Exploratory Research: What Is It?

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Exploratory research plays an important role in any marketing or business strategy. Its focus is the discovery of ideas and insights, as opposed to collecting statistically accurate data. That is why exploratory research is best suited as the beginning of your total research plan. It is most commonly used to further define company issues, identify areas for potential growth, alternative courses of action, and prioritising areas that require statistical research.

The exploratory approach attempts to discover general information about a topic that is not well understood by the marketer or business owner.

In general, exploratory research does not lead to conclusive answers, but rather clarifies the scope and nature of a problem. Thus, proposing possible solutions at the end. When conducting this kind of research, a marketer must stay flexible and be willing to change direction as new information becomes available instead of sticking with one method throughout the process.

Importance of Exploratory Research

Just as you wouldn’t want to cross a road blindfolded, you also wouldn’t want to conduct your business without a firm understanding of your target respondents’ attitudes, opinions and behaviour. Exploratory research is the researcher’s tool to understand an issue more thoroughly, before attempting to quantify mass responses into statistically inferable data.

Your entire research goals may have headed in the wrong direction without the help of exploratory research to guide the survey design and question building process. Let’s say we were to create a restaurant feedback survey with the end goal of identifying and improving upon our restaurant’s weak points. We may decide to give respondents the option to rate their level of happiness through our restaurant's customer service, menu selection, and food quality. Though the list may seem extensive to us, it is completely possible for a significant portion of the respondents to be the most dissatisfied with ulterior issues, such as the restaurant’s atmosphere or location. However, without any preliminary exploratory research to identify this, our survey would have missed these issues.

Used properly, exploratory research will provide rich quality information that will help identify the main issues that should be addressed in our surveys and significantly reduce a research project’s level of bias. For the rest of the article, we’ll go over the different ways people can use exploratory research in their projects.

Ways to Implement Exploratory Research into a Research Plan:

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Market Research Steps

Exploratory research is much more open-ended as compared to many other alternatives, but that does not mean marketers should dive in without a game plan. The following steps are not necessarily written in stone and can be altered as needed, but working to determine a structured process can make a difference in reaching the best possible outcomes.

Define the Problem

All research problems generally start in the same place: identifying the issue at hand. This information is often known prior to starting the planning process, but the questions you want to address in the course of your research may need to be clarified. For example, if you are seeking information on a new approach to market your products or determining what you would like to learn.

Choose a Method

Exploratory research, by nature, frequently involves talking with others who may have more information about what you would like to learn. Alternately, exploratory research can be used to vet new ideas and concepts with an unbiased, unaware market in order to judge neutral third party perceptions. As such, surveys and questionnaires are often the most popular tools in this kind of approach to exploration.

Create Research Procedures

Focus Groups: A focus group most commonly contains 8 people fitting the description of the target sample group and asking them specific questions on the issues and subjects being researched. Sometimes, focus groups will also host interactive exercises during the session and request feedback on what was given. This depends on what is being researched, like food sampling for a fast food chain or maybe a presentation of potential advertisements for an anti-smoking campaign.

Focus groups continue to be one of the most common uses of exploratory research, providing researchers with a great foundation on where people stand on an issue. The open and natural discussion format of a focus groups allows for a wider variety of perspectives in a shorter period of time. It can be done either face-to-face or through online focus groups.

Open-Ended Questions: All open-ended questions in your survey are exploratory in nature. By allowing respondents to provide any sort of feedback they want to, do you get the opportunity to gain insights on topics you haven’t previously thought of before. Adding a few open-ended questions in surveys with large amounts of respondents can be somewhat difficult and time-consuming to sort through, but it can indicate important trends and opinions for further research.

For example, let’s say we own a news website and we asked our visitors the open-ended question, ‘What would you like to see improved most on our website?’ After analysing the responses, we identified the top three most discussed about areas: 1) Navigation, 2) Quality of Information and 3) Visual Displays. We can then use these three topics as our main focus or research objectives for a new survey that will look to statistically quantify people’s issues with the website using closed-ended questions.

Collect data

After deciding on how to employ research procedures, marketers must then move forward with data collection. How this is done will, of course, depend on the methods chosen. Focus groups can be integrated with quantitative methods to have one full report chart and explanation. Expert surveys can be offered to educational and professional organizations whilst open-ended questions can be done both online and in person to meet your study’s needs to receive better quality of data from different perspectives.

Determine Results

Exploratory research may not always necessarily lead to a formal conclusion, but that doesn’t mean the results don’t have any value. Feedback from focus groups, surveys, and previously available research can be reviewed for accuracy, viability, and topically relevant information to be incorporated into existing bodies of knowledge.

For example, the result of the focus groups or survey showing new marketing campaign all remark on a perceived flaw. Additional research or revamping may be necessary before moving forward. Interpreted results need to be utilized and evaluated properly to ensure it can lead to developments and new ways of approach in industry principles and ideas.