Keyvisual Insight Interview

Observations of online panel studies in the Chinese automotive market – Part II

An interview with Ruochen Li,
market research specialist for China 

In the first part of our interview, we learned from Ruochen Li how market research in the Chinese market has changed over the past five years and that it is particularly important to take cultural, political and social backgrounds into account when conducting surveys. The second part of the interview is about challenges and opportunities and how the work of SKOPOS differs from other companies. 

The first part of our interview already gave a good insight into the challenges for market researchers in the Chinese market. Are there other aspects that a market researcher has to consider? 

The same problems that arise in interpreting research propositions and target groups also arise in questionnaire design and analysis. Market research is about hypothesis confirming and exploratory questions and much less about declaring something. As one moves from the declarative to the exploratory, knowledge tends to decrease and the complexity of the information and aspects to be considered tends to increase. Knowledge will decrease even more if the target group has little in common. Let’s imagine a concrete case that often happens in market research. You want to perform a cluster analysis on the lifestyle habits of the respondents to understand what the profile of potential customers will look like in the future. If you don’t understand social customs, you probably wouldn’t include the following in a questionnaire: “Sing karaoke.” But in China, this is one of the most common leisure activities. 

To develop a persona based on a cluster analysis, it is advisable not to look only at the bare numbers. This means that you should work as a team at the operational level, especially in questionnaire design and analysis, and rely on local experts and their opinions to complete the hypothesis and interpret the results behind the numbers. Finally, it is a matter of deciding to what extent the Chinese branch should be included in the considerations. This is something that can always go wrong. However, there are advantages to involving the Chinese branch, for example, in defining the scope of the target group, proofreading, translating and discussing the results of the study. However, this is only advantageous if the time frame of the project allows it and communication among each other is barrier-free. Unfortunately, we often experience the opposite in practice. 

What are the challenges, but also the opportunities, for market research agencies to conduct research in China during the current pandemic phase and beyond? 

At the beginning of the Covid pandemic, it was clear that qualitative face-to-face studies were becoming difficult to implement. Travel was no longer an option, making it more difficult to interact with teams on the ground in China. But remote IDIs (in-depth interviews) and GDs (group discussions)-were quickly born and developed into a very good alternative. Because now we are able to reach customers more cost- and time-efficiently than ever before. Now that China is no longer one of the high-risk regions and is on its way to normalizing its business activities again, qualitative on-site studies and car clinics are given the chance to take off again. Plans for a more flexible and hybrid approach are becoming more concrete. 

To conduct agile research activities during the pandemic, we built community-based audiences, which turned out to be very beneficial. A community-based target group means building a pop-up community of real customers and conducting regular research activities in this group to gain agile and relevant insights. It enables finding the right and sometimes rare target group for qualitative and quantitative studies without delay. In the premium automotive industry, for example, it is often very time-consuming and costly to recruit such groups, and even more difficult under pandemic conditions. With the community concept, on the other hand, participants take part in the studies out of self-motivation and interest. The bottom line is that we have achieved a higher quality of study results with the community concept in China. 

What are the typical challenges companies face when creating research projects in the Chinese market? 

Often the importance of the political, social and cultural background of the country for the correct interpretation of studies is underestimated. This is a major reason that leads to a wrong study result. In quantitative research, it is common for studies to be conducted in a global setting. A uniform questionnaire is designed and translated; the target group is defined as “nationally representative” with the same exclusion questions in all markets. 

In China, this could mean someone from Shanghai with an annual income of over 9,000 euros (average annual income in Shanghai). And it could just as easily mean someone from Nanyang, where the urbanization rate is below 50 percent (about 60 percent is the average urbanization rate in China) and the annual income is about 3,800 euros (average annual income in China is 4,000 euros). These two people could have no overlap in terms of socio-demographics, mentality and lifestyle. But what do they have in common? Shanghai and Nanyang are both among the 16 cities in China with more than 10 million people, and both cities have good Internet infrastructure, so quantitative online studies can be accessed. There is probably even better Internet coverage in Nanyang than in many major German cities. What we mean is that “national representatives” in China can be very different and thus different study results can be expected when demographic characteristics are taken into account. Moreover, the composition of a nationally representative target group may have very little to do with the actual target groups/customers of the manufacturers, as the example shows. Sure, we are presenting two extremely different examples here and there are many people who fall in between. But what we want to show with this example is that before any study, the target groups and screening criteria must be carefully discussed and defined from study to study according to the available information. 

Thank you Ruochen, for the insights into market research processes in the Chinese automotive market. We have gained an overview of the current situation and learned what typical challenges market researchers encounter. Look forward to the second part of the interview. 

What our customers say 

The cooperation with SKOPOS in the context of our China study has convinced us completely. As a native Chinese, Ruochen Li not only provided us with the relevant cultural and demographic insights, but we were also able to complete the study within the tight timeframe. 

Dr. Frank Schierge
Senior Expert Market Research Mobility, Future Mobility Solutions, TÜV Rheinland 

How is the topic treated at SKOPOS? What distinguishes our work from the work of others? 

Our recipe for success is the right team with an innovative methodology that proves to be a hit every time. We have a centralized and agile project team specialized in market research topics for the Chinese automotive industry. Our clients are assigned a native-speaking project manager who works in Germany and is the central point of contact for China-related projects. We take a holistic approach from set-up and questionnaire design to translation and interpretation of results, considering political, social, cultural and linguistic aspects – at every step we offer the complete program. Behind the central contact is a hybrid team of market researchers who can provide support at any time if needed. With the local expert as the central contact, we ensure seamless integration for project escalation with minimal loss of communication and time. 

Methodologically, we usually see two types of players in the industry: On the one hand, there is the unilateral expert who only offers customers all-in-one and standard solutions and makes judgments based on his wealth of experience, but often takes less account of the customer’s central research objective. On the other hand, there is the multifaceted expert who offers the customer a huge amount of data and leaves the decision-making and follow-up entirely up to the customer. Neither would be optimal for market research in China. The unilateral expert tends to interpret the results based on experience from the German market, and his reasoning may lose descriptiveness as a result. Imagine a project manager looking at the results and seeing that 80 percent of Chinese participants use ride-hailing services (spontaneously booking a cab or driver via app), but in Germany, for example, only 10 percent do. That could be a very interesting finding to look into. But given this fact, would the project manager be able to firstly justify that and secondly provide any insights around ride-hailing based on the user scenarios in the German market? 

We believe that we have to put a question mark at this point. And even the multifaceted expert won’t be able to help much, because the mass of facts and figures is waiting to be connected with a story that just happens to be written in a different language. We position ourselves differently there by taking on a consultant role. Our top priority is always the client’s individual research goal. That’s why we design the study methodology on a case-by-case basis. When it comes to study design, we offer the client guidance and tools based on our experience, but at the same time we co-develop the study concept based on the client’s research objective. This also applies to the interpretation of results: in addition to facts, figures and experience, we offer our cultural expertise to guide the interpretation of results and leave room for an open discussion about the outcome. We are very confident that we can help our clients crack the black box of market research in China. 

Your contact:


Nicole Schleiffer
Director Automotive & Mobility