STELLA OKPALA is Managing Director/Principal Deep Diver at Deep Dive Research Limited. She is a fine blend of experience and fresh new perspective, combining creativity with knowledge borne of over 2 decades of Research practice. Stella has personally conducted and coordinated countless projects spanning a broad spectrum of industries and successful multi-national brands, across West, East and Central Africa. She holds the Master of Art Degree in Translation and Burke Institute’s Certificate of Proficiency in Research. She stays abreast of global industry developments via active participation at international conferences and workshops on Research.
How has it been with the business?
Exciting! We are in a world that is very dynamic and continually evolving. There is nothing that is constant. You just have to keep up with developments within the industry, consumer trends as well as and global industry trends. For us at Deep Dive, it is all about doing what we know best, the best way that we can, so that at the end of the day, our Clients connect meaningfully with their target/Consumers of their brands towards effectively meeting needs, wants and desires and, therefore, make the right decisions that will keep the business profitable and relevant, well into the future.
How does Qualitative Research help brands to identify the needs and wants of the consumers?
Qualitative Research does so through the application of its flexible techniques to problem-solving. Qualitative Research is all about empathy; getting to a place where you feel exactly what the Consumers feel, you think what they think and you not only speak their language but you become their spokesperson. You basically become them. It is all about connection and engagement; understanding them in a way that is very deep and very personal. The application of the different Qualitative techniques make for identification of the needs and wants of Consumers, however, I would say that the techniques that take you out of your comfort zone and into the world of the Consumers, do this best. Immersive consumer connection sessions and Ethnography and this is because these techniques allow you ample room to experience the Consumer’s world and gain insights, first hand, on what the need gaps really are.
To what extent has Qualitative research evolved over the years?
In some ways, I would say that there are some things that have remained constant while others have evolved and will continue to do so.
For the constant, you will always find that with Qualitative Research, you are either addressing a specified problem or issue through a process that requires some group interaction whether physical or online, a one-on-one or observation that may or may not require physical presence, thanks to ready access to technology and the Internet, among the consuming public.
For what has evolved, I would say that just the same way that Quantitative Research has gone from pen and paper interviewing to CAMI and CAWI, Qualitative Research has also embraced technology, at different levels, and is the better for it.
Thanks to ready Internet access and the accessibility of Smartphones, these days, qualitative processes such as Quality Control during recruitment, product placement and usage monitoring as well as FGD pre-work is now simply monitored or submitted via online fora, with the simplest form being the creation and use of dedicated WhatsApp Groups.
Online Qualitative Research Platforms abound where you can do everything from study design, execution to analysis and reporting.
Thanks to social media and the fact that some generations, more particularly Millennials and the iGen, virtually live their lives online, we are able to follow willing Lifestyle Research participants’ online via their diverse social media handles that they willingly share and we/the brands are the richer for it. Where we would, in the past, have designed a day in the life Ethnographic study, now we are able to see a whole lot more, first hand, over a longer period and, therefore, gain richer insights as they upload pictures, audio and video clips of their life’s experience on the relevant platform.
In terms of being constant, therefore, Qualitative research principally remains that aspect of research that ensures meaningful connection with the Consumer, his wants and needs through empathy. Thanks to technology, however, the process continues to evolve and brands are the better for it.
What is the future of Qualitative research?
Qualitative research will always be relevant in the scheme of things. What is the purpose of research in the first place, whether it is Quant or Qual? It is to provide support that enables effective decision-making. It is ensuring that we provide insights, that we provide Consulting that enables that Client/brands make necessary connection with the Consumer and where this occurs, remain relevant and ahead of competition, well into the future. Qualitative Research being the enabler will, therefore, be an essential Player in this future.
Besides, if you take Qualitative understanding out of the equation, you are going to be left with figures and wondering what you know about the person behind those figures. As long as the need to understand the person behind those figures, the future of Qualitative Research as a discipline is guaranteed.
What is not guaranteed is our relevance as Practitioners in the future scheme of things. You know, I was at the last annual Qualitative Research Conference in Valencia, Spain and the theme was ‘Staying Curious’ and aptly, so. It is about not just keeping abreast but ahead of things. Every industry has embraced technology with the result that we find today that some Professions are no longer relevant. For instance, in the Banking industry, the number of Tellers and Clerks has reduced thanks to ATMs. Travel Agencies are unpopular these days because you can do it yourself, on your Notebook, even Surgeons, Anesthesiologists, Pilots and Soldiers are getting replaced by Robots and autonomous drones and, here in our industry, data gathering and analysis highly automated, with less human involvement in the process. I believe that Qualitative Research will remain relevant in the future but I think that Artificial Intelligence will play a greater role, just as it is doing in other disciplines. For us to remain relevant in the future as Qualitative Research Practitioner, therefore, we must master technology, continually enrich our knowledge in all spheres and continually evolve.
What are the challenges affecting research practice and output in Africa?
I would say that when you talk about research on the continental basis, definitely, we are not lacking in intellect. We have some of the finest minds in the industry, on the Continent. We, definitely, neither lack know-how nor experience.
The challenges include low uptake of research by successive African Governments and Policy Makers. Government decisions and policies are not always driven by research data or Opinion Polls but sometimes, by the whims and caprices of the leadership and so, in such an environment, it is difficult for the Research Industry to thrive. I recognize that here we have the National Bureau of Statistics and their work is commendable. The frequency of survey conduct as well as the regularity of application of survey results by the Government in policy-making is what I am not sure of.
