How to Conduct Exploratory Research

October 24, 2016

Marketers hold great value within an organization, but skill in promoting a business, product, or service does not mean universal knowledge. As such, many marketers commit time to external research in order to make educated decisions.


So, when is marketing research useful? Take, for example, a marketing department that primarily relies on one particular strategy. Perhaps, in the course of preparing a competitive analysis to determine efficiencies within the industry, one team member comes across a technique that has worked for several competitors. However, these methods are either new or under-researched, leading to a void in appropriate knowledge. In order to move forward, independent evaluation is required to best allocate resources and determine a correct course of action.

While numerous forms of research exist that can be applied to marketing topics, exploratory research is an effective option employed by market researchers in a wide range of industries, either as a first step or a stand alone approach. Although not appropriate in all circumstances, exploratory marketing research can provide valuable insights under the right circumstances.

What Is Exploratory Research?

As the name implies, exploratory research is an approach to market investigation that seeks to answer questions about a previously unknown subject through independent exploration. Unlike defined research projects, exploratory research often lacks the parameters of more formal inquiries and instead serves to obtain broad information that can be then utilized in more specific case studies.

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

Exploratory research offers several advantages over alternatives. Often, the process is time saving; as results do not have to be conclusive or fully fleshed, marketers can approach research as necessary in order to create a solid knowledge base than can then be applied in future assessments. Additionally, exploratory tactics provide key information without committing time and energy to a potentially needless formal research project.

Market Research Steps

Exploratory research is much more open-ended than many 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 what questions you want to address in the course of your research may need to be clarified. For example, if you are seeking information about a new approach to marketing your products, determining what you would like to learn – like implementation strategies, value, or long-term goals – is an important part of ensuring research is conducted efficiently and effectively.

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. By soliciting opinions, both novice and expert, marketers are better poised to receive a range of information that can then be enhanced.

Create Research Procedures

Procedures in exploratory research can take numerous forms. In some cases, depending on timeline, budget, selected objectives, and the topic at hand, more than one approach may be employed. However, there is no right or wrong way to undertake research procedures, as long as an educated and well-reasoned plan is at the root of all objectives.

Options for research procedures vary, but can include:

  • Focus groups
  • Secondary research based on previous studies
  • Expert surveys
  • Open ended questions

Collect Data

After deciding how to employ research procedures, marketers must then move forward with collecting data. How this is done will, of course, depend on the methods chosen. Focus groups can be compiled with unrelated third party individuals, perhaps from other local companies or community organizations willing to volunteer time. Expert surveys can be offered to educational and professional organizations, while open-ended questions can be posed both online and in person to individuals who meet your study’s needs. Secondary research can vary greatly by topic, but often comes in the form of academic papers, case studies, and industry newsletters and publications.

Determine Results

Exploratory research may not lead to a formal conclusion, but that doesn’t mean results aren’t of value. Feedback from focus groups, surveys, and previously available research can be reviewed for accuracy, viability, and topically relevant information in order to be incorporated into existing bodies of knowledge. For example, if focus groups assembled for the purpose of evaluating a new marketing campaign all remark on a perceived flaw, additional research or revamping may be necessary before moving forward. How results are interpreted is often based on the specific topic at hand, but when utilized and evaluated properly can lead to developments within a department and new ways to approach industry principles and ideas.

Next Steps for Better Exploratory Research

As in all studies, how you choose to proceed is ultimately up to you. Exploratory research is very valuable in terms of providing a preliminary basis in a subject, often in a way that draws no specific conclusions but instead offers up new frontiers for business development and additional research. Some marketers will choose to make assumptions based on information gathered, while others will move on to a deeper exploration into the subject at hand.

Although rarely does exploratory research stand alone in making business and marketing decisions, it is considered an invaluable step forward in the evaluation process. By providing a solid base of knowledge that can help eliminate bias and build a foundation for descriptive research, an exploratory study can be the first step toward big changes regarding what your organization is able to accomplish. After all, the more you know, the more you can grow.

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