies alike, the

process is seldom as ideal as that.

In an age of niche positioning and painstakingly segmented markets,

there is a need to break down, research and understand specialised

audiences as never before. Targeting means gleaning knowledge about

audiences that are not always easy to reach.

There are all manner of audiences that marketers may need to research,

from the affluent to the poor, the disabled to ethnic minorities,

youthful hedonists to dowdy corporate chief executives - all are of

fascination to brand owners of one kind or another and all are harder to

reach than a broad cross-section of the UK population.

’With nearly all qualitative research, we seek respondents who are a

tiny part of the population,’ says Viewpoint Field associate director

for qualitative research, Jackie Ross. ’If you can think creatively

enough, you will get to most kinds of people.’

When trying to reach ethnic minorities, for instance, the starting point

is often an analysis of census data to determine areas of relatively

high concentration. The danger of this approach, of course, is that it

may skew the research by omitting those members of a minority who live

in areas away from this concentration and, as such, may have different

experiences and opinions.

Nevertheless, census data is useful for pinpointing ethnic


One leading FMCG company, which wishes to remain anonymous, recently

targeted ’older Asian women’ for product-related research.

To overcome barriers of shyness and inhibition among the target group,

the market research company involved made contact with senior community

figures who used their influence to reassure the participants that

everything was above-board. ’You have to work by the rules of the

community,’ says the researcher who handled the project.

A similar approach was adopted by market research company Pegram

Walters, on behalf of a food sector client based in Jamaica.

The brief was to research second- and third-generation Jamaicans living

in the UK - some of whom had never even been to Jamaica - to establish

how much traditional eating patterns persisted.

Although community ’intermediaries’ were used to allay fears, the

recruiters for the sample were not drawn from the Jamaican community.

This, claims Bill Pegram, chairman of Pegram Walters, is because the

increasing professionalism of recruiters makes it possible for them to

empathise with a broad range of people and be aware of any cultural


The big issue, adds Pegram, is to persuade interviewees of the

legitimacy of the research and of the company carrying it out. ’Research

does get tarred with the same brush as those people who try to sell

under the guise of it. So we have to convince people of our bona fides,

assuring them we are a proper market research agency registered with the

British Market Research Association.’

There are some groups, however, which require greater sensitivity than

others. Andrew Irving Associates, a market research company that handles

a broad array of assignments, has carved out a name for itself in the

field of hard-to-reach audiences by working with ethnic minorities, the

disabled, and even TV licence fee-evaders.

Speaking in confidence

In the case of law-breakers, says managing director Andrew Irving, the

key is reassurance that they can speak candidly without fear of their

identities being passed on to the authorities. This is achieved in part

by keeping paperwork to a minimum and not asking for names or


’Putting them into a group gives them more confidence to talk,’ says


’One-to-one leaves them frightened. People have to be reassured that it

is safe to participate.’

Another way to set participants at their ease is to conduct interviews

on their home territory. There is, as Irving adds, little point in

inviting those on low incomes to the most glamorous hotel in town

because it is an alien environment which may put them on their guard or

even discourage them from attending.

An important development in market research is that the growing number

of male recruiters in the industry (see box) means fewer areas of

society - or the country - are regarded as off-limits than before. But

even so, it is sometimes still best to proceed with caution.

’There are pockets of the country where people don’t feel comfortable,’

says Ross. ’Then it can be about sending people out in twos. You have to

accept you may need to pay for minders.’ MORI research director, Mark

Speed, adds: ’You want to have somebody nearby to whom you can signal if

something is going awry.’

Truth be told, though, little market research is done in the roughest

environments unless it is into social and government policy issues, such

as crime, drug use, health, welfare benefits or social exclusion.

Director of research company RDSi, Geoff Bayley, says: ’I’ve conducted

more than 2000 groups in my career. Only eight of them were on a sink

inner city housing estate: Broadwater Farm. But those groups were on a

specific community issue, not a broad marketing or advertising one.’

As low-income groups tend to be of little interest to marketers, it is

other strands of the population which are more fruitfully


Recently much has been written of the pink pound - the spending power of

the gay community - and certainly there are many marketers who wish to

have more information on this audience.

Knocking on doors or telephone surveys are difficult and expensive ways

of reaching an audience of this kind. Researchers have found it more

effective to target gay people in the places where they congregate, such

as pubs and clubs. In this way, the British Market Research Bureau

(BMRB) has, for 14 years, conducted research on the understanding and

awareness of Aids using a gay bars survey for the Health Education

Authority. The drawback of the approach is that it is only

representative of gay men who attend bars, and that the findings cannot

represent all gay men.

