Imagine the awe and confusion of the first Europeans reaching the shores of the Americas, the expectation to find Eldorado that imbued everyone’s fantasy. Proportional to expectation was the anxiety to be the first one to get there. That drive compelled so many conquerors to shortcut distances, to distrust local advice in favor of their common sense and familiar technology, brought from Europe and – in the process – to take enormous risks by travelling uncharted rivers and lands. For these explorers, it was important to dream of Eldorado as much as it was key to keep their plans in total secrecy, even at the risk of failing miserably.

In many ways, the journey of marketers and consultants into the Brazilian market today resembles that of those early adventures. Or, at least, that was our impression after chatting and exchanging ideas with colleagues based in the U.S. at the latest MRA Conference. There was exciting news and illustrative examples that showcased how technological innovations are currently shifting the research industry. In our conversations, this excitement rapidly turned into a generalized established assumption – that this same set of tools would help conquer fresh markets like Brazil. We can’t help but draw a comparison to those European explorers searching for Eldorado and relying on their faith in the undisputable superiority of those weapons already familiar to them, those conquerors who took for granted that those tools will ensure success fast and easy success. Of course, innovative tools can be of help to navigate new terrains and render some positive effects but this approach is far from being risk-free. And it certainly cannot be expected to deliver results as effectively as it does in their birthplace. In the end, it is a matter of broader understanding of the context and a subtle calibration of valuable techniques to a new environment. Let us share our own experience in conducting market research studies commissioned by international agencies in Brazil to make this case clearer.

...much like 500 years ago with the early European explorers, the dream of finding the consumer Eldorado still draws market adventurers and fresh investors toward [Brazil], the largest consumer market south of Rio Bravo

Brazil, occupying over half of the South American continent, is home to over 205 million inhabitants and has a GDP of over USD 1.8 trillion (2015). It has been attracting the eye of large global players seeking to enter or to consolidate their positions in the country. In a way, pretty much like 500 years ago with the early European explorers, the dream of finding the consumer Eldorado still draws market adventurers and fresh investors toward the largest consumer market south of Rio Bravo. One key take-away from our experience at Market Analysis Brasil translating the specificities of this market to our clients overseas has been to seriously ponder Brazil’s peculiar technology landscape that couples high involvement at the individual level with low penetration and poor performance at the aggregate level. This combination creates a rather poor basis upon which to build a consistent technology-dependent approach to understanding the market, inspired by the idea of emulating the successes of mobile and online market research in the U.S.

Interestingly, despite the technological development and increasing number of people connected to the Internet in Brazil, and despite the growing adoption of broadband networks, there is still a long way to go when it comes to the use of the latest technology devices. Thus, on the one hand, there is an increasing demand from abroad to collect data through technology-intensive means, such as video-ethnographies, online forums, online surveys, face-to-face surveys using a tablet, and smartphone-based research. On the other hand, reliance on traditional techniques like face-to-face remains stubbornly present, not the least because this approach falls within what people expect of an exchange of information and impressions, as this is the longstanding promise of market research. My bet is that this won't change substantially in the short term.

The confidence in the effectiveness of a human approach certainly plays a role for this outcome but the poverty and fragility of reliable Internet coverage and quality mobile telecommunications constitute a major barrier for the popularization of online and mobile methodologies. If this holds true for the emerging middle class, estimated to be 50 million Brazilians, it is even more present among the lower classes or in rural areas which account for one in every four municipalities. Those obstacles depict another characteristic of Brazil – the abysmal social inequalities that still prevail.

These inequalities acquire additional relevance for tech-based approaches to insight generation as they determine the degree of access as well as the dexterity people have with technology. A gruesome example is the fact that, only in 2014, Brazil reached 50 percent of households having Internet access . . . and this percentage includes access through mobile phones.1 This number shows that there is still a long way to go in terms of digital inclusion.

On top of this lack of Internet access, there is the relatively poor quality of Internet and the fact that not all homes have broadband. This deficiency impairs research participants from, for example, recording and uploading a video showing daily habits or the use of a specific product. According to a 2014 research study conducted by Akamai on Internet access, Brazil ranked ninth among the countries studied and was on par with Vietnam for worst Internet speed.2

RANKING OF THE TOP 10 WORST INTERNET SPEEDS

Graphic comparing Internet connectivity speeds with Brazil near the bottom

In practical terms, this means that, when conducting an online project in Brazil that requires participants to upload or download files or videos, the response time won’t match the expectations of clients or researchers based in the U.S.

Such a burden will spread down the cost structure of any online project. Not only will participants take longer to complete activities, but incentives should also be higher to pay for their extra time, and the expenses of supervision required to check and motivate respondents will mean more work hours.

