The Purpose of Exploratory Research: Good Research Questions Years ago, before the advent of CAT scanners and other noninvasive medical diagnostic procedures, doctors who were stumped about a patient’s symptoms might recommend “exploratory surgery.” With little to go on but vague descriptions of symptoms, physicians would “open up” a patient to look around and see what needed fixing. In market research, exploratory research plays a similar role. Marketers have no machines to peer inside a decision problem, so they may use certain research techniques to “open up” the problem and look around. Researchers use these techniques, which they refer to collectively as exploratory research, with a single broad purpose: clarify the research questions that guide the entire research project. Importantly, the entire notion of “exploratory” research suggests that it precedes a larger, more formal research project. This is usually the case. The techniques we classify as “exploratory” generally provide information and insight to researchers as they prepare for larger research efforts such as surveys and experiments. Sometimes businesses conduct entire marketing research projects using only exploratory techniques – especially focus groups. In such instances, the reason is usually budgetary; even expensive focus groups pale in cost next to large scale surveys. So firms willing to overlook the sometimes serious shortcomings off focus
groups may find them an attractive way to conduct an entire research project. When used to prepare for more extensive research studies, exploratory techniques assist in several ways. First, exploratory research can assist market researchers in finding possible causes to the symptoms communicated by decision makers. Recall that decision makers often approach researchers with symptoms to a problem (declining sales, falling share, etc.) and want to know what they should do. Researchers may conduct exploratory research to develop a list of possible causes to the problem. Additional more extensive research may then confirm which possibility or possibilities are most the likely causes. Second, exploratory research can uncover possible avenues for reaching decision makers’ objectives. For example, suppose a marketing manager receives an objective to increase product sales by fifty percent in the next two years. Deciding on strategy might first require developing a list of available strategies before estimating which stood the best chance of success. Developing a list of realistic strategy options might first require exploratory research. Then, once developed, a larger more formal study could estimate which was most likely to reach the sales objective. Third, exploratory research answers questions about actually administering a large and expensive research project. For example, researchers can use exploratory research to learn words and phrases meaningful to the people being studied. They can also get a sense of how best to
Exploratory Research – page 2 reach the people (e.g., mail versus telephone versus Internet). In absolute dollars, exploratory research can be expensive, running into thousands of dollars. However, in the long run it can help decision makers and researchers save money. Despite its expense, most commonly used exploratory research techniques cost significantly less than large scale formal research such as surveys or experiments. Thus, if exploratory research helps researchers address the right questions and avoid mistakes in the conduct of these larger research projects, then they merit their expense. The Nature of Exploratory Research Data In order to better understand how exploratory research can and cannot be used, you should understand the kind of data most exploratory research procedures produce. And, to that end, you should also understand what type of data these procedures do not produce. Broadly speaking, data – and the research procedures that produce them – may be...
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