Exploratory research is research conducted for a problem that has not been clearly defined. It often occurs before we know enough to make conceptual distinctions or posit an explanatory relationship. Exploratory research helps determine the best research design, data collection method and selection of subjects. It should draw definitive conclusions only with extreme caution. Given its fundamental nature, exploratory research often concludes that a perceived problem does not actually exist.
Exploratory research often relies on secondary research such as reviewing available literature and/or data, or qualitative 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 Internet allows for research methods that are more interactive in nature. For example, RSS feeds efficiently supply researchers with up-to-date information; major search engine search results may be sent by email to researchers by services such as Google Alerts; comprehensive search results are tracked over lengthy periods of time by services such as Google Trends; and websites may be created to attract worldwide feedback on any subject.
When the purpose of research is to gain familiarity with a phenomenon or acquire new insight into it in order to formulate a more precise problem or develop hypothesis, the exploratory studies (also known as formulative research) come in handy. If the theory happens to be too general or too specific, a hypothesis cannot be formulated. Therefore a need for an exploratory research is felt to gain experience that will be helpful in formulative relevant hypothesis for more definite investigation.
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".
Exploratory research is not typically generalizable to the population at large.
Social exploratory research "seeks to find out how people get along in the setting under question, what meanings they give to their actions, and what issues concern them. The goal is to learn 'what is going on here?' and to investigate social phenomena without explicit expectations." (Russell K. Schutt, "Investigating the Social World," 5th ed.). This methodology is also at times referred to as a grounded theory approach to qualitative research or interpretive research, and is an attempt to unearth a theory from the data itself rather than from a predisposed hypothesis.
Earl Babbie identifies three purposes of social science research. The purposes are exploratory, descriptive and explanatory. Exploratory research is used when problems are in a preliminary stage. Exploratory research is used when the topic or issue is new and when data is difficult to collect. Exploratory research is flexible and can address research questions of all types (what, why, how). Exploratory research is often used to generate formal hypotheses. Shields and Tajalli link exploratory research with the conceptual framework working hypothesis.
Skeptics, however, have questioned the usefulness and necessity of exploratory research in situations where prior analysis could be conducted instead.
Applied research in administration is often exploratory because there is need for flexibility in approaching the problem. In addition there are often data limitations and a need to make a decision within a short time period. Qualitative research methods such as case study or field research are often used in exploratory research.
There are three types of objectives in a marketing research project:
- Exploratory research or formulative research
- Descriptive research 
- Causal research (also referred to as explanatory research)
Exploratory research or formulative research: The objective of exploratory research is to gather preliminary information that will help define problems and suggest hypotheses.
Descriptive research: The objective of descriptive research is to describe the characteristics of various aspects, such as the market potential for a product or the demographics and attitudes of consumers who buy the product.
Causal research: The objective of causal research is to test hypotheses about cause-and-effect relationships. If the objective is to determine which variable might be causing a certain behavior, i.e. whether there is a cause and effect relationship between variables, causal research must be undertaken. In order to determine causality, it is important to hold the variable that is assumed to cause the change in the other variable(s) constant and then measure the changes in the other variable(s). This type of research is very complex and the researcher can never be completely certain that there are not other factors influencing the causal relationship, especially when dealing with people’s attitudes and motivations. There are often much deeper psychological considerations, that even the respondent may not be aware of this is not true.
There are two research methods for exploring the cause and effect relationship between variables:
- Experimentation, and
- Shields, Patricia and Rangarjan, N. 2013. A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. . Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. See chapter Five for an extensive discussion of exploratory research.
- Business Research Methods , Saroj Kumar & Supraiya Singh
- < Babbie, Earl. 2007. The Practice of Social Research. 11th edition. Belmont CA: Thompson - Wadsworth. pp. 87-89.
- Shields, Patricia and Hassan Tajalli. 2006. Intermediate Theory: The Missing Link in Successful Student Scholarship. Journal of Public Affairs Education, Vol. 12, No. 3. Pp. 313-334. http://ecommons.txstate.edu/polsfacp/39/
- J. Scott Armstrong (1970). "How to Avoid Exploratory Research". Journal of Advertising Research 10: 27–30.
- Shields, Patricia and Rangarjan, N. 2013. A Playbook for Research Methods: Integrating Conceptual Frameworks and Project Management. . Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. See Chapter four for an extensive discussion of descriptive research.
- Brains, C., Willnat, L,, Manheim, J., Rich, R. 2011. Empirical Political Analysis 8th edition. Boston, MA: Longman. p.76.
- Philip Kotler, Gary Armstrong (2006), Principles of marketing, p. 122.
- Russell K. Schutt, Investigating the Social World, 5th ed, Pine Forge Press.
Robert A. Stebbins, Exploratory Research in the Social Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001.