How to conduct international B2B market research
October 12, 2020
B2B marketing research projects are, typically, more difficult to conduct than B2C research projects.
Even an ‘average’ B2B research project, conducted in a company’s domestic market, will present several challenges that need to be overcome.
But B2B research projects are incredibly complex when they are conducted in multiple countries.
There are many cultural differences between and within countries. If these differences are ignored, the research will be significantly impacted.
Here is the Adience guide to overcoming these differences when conducting B2B marketing research globally.
First, pick an appropriate methodology.
Most B2B research projects involve qualitative and/or quantitative research methodologies. Some of the methodologies that are suitable in a ‘domestic’ market may not always work in another market.
- In some countries, most business decision-makers are likely to complete an online survey on their desktop or laptop. In other countries, the majority will complete an online survey via mobile. Any global study needs to be designed with both desktop and mobile in mind
- In some countries, business decision-makers expect to take part in research face-to-face. In those markets, you shouldn’t conduct qualitative depth interviews by telephone
- In certain countries, business decision-makers are willing to take part in individual activities (e.g., survey, depth interview), but unwilling to take part in group activities
Additionally, each market has its own rules and regulations regarding marketing research and privacy. While these regulations will be unlikely to prevent you from using a particular methodology, they may impact some of your approach’s specifics.
For example, European countries are especially strict about how Personal Identifiable Information (PII) is handled. Researchers based outside of the EU may have to adapt their processes to ensure European respondents’ PII is being stored and transferred per GDPR guidelines.
Second, pick a suitable date and time.
Each country’s list of major holidays is unique, although there is some overlap. For example, while many countries celebrate New Year on January 1st, some countries celebrate their New Year on other dates.
Before launching a global research project, it’s vital to check significant holiday dates to ensure you’re avoiding them. It may be necessary to add a week to the time plan to accommodate the likely delays due to holidays.
There are also cultural differences in terms of when individuals want to take part in the research. In some situations, research can only be conducted during working hours. In other markets, weekends and evenings are preferred.
Of course, not every country has the same time zone. You may have discovered that the best time to email someone is before lunchtime. If you’re conducting a global study, ensuring that everyone receives an email before lunchtime requires scheduling multiple emails.
Third, adapt your approach to account for cultural differences in responding to research.
Some countries respond to questions in different ways:
- Some cultures value collective harmony, and they tend to provide overly positive responses. We call this ‘acquiescence bias.’ For example, in some markets, respondents will say that they would buy a product, then won’t purchase it when it is released
- Similarly, there are differences in terms of how people answer questions with scales. Certain countries are ‘hard markers,’ i.e., their average score is a 7, compared to 8 overall. Additionally, countries differ in the extent to which they are likely to use the full scale. Some are more likely to give ‘extreme scores,’ whereas others tend to respond in the middle of a scale
Qualitative research is one way to overcome these differences. While ‘acquiescence bias’ is still present in qualitative interviews, it is possible to overcome it by asking exploratory questions that identify whether an individual’s intent or behavior matches what they say they will do. In other words, you can quickly determine how skeptical you should be about someone’s positivity.
If qualitative research isn’t possible, and you are only conducting a quantitative survey, you can still account for cultural differences by calibrating peoples’ responses during analysis:
- If you have previously conducted global research projects, you should understand which countries tend to suffer from ‘acquiescence bias’ and calibrate accordingly. For example, ‘while Chinese decision-makers say they’re most likely to use the product, their responses are far less optimistic than we’ve seen in other similar projects. By comparison. German decision-makers seem less favorable, but they are more optimistic than we’ve seen in similar projects’
- Additionally, you can ask individual respondents to ‘calibrate’ responses by asking them what a good score looks like. For example, respondent A may respond that a score of 6 out of 10 is an average, while respondent B may see 7 as an average score. If both respondents give a brand a score of 7, we know that one considers the brand to be above average, and the other sees it as average
Additionally, countries also differ in how tactful researchers need to be during interviews:
- In some countries (e.g., France), research participants tend to require more time to ‘warm-up’ at the beginning of an interview before answering questions about their business
- In some countries (e.g., Germany), more time is needed to reassure participants about privacy and data usage
That tends to be more straightforward in qualitative research, where the approach can be adapted from interview to interview without impacting overall research quality.
Fourth, localize your research materials.
Companies are often tempted to conduct global research projects in just English, even if the prospective study participants are not native English speakers.
While an English-only approach would save money, we strongly recommend translating research materials (e.g., questionnaire, discussion guide) into local languages.
Doing so will not just make interviewees feel more comfortable; it should also lead to higher quality responses. Research has shown that non-native speakers tend to be much more likely to use rating scales’ extremes when responding in their native language.
When localizing research materials, there are a few key factors to consider:
- Translations should be done professionally, not via Google Translate
- Direct translations are not always possible – some words or phrases don’t have an equivalent in other languages
- Even when there is a direct translation for a word, it may not necessarily have the same ‘meaning’ in each country. Job titles are a great example of this. In some markets, an ‘executive’ is someone senior. In other markets, ‘executive’ is used in junior job titles (e.g., Research Executive is often an entry-level position in the market research industry)
- Some languages, such as German, have very long words. As a result, your ‘short’ questions can suddenly become long ones. Brevity is critical in the initial survey design
- Localizing is not just about translating words. You may also need to update: the currency used, the date and time format used, the spelling and grammar of the survey, the brand names used. For example, in the U.S., you might ask about ‘Dannon yogurt,’ while in the U.K., you might ask about ‘Danone yoghurt’
Once a document has been ‘localized,’ it needs to be checked thoroughly by a different native speaker. In some instances, you may want to get them to translate the document back to English, to ensure that the translation is accurate.
Finally, the more languages that you’re translating into, the more structure you need.
When a study is only in one language, the research team can be pretty small. When multiple languages are involved, more people need to be involved.
For each language, you will need at least 1 native speaker to translate the research materials, and ideally, a second native speaker to check the translation. If you’re using a qualitative research methodology or a quantitative telephone survey, you will probably need someone fluent in the language to conduct the research.
Translating and interviewing are critical parts of the research process. Issues with either can destroy the validity of the research by introducing bias or error.
One way international research can go wrong is if foreign language translators/interviewers have different interpretations of the project. Some may misunderstand why the study is being conducted. Others may be unclear on what each question is designed to achieve.
To minimize the impact of diverging interpretations, a structured approach is critical. We recommend building a single ‘briefing’ document that everyone can refer to. Additionally, a verbal briefing can ensure that everyone is aligned with the project objectives and approach.
Want to work with a company that has extensive experience conducting B2B market research internationally? Contact us.
1. Pick an appropriate methodology
2. Pick a suitable date and time
3. Adapt your approach to account for cultural differences in responding to research
4. Localize your research materials
5. The more languages you’re translating into, the more structure you need
Chris Wells is a B2B marketing researcher and strategist. He was previously on the management team at B2B research specialist Circle Research, winners of the Best Research Agency at the 2016 MRS Awards. Chris has helped to deliver hundreds of research and strategy projects for B2B organizations.