Mind the Gap: A Thought on International Research

Email threads in my inbox often begin like this. Your study includes country A. You see some findings in A that are different from other markets. At first glance, you can’t explain the difference so you need insights from someone on the ground. You contact me to get a local perspective or you rely on your local team to help fit the pieces together. But, are local people, including me, providing true insights?

Once, I was conducting focus groups in China for a US client. The US team and the China team of the client company were both present in the back room. There was a finding heard that did not make sense to the US team. A young lady on the China team tried but failed to explain the finding to her US colleagues. Seeing the puzzled faces, she screamed “Believe me! I’m the local!” Wow, is that called “fallacy of appeal to yelling?”

Ironically, locals, especially those in emerging markets, are not always trustworthy in their interpretation of findings. Here are some classic pitfalls seen among local clients, local researchers and even myself:

  • A market phenomenon is seen only with local eyes. In good research, we need the Martian point of view.
  • Local differences are taken for granted without analysis in sufficient depth.
  • The reasoning is simply fallible—missing rigor in logic, scientific method or methodologies.
  • The truth is obscured because of a conflict of interest or for political gain within the company.

How do I know if I have fallen into such pitfalls? I strive to achieve the best professionalism but I may not know when I commit a fallacy. You usually don’t know what you don’t know. However, I know one thing for certain—I am thinking. Cogito, ergo sum. And I never stop examining my thinking, staying vigilant of biases that may slip into my thoughts.

I’m sure many of you reading this blog post have had similar experiences. I’d love to hear from you.


P.S. Do North Koreans love their country so much that they prefer Korean products over gadgets from imperialist America? See what brand the great proletariat leader Kim chose for his desktop productivity needs. Do consumers in North Korea share his discerning taste? We might run focus groups in Pyongyang soon to find out (provided supreme commander Kim does not actually push the launch button).

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David Ying Hon Ho

About David Ying Hon Ho

David Ying Hon Ho is director of international studies. Based in Hong Kong, David works primarily on APAC markets. He advises clients on the unique research considerations in different markets using his rich experience in international studies and cultures. Since 1993, David has worked in several market research providers in Asia and North America. David considers himself a stay-home, on-the-web Indiana Jones. Unfortunately his latest attempt to pick up the Devanagari and Tamil scripts in leisure time has resulted in utter failure.

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