How To Use Exploratory Research To Make Better Business Decisions

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In this post, learn how to use exploratory research as a tool for arming your business with data-backed decision-making.

Starting with an overview of what exploratory research is, the article will go on to detail types of exploratory research methods, how to design this type of study, a step-by-step example, and the benefits of conducting exploratory research.

 

 


 

Table of Contents: 

 

What is exploratory research? 

Exploratory research is a type of market research that’s meant to gather consumer feedback on a new topic, category, market, phenomenon, etc., that’s of interest to a business or insights team. Businesses can leverage this type of research as a starting point to establish a foundation of knowledge on a topic before potentially moving on to more in-depth studies.

 

Exploratory market research is often used when an insights team or individual researcher is looking to map out the scope, nature, and causes of a business problem at a fundamental level, as it's often the starting point of knowledge in a category. Through the research findings, potential solutions to that problem will arise, leading to either 1.) a business decision grounded on consumer insights, or 2.) the basis for a more detailed future quantitative or qualitative research study; the latter of those two options is typical of exploratory research, as this type of research is often preliminary and used to generate hypotheses around a research topic.

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Types of exploratory research methods  

There are two main data collection methods when it comes to exploratory research: primary research and secondary research.

Primary Research Methods

Primary exploratory research means a researcher or insights team is collecting their own original data for specific, detailed findings that answer a unique research question or problem.

 

As researchers gather information about consumers’ experiences, opinions, and attitudes, they can build data charts, presentations, or consumer insights dashboards to share with internal teams and stakeholders. They can also use these findings to fuel new research studies that explore some of these metrics in greater detail.

 

Below are just a few means of primary research that can be used for exploratory research: 

  • Quantitative surveys

    quantitative surveys are a valuable tool for gathering numerical data from a large sample of people, allowing researchers to identify trends, patterns, and correlations through statistical analysis. This method is particularly useful for exploratory research to get an initial understanding of consumer preferences or market trends. 

  • Qualitative interviews

     

    qualitative interviews offer in-depth insights into individual experiences, opinions, and motivations. By conducting one-on-one interviews in a semi-structured or open-ended format, researchers can delve into the nuances of personal perspectives and uncover recurring themes or patterns. 

  • Focus groups

    Focus groups involve a small group of participants with shared characteristics. In this group setting, participants provide their feedback and shared perceptions around a specific topic or issue. Through guided discussions in a group dynamic, mostly through open-ended questions, researchers can observe interactions and identify areas of consensus or disagreement. 

  • Ethnographic observation

    Ethnographic observation entails immersing oneself in a natural setting to understand behavior and social interactions over an extended period. By observing people's actions, conversations, and routines, researchers gain a deeper understanding of real-world experiences and uncover valuable insights that may not be readily apparent through other methods. 

 

Regardless of your approach, primary market research has the benefit of customization - meaning researchers can choose the methodology, tailor their question phrasing, and source a unique sample group - all based on what best serves their research objective. However, all this comes with financial costs, so for those with little or no budget, secondary research methods are a great alternative.

Secondary Research Methods

Secondary exploratory research involves analyzing existing research that’s been collected by a third party. As mentioned above, secondary data collection methods are typically less expensive (or free!) and less time-consuming than primary data collection methods. However, the tradeoff is that secondary data may not be directly relevant to your research question.

Below are a few sources that serve as a helpful starting point for exploratory research: 

 

  • Literature/Published Papers 

    Literature and published research papers offer an understanding of existing knowledge, theories, and findings on a certain topic of interest. By reviewing these sources, researchers can identify key themes, gaps in knowledge, and potential research next steps (perhaps for future primary research). 

  • Online reviews

    Online reviews are another valuable source, providing insights into consumer sentiment, perceptions, and experiences related to a product, service, or brand. By collecting reviews from various platforms and analyzing their language and sentiment, researchers can uncover common themes, pain points, and areas for improvement from consumers' own voices. 

  • Case Studies 

    Case studies offer in-depth insights into real-world examples of how a phenomenon or problem has already been addressed. By examining relevant case studies from reputable sources, researchers can analyze the context, processes, outcomes, and lessons learned, identifying potential solutions, best practices, and factors for their own objectives. 

  • Big data mining

    Big data mining involves discovering patterns, correlations, and anomalies in large datasets that may not be readily apparent through traditional methods. By accessing relevant big data sources and applying data mining techniques, researchers can extract meaningful insights to identify trends, predict outcomes, and inform decision-making.

