OPINION20 March 2018

Data from the front line – research in Singapore

Asia Pacific Opinion

Research companies need to spend time understanding the unique traits of Singapore and other Asian markets to ensure their approach is fit for purpose, says Greg Clayton.

Singapore skyline

I still vividly remember landing in Singapore back in 2010 to take a new role as insights director in our Singapore office. It was an exciting time because I’d always imagined Singapore to be one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world; a cultural melting pot bringing together the best in technology, architecture, and infrastructure that Asia had to offer. And although my six years in Singapore proved that to be true in many respects, from a research perspective I couldn’t have been more wrong.

If you’re a global researcher, you probably find it easy to look at Singapore and imagine you’ll be able to get the measure of the population fairly quickly with some well-placed online surveys. After all, internet penetration in Singapore is not that drastically different from the US and is indeed higher than many European nations such as Spain, Portugal and Austria.

So, imagine my surprise when instead of finding an online-only approach with cutting-edge devices providing real-time data on consumer behaviours and attitudes, I was faced with face-to-face research on a mass scale. Having only run one face-to-face research project in my career at that point, I was completely taken aback.

There are a number of reasons for this. The small size of this ‘red dot’ island nation means that it’s easier and quicker to track hard-to-reach individuals in person than over the phone or online. Additionally, the lack of landlines and proliferation of mobile phones mean representative telephone samples are near impossible to achieve; a particular problem for government work that requires representation from all neighbourhoods.

From a cultural perspective, millennial generations in Singapore, while being online savvy, are not particularly engaged with online surveys. Lastly, there is also a resistance to change in the research industry in Singapore and face-to-face interviewing teams wield a certain amount of power, which reinforces the need for it even when other options might be viable.

What we see in Singapore is a matrix of reasons why face-to-face still plays such a role. These encompass cultural differences, both national and industry based, but also fundamental differences in the way technology is used compared to the West, or even other parts of Asia. What’s more, even once a company accepts it is a viable option for gathering data in this market, it can be a challenge to ensure that surveys are still fit for purpose. Singapore sits almost slap bang on the equator, and with a humid tropical climate, interviewing outside is a major chore. 40-minute face-to-face street intercept surveys are not going to win any friends with respondents or interviewers.

Global research companies need to spend a lot of time working with clients to ensure their approach in Singapore, and any other Asian markets, is fit for purpose. ‘One size fits all’ does not apply in Asia – the only unifying factor across all Asian markets is their very uniqueness. Other markets have their own idiosyncrasies which dictate different approaches to quantitative data collection there – Indonesia’s mobile prevalence and natural geographic complexity, the accessibility of different tiers of city in China, Japan’s mature online panels, India’s cultural and linguistic richness.  

Small assumptions when looking to understand the people of these markets can cost brands dearly, so make sure you have someone that understands the best approaches. As I learnt within my very first week in Asia, never assume anything.

Greg Clayton is managing director at Kadence International (UK and Europe)