1.Introduction This document is a commentary that critically examines the research proposal for investigating the impact of marketing activity in the recruitment of students from the Republic of Ireland to the University of. This commentary looks at the rationale for carrying out the research and how the research methodology was derived. Before embarking on any research project Zikmund (2000) suggests that a cost-benefit analysis be undertaken. Questions that should be asked include:
a) Will the payoff or rate of return be worth the investment? b) Will the information gained by research improve the quality of the decision to an extent sufficient to warrant the expenditure? c) Is the proposed research expenditure the best use of available funds? The cost in this scenario for research is £2,000 plus the researcher’s time. If the research identifies ways of attracting more students to the University then this should generate more than sufficient funds to justify this expenditure as well as ensuring that the substantial sums invested in a normal activity does produce some benefit.
2.Defining the problem As Smith and Fletcher (2001) point out ” a problem defined is a problem half solved”. The nature of the problem at is multifarious. A lack of evaluation and assessment has not been developed to adequately judge the value of activity and by default does not allow for planning and allocation of resources to increase the impact of marketing activity or decide that resources can be better allocated elsewhere.
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If the management at the University of can have information on: <sum> How many students come from Ireland? <sum> How were they attracted initially to the University? <sum> What activity conducted does attract students? <sum> What percentage of the market share do we have and is there room for expansion? Market research should clarify whether current perceptions are correct and give them evidence on which to base future decisions. But in order to do this, the research objectives will have to be defined. This is important because as Hague and Jackson (1999) state ” every research project should have a defined and explicit objective which succinctly states why the research is being carried out” and “all other aspects of planning and carrying out the research flow from this perspective”.
To define the research objectives and thus get a better understanding of the research problem exploratory research will be used. This will enable us to determine the research question that needs to be asked to help us achieve the research objectives. This view is supported by Chisnall (2001) who states that “exploratory research gives valuable insight, results in a firm grasp of the essential character and purpose of specific research surveys and encourages the development of creative, alternative research strategies”. This stage is particularly important since the University is making a major decision and as a result we need to understand the research problem as much as is financially feasible within the time constraints.
3.Research Methodology The answer to questions such as how many Irish students are studying at the University and where they are from will be followed by a questionnaire designed to see how they found out about the University. This will provide the rationale and focus to continue in-depth analysis for the purposes of a marketing campaign. Primarily it is important that the research gives the University an understanding of how to market effectively in Ireland. Discovering how the decision making process of prospective students about choosing where to study can be influenced. This will be reflected in the feedback on what activity has been influential with current students. Secondly, how can we attract more students? Alternatively, research that explores what demands or lack of provision exists in Ireland HE market may also provide information for a marketing campaign.
Exploratory research will help to clarify and define the nature of the research. It is also useful because of our limited knowledge about the issue under investigation. As Zikmund (2000) suggests ‘ exploratory research is a useful preliminary step that helps ensure that a more rigorous, more conclusive future study will not begin with an inadequate understanding of the nature of the management problem”.
The purpose of this exploratory research is to gather enough background information to help develop questionnaires and discussion topics for the depth interviews and focus group and help direct the research to issues relevant to achieving the research objectives. This part of the study is considered to be very important because without it we could end up asking the wrong questions to the wrong respondents.
Chisnall (2001) comments that ” these initial steps should not be dismissed as of little consequence; the opposite, in fact, is nearer to reality, for exploratory research gives valuable insight, results in a firm grasp of the essential character and purpose of the specific surveys, and encourages the development of creative, alternative research strategies”. For exploratory research a survey provides an ideal instrument. It enables the rapid gathering of data providing a “quick, inexpensive, efficient and accurate means of assessing information about the population” (Zikmund, 2000). Considerable attention should be given to the survey instrument and how it relates to its international audience.
4.Secondary Research “Secondary data helps to define the problem, to develop an approach to it and to formulate an appropriate research design” (Malhotra & Birks, 2000). Insights into recruitment in Ireland by the University of can be gained from many different angles. Firstly a thorough analysis of the marketing and management information available at the University should take place. Secondly, other Universities may have encountered similar decision making issues and information may be available. Similarly professional journals and market reports may shed light on the problem.
Desk research will also provide some quantitative background data such as the number of Irish students at the University, what they are studying, where they are from and what year of entry.
Internal data collection is the starting point of our research. Since the research is on existing students we would begin our investigation by examining our internal records. The University has a database of all the students and this database holds basic geo-demographic data of the students at the University. The usefulness of the University’s database stems from the fact that, by the nature of its business it is up-to-date (for current students) for the particular academic session. However, Zikmund (2000) cautions on the use of secondary data. He particularly singled out the fact that data may be outdated; may need conversion and the researcher is not in control of the accuracy.
This should be kept in mind as the sample selected will be small and therefore tiny variations in the information will have a greater impact. On a positive note, Chisnall (2001) argues that “desk research has the attractive attribute of being non-reactive or unobtrusive, is an established method of collecting secondary data, it is economical, comparatively speedy and can be undertaken with complete confidentiality”.
