Exploratory research refers to research that is initiated to learn and explore a topic – this can be bout a category, market, segments or even for opportunities. As such exploratory research sits firmly in the qualitative research domain – being one of the raison d'etre for qualitative research itself. It also comprises the first phase of research for many types of research – front end innovation, proposition development, big idea exploration, communication development, segmentation, usage & attitudes and even product development.
Exploratory research – as mentioned – is largely qualitative in nature. It can also be quantitative – for those cases where there is a need for profiling perspective as a first step even to prioritize exploration. E.g. – knowing how a category user base is profiled and where to focus for exploration.
Within qualitative research, there are a host of applications for exploratory research:
- Qualitative Brand Audit eX
- Channel usage and attitudes
- Shopper behaviour - E.g. triggers and barriers, Influences, journey, role of POS materials and interventions
- Qualitative Usage and Attitudes - E.g. Category scope and boundaries, direct, adjacent and proxy products, main emotional and functional benefits, frustrations and satisfactions, categories, influences at point of sale
- Holistic understanding of consumers and cultures - E.g. Values and beliefs about beauty or gender roles
- Understanding target audiences or consumer segments - E.g. Developing segments, finding unmet needs, gaps in the market, white space exploration.
In terms of the specific methods used, today there is a wide variety. As the emphasis is on exploration, the design is deliberately open-ended, multi-pronged and experimental. Talking to experts is also an integral part of the exploration to understand not just current context but also the historical evolution as future directions. Some of the more commonly used methods for exploratory research would include:
- Ethnography, immersions and connects – this is one the best ways to have an open-ended, consumer centric approach to exploration. The focus is to immerse and observe without any pre-conceived constructs and let the exploration throw up the context for research. The emphasis is on covering a wide spectrum of end user types – to ensure all inputs are explored.
- Desk research, social listening, curation – this helps exploring available data and learnings to start forming preliminary hypotheses and scope to guide exploration and is very invaluable in identifying what we know already before exploring what we need to know. And with the explosion of social media, digital data – this is an essential step for most exploration.
- Expert interviews - often experts in a category help provide an overview perspective and identify the boundaries for exploration as well direction for how to go beyond current scope as we explore new territories. Experts can be for various topics – cultural experts (e.g. anthropologists or semioticians), technology experts (e.g. device experts or interface experts or design experts), domain experts (e.g. media experts or communication experts or segment experts).
- Extreme consumers - where we talk to early adopters, heavy consumers as well as laggards to rejects to understand the boundaries and what can help expand explore these. Extreme consumers are also often the best indicators of need gaps and white spaces within a category.
- Stimulus materials – another important input for exploratory research is use of stimulus materials to enable consumers to talk about the category in a fundamental way and help understand the scope. Thus, stimulus can be in form of in-market products and brands or hypothetical statements on attitudes and perceptions for a category or even open ended mood/theme boards. All of these work as exploratory, open-ended stimuli that enable consumers to articulate their beliefs – and not as an evaluative stimulus.