COVID-19: #MRX Response to Pandemic Disruption

By Shaili Bhatt, Senior Research Director, C+R Research, Chicago, IL, shailib@crresearch.com

It started with someone suffering from a deep cough on a crowded street corner. Or in a coffee shop. Or at a social gathering. These coughs were heard around the world.

With shelter-in-place restrictions, families were suddenly forced to completely restructure their day, with everyone’s schedules playing out in the same living space. Day of the week or the date…who knows? When our phones reminded us that we were spending too much time on our screens, or on social media apps, we turned off those settings, because who were we kidding? Our phones became lifelines to the outside world.

We are living through an era of novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19. For businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has injected a whole new level of uncertainty. Taking our collective experiences into consideration, we can see there are many lessons and even some silver linings emerging from this situation that can be implemented for future outbreaks as well as in market research in this new normal.

Catalyst for Change

As entire countries went into lockdown, industries have suffered from mandated shelter-in-place measures. Restaurants, hotels, airlines, cruise lines, entertainment, and other businesses were forced to make changes as more consumers enacted in-home isolation practices. Online or app-based orders for home deliveries and parking lot pick-ups, we all hope from an employee wearing a mask, became our norm. While some families have learned to cook new recipes together or even cook more at home, others find themselves eating (and enjoying) more canned foods and frozen entrees, which have pandemic-friendly expiration dates.

Health and hygiene products—from brands such as Purell, Clorox, Lysol, Kleenex, 3M, Johnson & Johnson—have helped to provide a strong feeling of preparedness in personal/home health care. Global outbreak or not, shoppers who venture out of their homes appreciate having ready access to hand sanitizer stations when washing their hands isn’t an option, such as after they’ve shared shopping carts and baskets.

When the front line lacked personal protective equipment (PPE), fabric suppliers like Jo-Ann Stores and entire communities of sewists—me included—banded together to sew washable masks and other PPE, sharing patterns and new video tutorials. Individuals with 3-D printers have created devices to relieve the constant tug of elastic on nurses’ ears and created new parts to repair life-critical machinery. 2020 saw the rise of individual consumers stepping up to fill in the health care gaps where products did not exist or were not adequately available on the shelf. There is an independent “can-do” spirit that defines small businesses, Kickstarter, Ebay, or Etsy, which has inspired individual households of creators to take action.

Risk Reduction with Digital Fieldwork

Most business travel and in-person meetings were halted as of April 2020, but it is possible that we will be operating with increased cleanliness and continued social distancing measures in place by the time this article is published. As we navigate through the uncharted waters of COVID-19, potentially facing a second wave of the virus, we can predict that client teams will be asked to minimize team travel and exposure to the disease as we move forward.

As an alternative, there is increased interest in digital qualitative research. There are several big-picture scenarios to consider moving forward. Let’s start with a simple extension of traditional techniques.

Live Qualitative Video Streaming

This scenario is best suited for a moderator who can travel or is living in the market of interest. The moderator can conduct live interviews at a market research facility or other venue, while the rest of the team observes from a private video streaming platform. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Live-streaming services, such as FocusVision, are standard equipment in many focus group facilities.
  • Services such as Curator or Hark Connect are also providing portable solutions at non-traditional research locations.
  • Notably, research-oriented software providers such as these include a “virtual backroom,” which effectively hides remote client viewers from the participant(s).
  • There is also a live chat feature for remote viewers to interact with each other and curate questions for the moderator in real-time.
  • Live-streaming technology eliminates the need for observers to travel.

Next Generation Online Qualitative

Digital tools for market research are more user-friendly than ever, providing a myriad of possibilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused research buyers to strongly consider how to reach consumers using digital technologies; it’s become a necessity due to continued need for social distancing.

Different from quantitative surveys, online qualitative methodologies are designed to include professional moderation for follow-up questions and clarifications.