Where a group is extremely small, it may only be possible to recruit a

further sample by being put in touch through their friends. This is

known as ’snowballing’. The downside of this method is that any bias in

the original sample can be reinforced and there is a high likelihood

that the ’referrer’ passes on details of the interview.

The BMRB used snowballing to carry out research on behalf of a clothing

retailer which caters for women of size 16 and above. A small group of

women who knew the brand were identified and they recommended others to

take part in the research. As this is a highly specified, tiny minority

of the population, recruitment by traditional methods would have been

time-consuming and expensive.

Snowballing has also been used to piece together samples of high net

worth individuals. But, of course, where people live also provides a

rough guide to their relative prosperity. ’Geography is a very good

starting point, although it is a given that there will always be people

who are hard to get hold of,’ says consultant Michael Warren, former

director general of the Market Research Society.

A question of wealth

Barclays Bank recently used Andrew Irving Associates to research its

wealthier customers’ views on service provision. ’They didn’t want to

upset them by knocking on their doors and saying ’I believe you have

half a million pounds in the bank’,’ says Irving. Instead, a high

quality postal questionnaire was sent out to affluent areas, asking

recipients to indicate whether or not they wished to take part in

follow-up, in-depth research.

Some recipients were offered an incentive of pounds 20 to take part,

others were not. There was a higher response rate among those offered

the pounds 20 inducement. Irving says: ’The pounds 20 makes a difference

to rich people, which is probably why they are rich.’

The Research Business’ UK qualitative research head, Sarah O’Brien, says

that the research industry is increasingly using client databases to

identify audiences. The growing penetration of the internet is also

opening new possibilities, especially as businesses try to

better understand online communities. ’New media will lead to more

segmentation research. We’re getting enquiries on that,’ says MORI’s


And there is a danger of over-use of some individuals - doctors and

business leaders, to name two categories. Some doctors, says Pegram,

’charge mercilessly’ for their participation. Others refuse to

participate at all.

Research International (RI) associate director, Jonathan Harrison, who

specialises in the IT sector, says the way to overcome weariness at

being researched is to explain the benefits of taking part in terms of

the improvement in product and marketing communications that will result

from the client.

Often, in return for interviewees signing non-disclosure agreements, RI

will tell them the client’s name and purpose for the research.

’Research should create a dialogue with customers; it’s not a one-way

process,’ says Harrison. ’We also have to look more at using specialised

recruiters who understand the marketplace and can make sure we get to

the correct individuals.’

Clients need to appreciate the difficulty of researching certain

audiences and not make life harder for themselves and their agencies by

setting unrealistically narrow definitions. Market research, while

generally valuable, is never perfect. Even big tracking studies are not

entirely representative of the population as a whole. As O’Brien says:

’There are certain parts of the population that are probably missed off

completely in omnibus market research.’

But with some lateral thinking, it is amazing what can be learned.

Consultancy, What If!, has carried out research for a client with

products in the male grooming sector, interviewing and observing young

men as they groomed themselves the morning after a heavy boozing

session. Apparently, it emerged that being quizzed by a market

researcher after a big night out seems like a sure-fire way to make a

hangover worse.


According to market research agency BMRB, the ratio of male to female

market research interviewers it uses now shows a slight male bias, of

about 55% men to 45% women. This is a big change from the early-90s,

when about 80% of interviewers were female and just one-fifth male.

The altered nature of the workforce in the field can be ascribed to

several factors. Whereas a decade ago the BMRB and its competitors

concentrated primarily on conducting Paper and Pencil Interviewing,

there has recently been a heavy investment in Multimedia Computer

Assisted Personal Interviewing.

The use of technology by field forces to produce quick, reliable and

more flexible research has undoubtedly attracted more male applicants to

the business.

Socio-economic factors have also played an important part in the


BMRB field manager, Sophie Ainsby, claims that while interviewing was

once seen by many as providing ’extra cash for housewives’, it is now

seen as more professional.

As a lot of male interviewers are early retirees or have been made

redundant from their previous jobs, they are used to working full time

and many wish to continue to work three to five days a week. In

addition, the introduction of the Working Time Directive means that

interviewers are now offered holiday pay - making the job a more

attractive proposition for the better educated.

Today’s more even balance between male and female interviewers gives

market research companies more options - for example, being able to pick

male- or female-only interviewers when gender-specific sensitivity is

called for. The greater number of men means that areas that may in the

past have been considered no-go areas by interviewers for reasons of

personal safety - housing estates with high crime figures, for example -

are now more accessible. In theory, this means more representative

research is now possible.


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