A quantitative study would be able to determine statistics such the level of impact marketing has on the decision making of current Irish students to attend the University of . But what is also required from this research is a greater understanding of what activity would impact on a greater number of students in Ireland. Chisnall (2001) argues that ” for all its limitations qualitative research is able to provide unique insights to inspire and guide the development of marketing strategy and tactics”.
The University of has strong links with a number of ‘feeder’ colleges in Ireland for a number of courses but conducts a limited amount of general marketing activity. A simple survey of current students to see what impact the range of activity has had will assist in defining the scope of action to be undertaken.
Hague and Jackson (1999) assert that qualitative research has the “emphasis on understanding rather than simple measurement”. Once it had been decided that qualitative research was to be employed it was then a matter of selecting suitable techniques within the budget of £2,000.
Procter states, “the precision of the survey is a function of the sample size.” (2000), in this case 100% of Irish students will be contacted. In reality we have little idea of why students have chosen to attend the University of . If student attitudes have changed, for example in light of tuition fees, the University may be missing opportunities or may be unaware of threats that might soon face them. For that reason, such research should be “part of normal, ongoing business operations, rather than in response to specific marketing problems or opportunities” (Malhotra and Peterson, 2001).
5.Primary research The qualitative data for the research will be collected from Irish students and academic staff at the University of . Though there might be an argument that the research should extend to non-students in Ireland, the problem with such an approach will be that it will make the research too broad for the budget and time limitations. However, we do have contacts in Irish institutions and an Agent working for us who is aware of the HE market in Ireland. However, concern must be expressed as the Agent has a vested interest in continuing the work and expanding it if possible.
5.1International Dimension Reynolds (2000) points out that, “The single most important cause of failure in the international marketplace is insufficient preparation and information”. Compared to domestic research, international projects create not only more challenges but also very different ones.
They include issues of culture, data availability, social and economic conditions and simply the logistics of collecting information from another country. Initial research of an exploratory nature is appropriate as a start. But this will be followed by a thorough investigation in the form of qualitative research to probe beneath the results to determine the underlying reasons for behaviour as is proposed in this project (Craig and Douglas, 2001). International research is often treated a simple extension of a company’s domestic activity but researchers must consider cultural factors when designing questionnaires (Zikmund, 2000).
5.2Questionnaire The questionnaire must be designed to be clear and concise and avoid any ambiguity (Smith & Fletcher, 2001). Postal surveys using self-administered questionnaires are non-personal, which is the reason why this method of data collection is selected. It will be used to generate quantitative data. It is useful in the sense that questions are standardised and so minimizes the incidence of interviewer bias.
This is particularly important considering the objectives of the research. But a problem with this method of data collection as noted by Zikmund (2000) is that there is no opportunity for feedback when the respondent is filling out the questionnaire. In this situation, they could fill out the questionnaire based upon their own interpretation of the questions. Postal surveys are notorious for poor response rates. However, incentives have been shown to lead to “significantly raised responses from recipients of industrial mail questionnaires” (Jobber and O’Reilly, 1996) and hence, entering respondents in a prize draw would likely appeal and overcome the problem of response rates. But this also means that more care will have to be taken in the design of the questionnaire.
Chisnall (2001) supports this view “because of the impersonal nature of mail enquiries, the drafting of effective questions is more important than ever. These must be clearly worded and easily understandable; only one interpretation should be possible”. He also adds that, “the content and design of the questionnaire is important if a high response rate is to be achieved”. Posing a sensitive or provocative question early in a survey can linger on and influence the respondent throughout the rest of the exercise as well as putting an individual off from completing and returning the questionnaire. The questionnaire should lead with interesting or non-threatening questions to get people started in a neutral and positive state of mind.
5.3Focus Groups Malhotra and Birks (2000) believe that ” the value of the technique [focus groups] lies in the unexpected findings that emerge when respondents are allowed to say what they really feel”. It is therefore important to ensure the focus groups are well run with a moderator who allows and encourages all participants to express themselves. Smith and Fletcher (2001) point out that, ”
The interaction that takes place between group members can spark off new ideas”. Quantitative research, such as the questionnaire carried out would be able to identify the marketing activity which may have initially caught the attention of the current students but cannot determine why those factors were influential. If the budget had been greater it would have been worth considering doing more focus groups. This would ensure that a wider cross-section of students were represented. Having more than one group would also help to assess the validity of the findings. If the findings were consistent across two or more groups then they are more likely to be accurate.
Focus group discussion is needed to get qualitative feedback from respondents. The focus group will be constituted of 10 people drawn from the group of Irish students out the university and will represent a cross-section of the market. The group will be selected to provide a mix of sexes, Years of study, previous institution/geographical home location and subject of the current study.
While 10 has been chosen as a significant but manageable group researchers do not seem to agree on the number necessary for maximum efficiency. Zikmund (2000) says ” the group consists of six to ten participants who discuss a single topic” but Chisnall (2001) suggests that ” it appears that, generally between five to seven people are able to participate constructively in group discussions”. However, both recognise that the actual size of the groups tends to be a compromise between the ideal and budgetary and/or time constraints.
