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Optimizing International Research

By Edward Appleton

If you’re a clientside researcher working for a multinational company, much of your time is likely spent on multi-country studies. In the quantitative arena, the advent of online panels has changed much here over the past few years, with the likes of Toluna (access to 4 million individuals across 34 countries –, ; SSI (respondents across 72 nations – and Lightspeed ( name but a few, offering relatively easy and cost-effective access to large multi-country online panels.

The ability to tap into such globally structured and professionally managed panels has lead, in my view, to many full-service Agency suppliers across the globe confidently confirming their ability to conduct multi-country research.

I wonder if this sense of confidence is always well placed. Doing anything across cultures to a high level, including research, is in my view a complex undertaking and requires a high degree of intercultural sensitivity if genuine insights are to be accessed. This goes well beyond offering a great translation service.

Here are some thoughts on how to optimize international research:

1. Starting with language: aim to have native speakers in the extended project team, both client-side and Agency-side. If you need to reach out to someone with native-speaking language abilities for the duration of the project, it will add a lot of value. Picking up all the nuances in language is something only native speakers can do, and if they’re part of the project team it will enrich your insights immensely.

2. Challenge all translations you are provided with. Ask a native speaker to check the questionnaire from two perspectives. Firstly, from a language point of view, ask them to correct everything that doesn’t read well. Secondly, get them to validate the translation minutely against the English original for a sense validation. Very often, translations can be overly literal and miss the intended sense. Oh – and never trust online translation services.

3. Be culturally attuned to the reading of key rating scales such as purchase intent. Culture has an important influence on how people evaluate and fill in rating scales, meaning that a simple cross-country comparison of scores is likely to be misleading. Build in the concept of locally specific norms for your category and target group.

4. Take time differences into account when doing project planning. Getting a global team with someone from New Zealand, Moscow, California and London together at any one time on a telecon will mean someone staying up very late or someone else working very early. Add a few days if necessary to your timeline.

5. Find out about local holidays. It’s easy to remember the 14 July for France, as the Bastille Day enjoys international renown. But the 1st July in Canada – Canada Day – isn’t, I would guess, too well known a public holiday in Europe. And how many people within Europe know that Bavaria State in the South of Germany has 3 public holidays in June? Expecting someone to come back to you on a public holiday that nobody thought to mention is an avoidable pitfall.

6. Bake in as many local insights and locally relevant market aspects as you can – this will ensure not just richer insights, it will help gain the buy-in of the local marketing and research team. Ask for full local brand lists, establish you have a grasp of how local competitor brands are positioned, access locally specific range product details, understand local hot topics that could matter attitudinally.

7. Don’t assume that everyone understands English as well as they claim to. Speak slowly if necessary on telecons, don’t use jargon if you can avoid it, check for comprehension and pace.

Finally, double check anyone who claims that they are “fluent in…..”. Many people confuse enthusiasm with excellence when it comes to their own foreign language abilities. Before your project begins, talk to the person in the language they refer to (assuming you yourself are fluent), or ask someone else to do so to pressure-check the fluency claim.

Multinational research is more complex than just mastering language, although that’s an important part of it. Cultural sensitivity and local understanding are crucial.

If we as researchers wish to access the full benefits of globally coordinated studies – the ability to compare what works in one country with another, transfer learnings successfully across geography, test and re-apply – we need to be both globally minded but passionately attuned to local needs, even when we don’t understand them ourselves. Insights depend on full local understanding – neglecting local differences can lead to not reaching full potential for a given project.

It’s only when we get the balance right between “global vision” and “local touch” that we really get close to mastering multi-country insights. A big ask, but a fascinating challenge, as someone who’s spend a lifetime working on multinational studies can confirm.

Curious, as ever, to hear others’ views.

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