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
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 dot.com 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
GENDER TRENDS OF INTERVIEWERS
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
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.