Focus groups are selected as a method of collecting qualitative data because as Zikmund (2000) puts it ” the primary advantage of focus groups is that they are relatively brief, easy to execute, quickly analysed, and inexpensive. In an emergency situation, three or four group sessions can be conducted, analysed and reported in less than a week”.
Zikmund (2000) advises, “homogeneous groups seem to work best. Selecting homogeneous groups allows researchers to concentrate on individuals with similar lifestyles, job classifications, experiences and communication skills”. This method of investigation, albeit useful, has its critics. Wendy Gordon (1999) admits, “that there is a growing media suspicion of qualitative research and she cites the growing cynicism about focus groups findings based on the views of ‘eight ordinary people’ who are deemed to be representative of the population at large”.
The issue is not so much as in statistical uprightness as it is of the quality of the responses. Zikmund (2000) cautions that “it must be remembered, however, that a small discussion group will rarely be a representative sample, no matter how carefully it is recruited. Focus group interviews cannot take the place of quantitative studies”. The other problems with focus groups is that there could be dominant members of the groups and these people will need to be controlled so that they do not bias the quality of the data. This will largely depend on the skill of the moderator.
5.4Depth Interviews Frontline staff often have an understanding of problems and simple solutions that mangers are not aware of. These interviews are designed to be confidential so that all issues can be raised without fear of reprisals and to see if there is any insight among staff at the University. Information could be gathered by a survey or focus group. In a focus group, people may be less forthcoming in front of their colleagues.
A survey is not able to widen the scope in the same way an interview can and explore issues raised. Therefore, depth interviews have been proposed. This is the qualitative method of data collection to be used for staff at the University. However, Zikmund (2000) warns that ” the analysis and interpretation of such data are highly subjective and it is difficult to determine the ‘true interpretation’.
6.Analysis and conclusion The objectives of the research are going to be achieved by using postal questionnaires, interviews and group discussions to generate both quantitative and qualitative data. As the research problem that needs solving will have significant resource implications it is important to have quantitative findings to gauge the decision making of present students and the impact, if any, of current marketing activity.
A combination of research methods has been used to help solve the research problem. Chisnall (2001) contends that ” research strategies should be designed to meet the identified requirements of specific studies…a sound research strategy is concerned not so much with what method is best as to what set of methods are likely to result in objective findings”.
The reliability and validity of the findings are important in order to aid sound decision making as result care ought to be taken in question phrasing; recruiting of samples; skills of the interviewer and moderator together with critical analysis will lead the objectives of the research being achieved. Because qualitative research does not generate numerical data that can be statistically analysed it is necessary for the researchers to define how they will analyse their results.
Smith and Fletcher (2001) have developed what they term a ‘Holistic’ approach. This takes a mixture of inductive i.e. top-down, theory led and deductive i.e. bottom-up, data-led methods develop a partial theory at an early stage then tests the theory using each subsequent finding or observation. This approach attempts to assimilate all types of data quantitative and qualitative into the analysis.
The nature of the problem and the constraints on the budget suggest that exploratory and diagnostic research may yield the most useable results.
The results should give managers insight into the Irish Market and practical suggestions for developing its marketing strategy. The findings will not give a detailed market assessment but should give insight into impact and behaviour towards marketing campaigns, which can influence and guide the marketing strategy.
There will always be room for managers to exercise judgement, skill and initiative, in so far as research will always be plagued by biases, decisions will always be made with limited and perhaps inaccurate information. The responsibility of the professional researcher therefore is to make a conscious effort to minimise the biases that seem to be inherent when conducting research studies whilst acting ethically.
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Bibliography Chisnall, P (2001) Marketing Research (6th ed. McGraw-Hill) Craig, C Samuel & Douglas, Susan P (2001) Conducting international research in the twenty-first century, International Marketing Review (Volume 18, Issue 1) Gordon, W (1999) Good thinking: a Guide to Qualitative Research (Admap, Henley-on-Thames) Hague, P & Jackson, P (1999) Market Research – A guide to planning and evaluation (2nd ed. Kogan Page) Jobber, D & O’Reilly, D (1996) Industrial mail surveys: techniques for inducing response, Marketing Intelligence and Planning (Volume 14, Issue 1) Malhotra, N. K & Birks, D. F (2000) Marketing Research – An applied approach (3rd ed, Financial Times Prentice Hall) Malhotra, N. K & Peterson, M (2001) Methodological issues in cross-cultural marketing research, International Marketing review (Volume 13, Issue 5) Proctor, T (2000) Essentials of marketing research (2nd ed. – Financial Times Management) Reynolds, N (2000) Benchmarking international marketing research practice in UK agencies – Preliminary evidence, Benchmarking: An International Journal (Volume 7, Issue 5) Smith, D. V. L & Fletcher, J. H (2001) Inside Information – Making sense of marketing data (John Wiley & Sons Ltd) Zikmund, W G (2000) Business research methods (6th ed. Dryden)
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