Here are a few examples of digital fieldwork to get the depth you need in this new environment:

  • Webcam interviews (1-on-1s/groups)
  • Live moderation
  • Great for: showing stimuli for top-of-mind reactions, concept deep-dives, category exploration
  • Screensharing/Digital Shopping Missions
  • With or without live moderation
  • Great for: e-commerce experiences, digital communications/content, social media influences, web exploration
  • Online Discussion/Immersion
  • Asynchronous moderation
  • Great for: values/lifestyles, home tours, attitudes and usage, category or brand perceptions, short or long-term observation, in-home usability tests (IHUTs)
  • Easy add-ons: journaling, webcam interviews, digital shopping missions, markup tools for ad testing and concept testing
  • Online Co-creation
  • Live or asynchronous moderation
  • Great for: Consumers to imagine and create better products or services by working together in an online creative hub; taking time to add “likes” and comments to build on each other’s ideas
  • To elevate video conference calls, tools like Mural, Miro, and Stormboard provide digital whiteboard technologies for online collaboration

Digital fieldwork helps to minimize client travel and comply with new corporate health and safety policies. This also offers a safer approach for projects that are studying older/at-risk segments of the population, who can be more susceptible to illness.

And don’t discount online methodologies for older demographics. Older populations have proven to be increasingly adept with using the internet and have access to laptops/computers. In a 2019 U.S. study by Pew Research1, 53% of seniors age 65+ own a smartphone, and 79% of Boomers ages 50 to 64 own a smartphone; over 75% of these populations use the internet, regardless of community type2 (i.e., urban, suburban, or rural).

Considerations for a Post COVID-19 World

The panic and anxiety of a global outbreak will eventually subside; the new attitudes and behaviors that we’ve adopted during the pandemic will likely linger.

What about the aftermath of market research needs? While some forward-thinking buyers have continued to prioritize research projects throughout the pandemic, there is a possibility that research budgets will be slashed in the months and years ahead. “This will present bigger challenges that involve maintaining cash flow, reducing human capital, and finding less expensive, fast ways to collect and analyze data remotely,” explains Roben Allong, CEO of Lightbeam Communications.

Joining networks to collaborate with other market research and business practitioners (outside of research industry) can be essential to staying on top of opportunities that emerge before and after times of crisis.

“We cannot sustain a slowdown in business indefinitely, even with a line of credit,” states Allong. “We are looking at processes that mitigate losses that we expect to incur and conferring with other small business owners to see how we can leverage services and strengths…The key to survival in disruptive times is to stay financially calm, business-ready.”

Market researchers and research buyers will need to carry on with an updated mindset.

According to Steve Stallard, SVP at C+R Research, there is evidence of consumers’ perspectives changing during a global outbreak, which can continue to evolve in the months or even years that follow. If consumers’ behaviors and attitudes are affected (which they are), what concerns does this raise in the research we are doing? Researchers should continue to explore the ways in which these concerns impact the research we are doing, or considering, in the context of living in and surviving such a crisis.

Stallard recommends a few key watch-outs as life returns to a new normal. For example, research practitioners should give careful consideration when a project needs to focus on recent purchasers of cleaning or disinfecting products, as such a category has been highly sensitive during, and potentially after, an outbreak of this magnitude. Quantitative market research conducted during the early weeks of COVID-19 has shown that consumers of natural or organic cleaning products were more likely to switch to conventional solutions, reflecting a willingness to use something perceived to be “stronger” to combat germs. In qualitative research, it could be worthwhile to explore the depth of those feelings and needs-at-large for stronger cleaners, and how this differs from their preferences before the crisis.

Conversely, at the peak of a global outbreak, Stallard explained that it is probably not a good time to attempt to measure long-term/aspirational intentions in sensitive sectors of luxury purchases, travel, hospitality, or retirement. Financial experts are predicting a recession from the economic impacts of COVID-19, which can trigger lower consumer morale and a decline in perceived buying power.

After a global outbreak, companies might be interested to learn the shift in consumer perceptions of their categories and brands, if any. There is an opportunity for qualitative market research to serve in an important role to uncover—and interpret—the underlying reasons behind any perceived differences.

