Exploratory Research: 3 Reasons to Conduct More of It

Hand showing three fingers for three reasons to conduct exploratory research

Updated March 5, 2019.

Researchers, by nature, are incredibly inquisitive and resourceful: we like to ask questions and solve problems. In fact, many research objectives center on understanding problems and asking why they occur. Thus, researchers got their start from this child-like tendency to constantly ask “why.” Today, our unique ability to conduct various methods of research online helps answer this question better than ever before.

The Purpose of Exploratory Research

Exploratory research, one of the primary avenues for qualitative research, is instrumental to understanding the “why” and other factors that have yet to be clearly defined. It is meant to gather descriptive information and provide a better understanding of something. It is not, however, necessarily meant to be used to validate or provide final conclusions. Organizations with less robust research strategies may not be as familiar with exploratory methods; often they are done through the use of

  • Focus groups
  • Secondary research
  • Surveys with open-ended responses

Those organizations who don’t invest in an exploratory research phase put themselves at risk for developing weak concepts or missing out on identifying information that leads to course corrections. Subsequently, exploratory research insights gleaned from these methods provide the kind of information that sets a strong foundation for ideation, concept development, and creative executions—in addition to other benefits.

Reasons to Conduct Exploratory Research

1. It’s Flexible

Some market research methods can feel rigid, especially when it comes to things like concept or ad testing. But one of the great things about exploratory research is that it’s meant to be flexible and approached creatively in order to get the greatest amount of depth and insight.

For example, a variety of questions and projective techniques can be used to gather respondent feedback in a way that helps you better understand what consumers are thinking and why.

2. It Acts As a Signal

Depending on the specific objectives of the research, exploration acts as a signal, telling brands what they should avoid, or it identifies unmet needs teams should consider solving. Even more impactful, exploratory research can unveil inspiration for strong consumer insights, and ultimately exceptional concepts and creative—providing brands with a means to signal what projects to move forward with and which ones require further refinement or should be avoided altogether.

3. It’ll Focus Your Objectives

Many brands set out to dig up a collection of secondary research about an audience or subject in order to move forward with ideation. But there are shortcomings of secondary research that make this route challenging. Secondary research can lack context, relevance, and timeliness, and most importantly, brands have no influence over what questions are asked. Thus, custom exploratory research is often a better route.

This is especially true when it comes to leveraging exploration research before conducting an attitudes and usage study or additional phases of research. Specifically, exploratory research can be used to formulate what audience to target, what questions to ask, or the answer options that should be included when it comes to the next phase of research.

Two Types and Examples of Exploratory Research

Let’s take a look at two examples of exploratory research that can be used to gather foundational consumer understanding, which can have significant implications for both audience targeting and research conducted further down the product development process.

Online Exploratory Research Group

What is it?

Definition: Also known as online discussions, online exploratory research groups are qualitative studies that allow respondents (we recommend between 20 and 30 people) to answer questions and activity prompts; they are connected to an online discussion board where they can view others’ responses to comment and interact with other participants. Usually there is an online moderator as well, probing for additional insight and facilitating discussion between participants.

Online exploratory research can serve many purposes. Primarily, it allows you to find the right problems to solve for the right people. Often, you can dig deeper into consumer preferences, habits, purchase behaviors, and unmet needs.

Common goals and research objectives:

  • Gain a deeper understanding of consumers’ attitudes and behaviors.
  • Explore consumers’ usage and perceptions of a product, brand, or category.
  • Shopper / consumer journeys: uncover key behaviors, influences, and unmet needs.
  • Identify unmet or under-met consumer needs and opportunity areas.

Attitudes and Usage Study

What is it?

Definition: An attitudes and usage study is an exploratory quantitative analysis that provides a foundational understanding of your target audience to help you shape products, experiences, and campaigns. These studies can provide quantitative validation to make confident decisions like which direction to take new product platforms or communications, for example.

Common goals and research objectives:

  • Assess the competitive landscape by better understanding how your brand or product fits within the competitive landscape and identify white space opportunities.
  • Understand the barriers that prevent your target consumers from buying and using your product; understand the triggering events that lead to purchase and usage.
  • Uncover your consumers’ habits, practices, and tendencies using a product or category to identify unmet needs and optimize positioning and messaging.
  • Create user profiles by gaining a deeper understanding of your consumer audience; identify the key differences between them and the rest of the population; dive into your audience’s demographics, attitudes, and behaviors.

To see another example of how exploratory research can be leveraged before additional phases of research, take a look at the research report below.

You’ll learn about how a brand dug deeper into consumers’ perceptions of augmented reality (AR) to understand how AR could be integrated into the consumer shopping experience and more.

Download Report