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Marketers go digital in drive to retail products
Last Updated(Beijing Time):2006-06-29 15:19
You have a product which you want to sell to the Chinese mainland. How do you cater to the whims and fancies of a market with a population of 1.3 billion people?

The solution: Go digital.

With the increasingly sophistication of Internet technology, and as the number of Chinese Internet users continues to grow, marketers in China are warming up to the notion of reaching out to consumers through their personal computers.

The draw: Internet market research transcends boundaries and can be conducted in a much shorter time with lower costs.

So when Guan Shan Hong Niu, a meat supplier in northwest China, wanted to conduct a market survey to help formulate its expansion plan in the country, it was pleased to find out it could do it using one-quarter of the cost and time.

It engaged a firm to do the survey online.

"The cost went down from 400,000 yuan to 100,000 yuan, and the time required to complete the survey went down from 4 months to 1 month," said Zhu Xiaoqing, general manager of Holden Date Online, a home-grown data collection company.

The Shanghai-based firm has seen its business grow steadily since its inception two years ago. "The online survey market is growing slowly but surely," said Zhu.

The Chinese market for market research is worth 60 billion yuan, with online surveys constituting only less than 3 percent, according to industry estimates.

For mature markets like US and Europe, market research conducted online makes up at least 30 percent of the market, said Xu Junhua, Shanghai AC Nielsen's senior manager of client service and operations.

The market is expected to reach a tipping point soon as technology improves and more companies see the benefits of using online technology for their market research.

Weeks of data consolidation can be reduced to a matter of days (thanks to digital features like "save transcript"), for example, and days of travel to reach multiple cities can be reduced to zero.

"Many Chinese firms are still reliant on their own acumen in making strategic decisions, and not accustomed to market research," Zhu said.

"But China is also integrating itself faster to the world, so we are hopeful of the development of online market survey in the future."

"Like the telephone in the past, the Internet has become a highly convenient tool for communication," said Xu. "Society has changed. People are less willing to stop and talk to interviewers in a shopping mall today."

Geographical challenges posed by markets as big as China's is a major driving force for marketing firms to exploit the advantages of the new medium.

International advertising and marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather piloted possibly the first online focus group in China two years ago. Instead of pulling targets off the streets and inviting them to make their way to the interview studio on a stipulated time and day, often in a single city, participants from across the mainland are each given a webcam and asked to log on for a group chat in the comfort of their own homes.

"The feedback is surprisingly more candid and colorful," said Sandy Ng, head of planning of Ogilvy & Mather Shanghai. "It is also much easier to find a common ground across different cities."

Respondents do not have to wait for their turn to speak, and are found to be less inhibited behind the webcam, unlike traditional focus group, in which participants tend to be influenced by group dynamics.

"People are brutally honest during those chats. When people type on the keyboard, they tend not to mince their words," she said.

Better yet, unruly respondents can easily be booted off the session with a click of a button.

And despite the lack of body language, an important indication during face- to-face interviews, the researchers have instead found new meaning from the emotions and language used during the chats, which reveal yet another dimension of the respondents' psyche.

A face-to-face focus group session is less likely to elicit comments like "BT" (which means bian tai or pervert), "7456" (I'm angry to death), for instance.

Such "no-holds-barred" environment is ideal for collecting feedback for sensitive topics relating to products like condoms and sanitary napkins, said Ng.

Xu also found that respondents tend to have more patience in entering their thoughts on the computers.

"In online surveys, respondents give their feedback in their own time and own free-will. They also find the interactivity stimulating and exciting," he said.

Respondents are recruited through a sophisticated process which usually involves several steps of screening before they are invited to participate in a survey or a real-time chat on the Internet.

But online research is not without its limitations. Critics say it is open to demographic bias as Internet users tend to represent a certain profile.

In China, penetration is limited as Internet users make up only 10 percent of the population, compared with about 60 to 70 percent in developed regions, said Xu.
Source:Shanghai Daily 
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