Online Research in China

By Mark Hedley, B2B International:

Growing internet usage in China in recent years has meant that online methods are an increasingly viable form of carrying out market research in the country. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, China had 485 million internet users by July 2011, meaning that internet penetration now stands at 36.2%. Not only is China’s internet population larger than the entire population of the U.S., but it also boasts the largest community of bloggers in the world, with 195 million active users of social networks and blogging sites.

Although online research is well-established in China for consumer surveys, for business-to-business research, online accounts for a very small proportion of the total research carried out. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. To begin with, a significant amount of research carried out in China focuses on industrial markets, and not all companies and respondents will have access to email or the internet. Marketing lists very seldom include accurate email addresses and there is a lack of quality research panels specifically catering to business-to-business markets.

Other practical challenges make online research much less reliable in China than in other countries. China’s average internet speed is currently around just 100 kilobytes per second, more than 50% slower than in many countries. Although investment in internet infrastructure continues to increase, the infamous ‘Great Firewall of China’, slows down connection speeds making internet usage a frustrating experience in many locations. Slow connection speeds increase the time required to complete online surveys, lead to respondent fatigue, and result in lower response rates than might be seen elsewhere.  It should be noted, however, that regional differences in both internet penetration and connection speeds mean that larger Tier 1 cities such as Shanghai and Beijing are far more suitable for online research than other, more remote cities and provinces.

Global research agencies are beginning to harness the power of social networking sites to carry out market research. Social networking and blogging sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on, offer research agencies a useful way to access the views and attitudes of specific research audiences, while offering a convenient means of recruiting interview respondents. While many of these sites are currently restricted in China, there are a number of local Chinese social networking and blogging sites that can be used for research, such as RenRen Network, Kaixin001 and Sina Weibo. As well as offering insight to consumer markets, many technical blogs and forums exist which can be mined effectively by b2b researchers. Such sites can be invaluable both as a source of information and as a means to recruit ‘experts’ for b2b research projects.

Research agencies have only begun to tap into this growing usage of social networking by designing research methodologies that make use of online communities or online focus groups to link up respondents with expertise in a particular field. In markets where English is the default language mode, the online focus groups are an excellent vehicle by which to engage participants from a number of different countries on a specialist subject area. While language remains a barrier in some markets, these focus groups can still be used to gather a diverse range of views from respondents within China, without the challenges associated with bringing people together in a single geographical location.

In addition to a growing use of online surveys and focus groups as tools for researchers in China, the growth and popularity of the internet mean that there now exists a wealth of secondary data for researchers to draw on. The exploratory nature of much of the research conducted in China means that online desk research sources are vital for gathering information on market trends, carrying out market sizing exercises and other market specific information. As China becomes more developed, the quality and availability of online statistical data has improved considerably, enabling researchers to drill deeper into markets that would have been more difficult to research in years gone by.

In the short term, online research methods are unlikely to replace traditional methods for researching business-to-business markets in China. However, as China’s network infrastructure improves and as internet penetration continues to grow, there is no doubt online methods will become increasingly important in years to come. Furthermore, as Chinese companies internationalize and become more global in their outlook, it is likely that there will be a growing interest in adopting more sophisticated tools for research and marketing.