As the term suggests, exploratory research is often conducted because a problem has not been clearly defined as yet, or its real scope is as yet unclear. It allows the researcher to familiarize him/herself with the problem or concept to be studied, and perhaps generate hypotheses (definition of hypothesis) to be tested. It is the initial research, before more conclusive research (definition of conclusive research) is undertaken. Exploratory research helps determine the best research design, data collection method and selection of subjects, and sometimes it even concludes that the problem does not exist!
Another common reason for conducting exploratory research is to test concepts before they are put in the marketplace, always a very costly endeavour. In concept testing, consumers are provided either with a written concept or a prototype for a new, revised or repositioned product, service or strategy.
Exploratory research can be quite informal, relying on secondary research such as reviewing available literature and/or data, or qualitative (definition of qualitative research) approaches such as informal discussions with consumers, employees, management or competitors, and more formal approaches through in-depth interviews, focus groups, projective methods, case studies or pilot studies.
The results of exploratory research are not usually useful for decision-making by themselves, but they can provide significant insight into a given situation. Although the results of qualitative research can give some indication as to the "why", "how" and "when" something occurs, it cannot tell us "how often" or "how many". In other words, the results can neither be generalized; they are not representative of the whole population being studied.