Another factor that must be taken into consideration for an online project is the difficulty that certain audiences have in properly using these technologies. A byproduct of the late arrival and expansion of Internet into Brazil is a prevailing digital illiteracy among most people with online navigation skill and high digital savviness concentrated within a tiny minority. This low level of tech-savviness among Brazilians means either that online projects take longer due to the average participant´s difficulties in handling Internet research tasks or that higher costs for recruitment can be expected because that skilled minority come from wealthier segments of society and will likely demand appealing incentives. In either case, one critical implication of the Internet landscape in Brazil is that duration of fieldwork, performance quality and incentive costs will not be the same as those that occurred in mature markets.

What does all this mean for agencies and clients adventuring in perhaps the hottest market in the tropics? One core take-away is that, unlike earlier explorers of Brazil, newcomers should adapt their tools to this new environment and seriously rely on (rather than distrust) local expertise. In other words, each research proposal should first get a thorough feasibility assessment of methodology, sampling and time-to-deliverables estimate together with a local team capable of offering customized insight, not one-size-fits-all research solution. By doing so, not only will agencies and clients know in advance that peculiar factors influence the research project, but they can also better calibrate their expectations and the type of promises they can make. Building an approach grounded in local expertise is definitely one key step for accomplishing a successful project and avoiding unpleasant last minute surprises.

When it comes to addressing research goals using qualitative techniques, these considerations became even more salient and further boost the need to rely on local experts and moderators. Conducting a qualitative research study is not just about asking questions within a pre-set time frame as determined by the discussion guide. It means trying to engage potential stakeholders in a conversation that enriches previous knowledge and future actions. So being flexible enough to adapt both the discussion guide and timing of participation is essential. It should be about making a priority of letting your audience understand and, therefore, feel engaged with your research subject. Otherwise, language barriers, stringent usage of technicalities or other culture-biased obstacles may get in the way.

In a nutshell, using high-end technological tools in a market where network infrastructure is rather poor is like driving a Porsche on a bumpy road — you will likely be able to reach your destination but you will not arrive as fast as you would like

In a nutshell, using high-end technological tools in a market where network infrastructure is rather poor is like driving a Porsche on a bumpy road – you will likely be able to reach your destination but you will not arrive as fast as you would like. Over the past years, we’ve had a few projects where it was necessary to enlighten our international client on why the fieldwork was not going as planned and even some where human intervention was necessary to solve an impasse between respondent and computer or mobile device.

For illustrative purposes, we can recall one project in particular where the target audience had very poor Internet service and the recruitment criteria were restrictive, targeting a portion of the population that, among other things, had Internet issues. At some point, respondents were facing so many technical issues to upload videos to an online platform that we had to hire bike messengers to pick up the videos recorded on flash drives at the respondents’ homes so that we could upload them ourselves. Of course this process delayed fieldwork a few days. Although all respondents completed the requested tasks, we were still left with little time for analysis and reporting.

On another occasion, where the subject of the study was a health condition, one elderly respondent was having so many difficulties logging into the platform, our recruitment supervisor would have to login for her from our office, call her daily to give her instructions on what to do and ask her the questions she had for the day. Eventually, our supervisor was on the phone transcribing the answers the participant provided orally onto the platform. In other words, the online project turned into an in-depth interview for this one respondent. On both projects, the information and data targeted did reach the client; although the process did not occur as planned, we were able to acquire the consumer’s experience and story with the subject studied. Nonetheless, the project would have run faster and more smoothly if the client heeded our advice that the audiences in these projects would not be very responsive or skilled with online tools.

On a different project, we conducted a study where the methodology involved Web-assisted telephone interviews. On this project, we had very little time in between interviews (30 minutes) in spite of our requests for a bigger gap. Our desire for a longer gap was rooted in our experience, which suggested that this methodology tends to run long. Long story short, we had various issues with the respondents’ Internet not supporting the platform and, as a result, high drop out. Added to that, there was the initial warm-up time respondents required to get acquainted with the platform. Consequently, some of the interviews started to overlap, leaving the client (and us) with very little time to organize notes and thoughts or to prepare for the next session. The interviews of the day were finalized but, being back to back, they were longer and more exhausting than expected for everyone involved: respondents, clients, providers. After this experience, when this same client came back to us a few months later with a very similar project, the specs had a small note that said the local team would be responsible for the interviews agenda.

In summary, technology is increasingly being proven an ally to market researchers, but it is nowhere close to replacing the expertise of dedicated and trained researchers. This training comes both from their theoretical foundation in human sciences, practical experiences in the world of research and training provided by events such as the excellent 2015 MRA Insights and Strategies Conference. Thus, this essay is a short reflection on online research in Brazil, but it is also a candid account of researchers who had the great satisfaction to have contact with a quality event organized by the Market Research Association.