Open After COVID: Full-Service Leaders on the Future of In-Person Qual

By Sebastian Murdoch-Gibson, Research Manager, Humà Insight, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, sebastian.murdoch-gibson@huma-insight.com

COVID-19 turned the qual world upside down. Surviving has taken resilience, out-of-the-box thinking, and tireless effort across the entire industry. Full-service providers have been especially hard hit, with demand for in-person work hitting all-time lows. Now, with vaccines rolling out across the United States and around the world, the post-COVID world feels right around the corner.

The industry is facing numerous questions about what this new future holds. Is the pre-COVID normal gone for good? If so, what will the “new normal” look like? To answer some of these questions, I caught up with three senior leaders at full-service firms to ask how they’ve managed in the world of COVID-19, what they’re seeing now, and what the future looks like through their crystal ball.

  • Ed Gibson, president, CRC Research
  • Aryn O’Donnell, vice president of corporate services, Fieldwork, Inc.
  • Isaac Rogers, chief information officer, Schlesinger Group

SMG: I’d like to start by taking stock of how COVID-19 has impacted your firms over the past year. What has the pandemic meant for the industry, for you, and for in-person research?

EG: In-person research has inevitably suffered. Moderators, though not all of them, have been able to move to online platforms. But pity the poor facility providers who have seen facility rentals evaporate with no relief from the expensive rents that city centers command. My company has seventeen empty focus rooms across Canada (no other company has more than four), so we are the most affected in this regard. How are we doing? Not bad, surprisingly. Recruiting is strong as companies move to online research and find themselves needing a recruiting partner to source respondents with tight research specifications.

AO: It’s no secret that our industry was deeply affected by this pandemic, but there were certainly some bright spots that we can reflect upon as well. As an industry, we were forced to find a new way to complete research and relied heavily upon technology to deliver results for our clients. We have since reopened all fifteen of our facilities, and we are regularly conducting in-person research. We believe face-to-face market research is here to stay. Respondent engagement is strong, and we are hearing positive feedback from our clients.

IR: Schlesinger is the world’s largest facility network, so COVID-19 had an impact on our in-person business, but we quickly pivoted in several ways. Our digital platforms and online quant grew rapidly, and we were able to quickly convert much of our client demand to digital methods. We were also able to move quickly to develop safe and responsible operating procedures during the height of the pandemic, so many of our clients have been able to continue their in-person work for studies such as device testing, usability, and clinical research.

SMG: How do you anticipate in-person qualitative research returning to “normal” after the pandemic? What will be some of the factors pushing researchers back to in-person fieldwork?

EG: Clients acknowledge that an essential component for deep understanding is in-person qualitative research. In this setting, there can be a dynamic exchange of ideas, and in response, the moderator and client can collaborate on-the-fly to take the research in new directions. There is, in fact, a pent-up demand for research of this quality, and I expect a surge in demand for in-person research when the pandemic is finally over. Researchers and clients can hardly wait to get back out there to talk to customers in person.

AO: In-person qual is happening successfully. We’re adapting as needed to meet the needs of every research project—committed to customizing each experience for our clients. As more information is released and vaccination rates increase, we believe the buzz surrounding returning to face-to-face research will continue to be strong. While online research is an excellent tool, we are hearing from our clients that the takeaways and learning opportunities from in-person research, where they can connect more personally with fewer distractions, are invaluable.

IR: My crystal ball is in the repair shop, but my guess is that we will never truly return to the old “normal.” A lot of paradigms about in-person research will shift, but at the same time, a lot of great innovation will help us drive in-person insights in new and powerful ways. We’ve already started leveraging technology, for example, to remotely connect at-home moderators to respondents in our physical locations. I expect we’ll continue to see more innovation around how we bring more technology into the facility experience. I think there will also be a trend to combine in-person insights with digital insights within the same project or cohort, something we’ve come to call “Research Fusion,” as a way to tap into the best of both worlds. 

SMG: How do you think qual will be different in the post-pandemic world? What significant changes has the pandemic brought about? Are any of them here to stay?

EG: Many converts to online qualitative research will stay with that methodology but will continue to give business to major recruiting companies. They will also want to verify online findings with limited in-person research and restore some—but not all—of their previous qualitative activities.

AO: Thank goodness for technology! Last spring, when we abruptly needed to adjust to meet client needs, we were able to draw on our dedicated, trusted team to successfully transition projects virtually. I believe that creative thinking and technology integration will continue to enhance face-to-face qualitative research. While we do not believe that online is a direct replacement for in-person research, we’ve confirmed that online research can fulfill research needs.

IR: I think some consumer expectations are forever shifted even after we reach a level of stability. There is massive demand from our clients and respondents to get back to in-person focus groups, and we are ready to resume their in-person work full steam, but carefully. We’ll see some new expectations in how we conduct in-person research; facility hygiene and safety protocols will likely be much bigger parts of the story. There will be important sensitivities around room layouts and physical space requirements, and we’ll need to continue to work hard to reinforce the safety of our in-person experiences.

SMG: In the markets where you operate, are you noticing any significant effects of vaccination on in-person work?

AO: It’s important to note that in-person research is happening safely and successfully. Fieldwork is deliberately continuing to maintain strict protocols for all staff, respondents, and clients who visit our office, and we will continue to evaluate and assess best practices as we have done for the past forty years. We are definitely seeing a rise in demand and comfort levels for in-person work, and vaccines being fully available to all is definitely helping our industry move in a positive direction.

IR: As of today, we’re starting to see more clients begin to plan their return to in-person, and we see a gradual ramp up in volume with room bookings increasing for late spring and into summer. Our bookings are up 60 percent over the prior quarter. The “question mark” about when they could reliably return to air travel and focus group engagement seems to have an answer for some: mid-summer or fall of this year.


Industry leaders are looking optimistically toward the reemergence of in-person research. Just as firms adapted to the enormous changes dictated by the pandemic, they are now preparing to undergo a significant transition into the new normal of the post-pandemic world. Thank you to Ed Gibson, Aryn O’Donnell, and Isaac Rogers for opening a window into this period of change.

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