When using secondary research sources, it's crucial to evaluate the credibility of sources, ensuring that academic papers are peer-reviewed and online reviews are from verified customers. Additionally, big data often requires significant cleaning and processing to ensure data quality and accuracy. 

 

Using primary and secondary research methods together

Researchers may start with secondary research to get a better understanding of the topic in question, and then proceed with primary exploratory research methods or even other types of in-depth market research studies to add context to their data analysis. Secondary research might even inform brands of new topics to explore in a primary research study or narrow down which demographics to target in future projects. For brands with the budget and the bandwidth to do so, the benefits of mixed-methods research are worth considering.
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When to conduct exploratory research

Exploratory research is a powerful tool businesses can use to make informed decisions about next steps, new product decisions, and strategic initiatives.

 

Below are a few examples of instances to consider conducting exploratory research: 

  • When facing a new problem or opportunity:

    If you're entering a new market, launching a new product, or dealing with an unfamiliar issue, exploratory research can help you understand the landscape before diving in.
  • To define a problem more clearly:

    Sometimes, a business challenge can feel vague or overwhelming. Exploratory research helps you narrow down the focus and pinpoint the key questions to address (perhaps with further research). 

  • To seek fresh insights and ideas:

    If you're feeling stuck in your current approach, exploratory research can spark new creativity and prompt you to think about innovative solutions.

  •  

    When existing research is limited or outdated:

    In rapidly-changing fields or niche areas, exploratory research helps to fill gaps in knowledge and provide up-to-date information.
  • To understand your target audience better:

    Exploratory research techniques like interviews and focus groups offer deep insights into your customers' needs, wants, and behaviors that can guide strategic decision making. 

Remember: exploratory research is typically just the starting point. It lays the foundation and points you in the right direction for more targeted research later on. 

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Characteristics of exploratory research

Exploratory research isn't a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, it's quite the opposite - known for its flexibility and openness. Below are some key characteristics that define exploratory research:

 

  • Open-ended and flexible:

    Unlike structured research with predetermined hypotheses, exploratory research allows you to adapt and explore new directions as you go.

  • Qualitative in nature:

    Exploratory often relies on techniques like interviews, focus groups, observations, and case studies to gather rich, descriptive data. However, that's not to say it can't be done quantitatively; exploratory research can also involve quantitative methods, especially when dealing with large datasets or when seeking to identify patterns and trends in existing data. Some researchers might even mix approaches, starting with a quantitative study and exploring further with qual methodologies (or vice-versa). 
  • Focused on insights, not conclusions:

    As the name implies, the goal with exploratory research isn't to prove or disprove anything but to gain a deeper understanding of a phenomenon. With the knowledge captured, researchers can narrow their focus for more specific studies or make informed decisions on next steps for the topic at hand. 
  • Iterative and adaptive:

    You'll often start with a broad exploratory question and gradually refine it as you gather more information. With this iterative process, you'll get one step closer to a final idea each time you run a new study. 
  • Small sample sizes:

    As mentioned above, exploratory research is typically done through qualitative means, which generally require smaller sample sizes than quantitative approaches. The focus is on depth of understanding, not statistical significance.

Exploratory research is all about exploring the unknown. It's a valuable tool for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of a problem, an opportunity, or their target audience.

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How to design exploratory research 

Once you decide that an exploratory research methodology is right for you, follow these simple steps to design an effective exploratory study:

Start with a problem or objective you want to explore

Before you draft your first question in a survey, you need to settle on your research problem. What business questions will this research solve for your business? This is the key question that each and every survey question will be based around. It’s the glue for your study, to keep the insights specific, measurable, and most importantly, actionable.

Decide on your exploratory strategy

Next, you’ll need to decide if you want to leverage primary exploratory research, secondary research sources, or a mix-methods approach. As a reminder, primary exploratory methods have the benefit of being specific to your research project, though they can run a higher price tag and take longer to discover insights. Secondary exploratory study data can be available immediately (as it already exists - and is generally low-cost or free), though the insights might not exactly answer your research problem.

Decide what makes the most sense for your business based on the resources you have available, and then proceed with setting up your exploratory study.