“As researchers, we need to be cognizant of the current realities and how they may impact what we’re measuring and the objectives we’re setting out to achieve,” Stallard advised. “It’s important to stay abreast of these situations as they evolve, and consider how they may affect consumers, their attitudes, and the goals of our research.”

People can feel like their entire lives have been on hold during a global outbreak; after weeks of isolation and mandated quarantine, they may pursue extraordinary and irrational interests to experience the “best day ever.” Prolonged exposure to scarcities and isolation can also lead to growing acceptance of self-sufficiency3 and technology, especially in categories of food, energy, entertainment, and other products. For example, there may be increased consumer interest for in-home gardens, in-home theaters, new furniture, paint and other home improvement products, fitness memberships, shelf-stable/packaged foods, game nights, and “Made in the USA,” including local manufacturing or 3-D printing.

Market research teams should discuss ways to protect their recruitment efforts as well as the comfort and safety of participants. This could include the addition of (self-reported) screening criteria as well as follow-up screening for symptoms and illnesses that could impact their participation for in-person or online research.

The sentiment for personal health and safety also extends to office spaces, including focus group facilities, which should consider providing hand sanitizer at the front desk and in every room where meetings are taking place, if they haven’t already, to provide peace of mind and keep visitors safe.

Other considerations for face-to-face research, if quarantine measures have been lifted:

  • Coordinate with the facility to space out group times to avoid a packed reception room.
  • Ask about past 30 days travel, social distancing hesitations, and illness-related questions in the screening process, including day-of follow-up calls to check for any developing symptoms or illness.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) identified that the incubation period for COVID-19 is usually five to six days before disease symptoms appear.
  • Allow an option for participants to easily bow out if there is any doubt of illness before they arrive at the facility, putting everyone’s safety at risk. Remind participants to wear a mask to the facility. This is sometimes easier to do via email or text; consider including these options in your existing reminder system.
  • When participants arrive at the facility, receptionists and hosts should remain vigilant to check for any visible ailments, illnesses, and/or other symptoms.
  • Specifically check for warning signs of fatigue, cough, sinus congestion, fever/chills, excessive perspiration, nausea—including requests for multiple bathroom visits as they wait.
  • Avoid packing eight people around a table; consider smaller groups of three to six participants instead.
  • Because people could be wearing masks on a regular basis, reducing the number of people in a room can help you to identify who is speaking more easily.
  • Consider ways to space participants’ chairs or individual tables apart by several feet.
  • Some facilities are adding “sneeze guards” and protective panels for safety.
  • Consider offering options for contactless digital incentives like PayPal, Apple Cash or Zelle; alternatively, you can send a code to redeem an Amazon gift card.
  • Confirm U.S. mobile numbers and email addresses to send money.
  • Fees per business transaction may apply and vary per provider.
  • Some payment services do not support sending money to consumers who are only enrolled in the app with a debit card.

Golden Era of Online Qualitative

The silver lining for market research is that we may be experiencing the golden era of online qualitative research.

While research designs and fieldwork approaches vary from company to company, flexibility and responsiveness to the uncertainties of a global epidemic can be critical. It could take some time before in-person research demand increases after a disaster or pandemic. Even then, such changes as temperature checks and masks may be our new normal, at least for a while. It’s important to take every angle of the current consumer climate into consideration, so that uncommon situations, like a global outbreak, do not undesirably influence your research results or recommendations.

Long after the aftershocks of COVID-19 have subsided, I think many of us will continue to connect with our loved ones, acknowledge our neighbors more than we ever did, and give back for the greater good. I felt like Rosie the Riveter for every batch of masks that we shipped to the front line; I anticipate carrying over that newfound confidence to sew more advanced creations.

And like many of you, I will never forget what happened to our lives in 2020.

  1. Pew Research Center, Internet & Technology, 2019. “Mobile Fact Sheet”. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/mobile/. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  2. Pew Research Center, Internet & Technology, 2019. “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet”. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/. Accessed May 15, 2020.
  3. Exponential View, blog post by Azeem Azhar, Feb. 5, 2020. https://www.exponentialview.co/p/-six-ways-coronavirus-will-change. Accessed May 15, 2020

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