As with other industries, there is often uncertain political and/or socio-economic climate which may discourage investment or make Investors tread more cautiously and this usually has ripple effect that may adversely affect the demand for Research among other services.
There are limited resources, more particularly, financial, in circulation. We are all playing in one global market, irrespective of where the Research occurs. A situation where a prospective Research buyer wants to pay next to nothing, if possible, does not make for local industry growth. We, sometimes, get Prospects who call to ask if there is available data to freely share, rather than commission Research. If the Agencies do this continually, how is the industry supposed to thrive?
For the Multi-nationals, you find sometimes, that they are happy to work with Agencies that are global for the reason that they have the financial muscle and network to replicate a study across various Continents. Sometimes, when they work with the local Agencies, the local office of the Multi-national wants to pay minimal cost but will not bat an eye-lid when paying a global Agency, even where locally domiciled. This is not healthy for the growth of indigenous Agencies which are also the Nation or Continent’s export to the rest of the world. Our attitude is to stand our ground on pricing and be firm in our expectations since we are confident of the quality of the service that we provide.
Low level collaboration on the part of the Players on the Continent is also an issue. This is why I am delighted about AMRA’s upcoming conference in Lagos. It is a relatively new continental body but a great step in the right direction. I believe that such an Association can build the bridge that is needed and provide opportunities for effective networking and collaboration among Service Providers and Buyers, while positively projecting the continental industry to the rest of the world.
Addressing the barriers in conducting research in Africa is a step towards moving research to its capacity and output. Do you see it in that direction?
Yes indeed. Barriers hinder growth. Where we have greater appreciation of the essence of Research by African Leaders, the profession will thrive. Where we gave great networking and collaboration across the continent, Research will thrive.
We have a lot to do as an Industry toward this end. We need to have aggressive enlightenment Seminars organized by NIMRA, local country bodies and AMRA. Individual Research Agencies, as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility initiative, may also go to tertiary institutions and the National Youth Service orientation camps to talk to Students and Corpers respectively, so that they begin early to appreciate the profession and either consider practicing it or exploiting it, in future, towards business growth.
In Nigeria, for instance, several Professional bodies have Chartered status and the ready recognition that goes with it. I know that Marketing Research Association of Nigeria (NiMRA) is working toward this goal. Hopefully, this will increase appreciation and the perception of the industry’s relevance and importance among policy makers.
How can you tell the story of marketing research in Africa?
I honestly do not know if I can speak on behalf of the Continent. Deep Dive Research covers only West Africa but I do know that we have come a long way.
In the beginning, there were only a handful of Research organizations that rendered every service under one roof. This is good.
I believe, however, in specialization and today, we have more Research Service providers, like Deep Dive, focusing on providing solutions in specific areas of Research or technological support that simplifies or enhances the process of instrument design and data collection as well as thoroughness of the analysis and interpretation or reporting processes. In this sense, the African story is not different from what obtains elsewhere in the world. What differs is the period of occurrence and research elsewhere including the West, also had its small beginnings.
Africa is rising and more and more of the top Fortune 500 companies are turning to the Continent for competitive advantage. This means growth for the African Marketing Research Industry as well as no organization will invest so much without surveying the terrain or understanding peculiar Consumer needs and wants and what adaptations or line extension to make to their brands to win on the Continent.
In some quarters, some people are tipping you to be the next NiMRA President…
Hmmm. I do not think that that would be right. I have been NiMRA’s Vice President and was ESOMAR’s Country Representative in 2004. I have got and enjoyed my opportunities. NiMRA’s current Executive team is doing an excellent job of moving the Association forward. For the future, however, I believe that it would be time to sit back and watch a younger generation excel. It would be time to offer advice (not direction) and support only.
We have an excellent breed of go-getting, success-oriented, vibrant, relatively young adult Professionals and I have worked with several of them and continue to observe their rise so I know that with them at the helm of affairs, NiMRA will be in safe hands, also.
What are the things we need to put into perspective if we want to use MR to promote a formidable African economy?
Professional best practice. Nothing but professionalism, at all levels of the Research continuum. Professionalism is about doing things the best way possible while respecting global best practices. So we must have in place on the Continent, standards that are clearly defined and consistent with global standards, reinforced through Country Research Associations and/or AMRA. There are the ICC/ESOMAR Code and well as SAMRA Code which is similar. One only needs to take into cognizance, the local environment and the peculiarity of some of challenges with which one may be faced on the continent/locally and incorporate relevant adaptations.
We must offer best practices and added value if we want to use Marketing Research to promote a formidable African Economy whether it is in terms of making sure that the quality of Respondent recruitment or questionnaire administration is excellent or that the Study design, execution and analysis are rigorous and that interpretation offers relevant insights for foresight which is what Africa’s Policy makers and businesses really need.
For Africa to lead the Global Research industry, we need an enabling environment that is consistent across the Continent. We need Leaders that understand, appreciate and employ Research in policy-making. We need to have stable socio-political and economic climate that is enabling for businesses because when they thrive, then Research business on the Continent will grow and who knows, some day, Africa may, indeed, be the World’s Research Capital.