Set up your study

To set up your study, you’ll need to determine what research design will deliver the best results. Do you want very detailed feedback from just a few consumers or an initial read on an early-stage business idea? Qualitative research methods such as interviews or focus groups would be your best bet.

Do you need a large sample size to measure advanced method insights by many different demographic cuts? This will require an online, quantitative kind of research. Online sources also have the benefit of reaching a wide array of consumers in a short amount of time and can be made specific to a niche audience (as you’ll see in the example in the section below).

Implicit testing is a great advanced method to leverage to make better-informed business decisions based on consumers' authentic, gut reactions: 

implicit associations webinar

 

Regardless of your research design, ask a mix of closed-ended and open-ended questions to get a mix of straightforward consumer intelligence metrics along with detailed feedback in consumers’ own words.
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Step-by-step exploratory research example 

An ice cream shop is looking to open up a new location in a nearby town. To decide if it’s worth their time, effort, and budget, first they decide to explore the market to see if there’s a need or interest in a new ice cream shop.

The scenario outline below demonstrates a step-by-step example of how this ice cream shop can conduct exploratory research and act on the findings.

To start, they develop their business question: What’s the potential interest for an ice cream shop in town?

With this business question in mind, they start their exploratory research with secondary sources - looking up the public sales numbers from competitive ice cream shops and grocery store ice cream purchases. They check out the social media profiles of competitors to see what consumers are saying about them - do they wish they had better hours? Do they like the product? Are they satisfied with the flavors?

Based on their secondary findings, the ice cream shop determines that consumers in that town are buying ice cream primarily on the weekends due to competitors' hours and that they wish these competitor locations offered more flavors. This signals an opportunity for the ice cream shop to expand into town and offer a wider availability in terms of hours and flavors. To determine what those should be, the shop proceeds to run preliminary exploratory research with a quantitative online questionnaire.

The questionnaire panel is set up to target only respondents that live in that town and asks them questions about store hour expectations, frequency of ice cream shop visits, top flavor preferences, and hopes for unique in-store experiences (events, charity drives, workshops, etc.).

The study finds that residents in the town would like an ice cream shop to be open until at least 8pm on the weekdays so they can take their kids after sports practices and homework. They also find that residents would love a strawberry cheesecake flavor of ice cream, and there is a high interest in hosting birthday parties at a local ice cream shop.

With this information, the ice cream shop is armed with data-backed insights that will help them expand its business into a new territory with a unique offering that has already been vetted to attract customers.
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Examples of exploratory research questions to ask  

With that ice cream shop example in mind, let's now consider how you might craft your own exploratory research study! When collecting data through a primary research method, your exploratory research design should incorporate some of the following questions to get a better idea of your product/category’s landscape and target audience:

Which brands do you buy?

Knowing which brands consumers are currently purchasing can help pave the competitive landscape and see who you’re up against. If you’re not currently in shoppers’ mindsets, you know you have to start by working on brand awareness before you can continue to grow. Or, if your target audience is currently buying your brand, you can learn how you might differentiate your offering from the other brands they buy.

Where do you shop?

If you want consumers to buy your brand’s product or service, it needs to be in their consideration set when shopping. Knowing which in-store locations and online sites your target audience is currently visiting is a great place to start.

How often do you buy [product/service]?

Part of your exploratory research process should aim to understand how often consumers are shopping for your product or service. This kind of intel informs strategic positioning, supply chain, budget allocation, and more.

The above questions are just examples to get you started in your research design. Your exploratory research project will of course be catered to your specific subject matter.
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Advantages and disadvantages of exploratory research 

Though there are some elements to consider before diving into an exploratory study, the benefits of doing research in an exploratory fashion often outweigh the few disadvantages:

Advantages of exploratory research

  • Guides early-stage business planning/product development

  • Is relatively quick and simple (vs. a more in-depth study)

  • Can be done quantitatively or qualitatively

  • Can be done at a low cost with secondary sources


Disadvantages of exploratory research

  • Might not provide the most descriptive research, requiring future research studies at additional costs to dive deeper into specific areas of interest

  • Exploratory research findings are often not representative of your true target audience (unless you know this going in)

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Conduct exploratory research with quantilope 

Conducting exploratory research is a great way for brands to capture an initial understanding of their market before investing in further research or coming to a final business decision. 

To learn more about this kind of research with quantilope’s automated consumer intelligence platform, get in touch below!

Get in touch to start building your exploratory research study!

 

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