Riding the Wave: How the Professional Gig Economy Is Reframing the Independent Qualitative Researcher

From AI to software platforms and dozens of tools in between, Nichola Quail—Founder and CEO of Insights Exchange—shares tips on what, when, and how to leverage technology, and how they can benefit your company, based on her own experiences building her company.

Nichola Quail

By Nichola Quail, Founder and CEO, Insights Exchange, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, nichola@insights-exchange.com

New technologies and the growing gig economy offer independent researchers real opportunities to increase productivity and expand their pipeline. But that’s not all—imagine waving goodbye to those tedious tasks you dread! From Fiverr, a global platform where you can source virtual assistants, to artificial intelligence (AI), to project management software, the independent researcher has access to an array of powerful resources that can help grow their business.

In this article, I’ll take you through a range of tools that can make your day-to-day business operations easier, more efficient, and, ultimately, more profitable.

Four Key Steps to Succeed in the Future of Work

I’ll take you through four steps you can take that will ensure you have the tools, motivation, and capability to win in a world that is increasingly technological and fast-paced.

STEP 1: Personal Branding

This is more important than ever and is often overlooked or downplayed by independents or those new to this style of work. It took me years to master the art of selling myself. We are researchers—we want to stay behind the scenes and highlight the amazing things our participants are saying or doing—not turn the spotlight on ourselves. But that’s exactly what you need to do to stand out in an increasingly competitive market.

Don’t worry; I am not saying you have to invest in a full-scale website, complete with packages, payment software, and SEO. Start small with your LinkedIn profile. This is the low-cost version of a one-page website and the first port of call for most clients when they want to get a sense of who you are, your experience, and whether they can work with you. Five things to include in your profile:

  1. Professional Headshot (taken in the last two to three years!): Your LinkedIn profile picture is the first impression you make on potential connections and clients. Invest in a high-quality, professional-looking headshot where you appear approachable and have taken the time to dress and look the part. It seems obvious, but it is something a lot of us overlook.
  2. Contact Details: Be sure to include your contact details so people can contact you. Include your business email, website if you have one, and your “work” mobile.
  3. Engaging Headline and Summary: This is the first information people see when they visit your profile. Spend time writing a compelling headline that highlights your expertise and unique value proposition—what type of qualitative researcher are you? Are there particular methodologies you prefer or have extensive experience in? What “gets you out of bed in the morning?” This is the section where people get a “flavor” of your background, experience, and personality.
  4. Engage with Content: Actively engage with content on LinkedIn to increase your visibility and establish yourself as a thought leader in your field. Share or repost relevant articles, insights, or updates, and put your individual spin on them. Like, comment, and share content from others. This helps convey your point of view on qualitative and helps to grow your network.
  5. Skill Endorsements and Recommendations: Ask colleagues or clients to endorse your skills and write recommendations highlighting your strengths or specific approach. These work well as testimonials and can be mini-case studies in the absence of a website.

You can go one step farther with a simple “About Me” landing page (https://about.me), which enables you to convey more of your personality, case studies, and easy ways to reach you.

I know many of us have relied on our networks and referrals to get work, and, for many of you, that has been more than enough to suit your lifestyle or required income. But for others who might need to build their pipeline or fill in more gaps to even out those peaks and valleys, make it easier for prospects and new clients to find you.

STEP 2: Virtual Assistant—Grow Your Company of One

What we often need more of is time. Look at outsourcing some of your work. Outsourcing lets us better use our time and free up mental space for high-value tasks by delegating low-value or recurring tasks to a virtual assistant/team.

The concept of delegation and virtual assistants is not new, and it is worth considering if you haven’t already—for your own business or side hustle.

Emerging economies like El Salvador, the Philippines, and Estonia have identified professional services and business process outsourcing as a profitable source of income for their citizens and make it easy for companies to access this educated and flexible workforce.

You can reach out to market research project management organizations (e.g., MR Tech Ops) or more general virtual assistant organizations (e.g., VA Platinum).

Here are four tasks you can outsource to a qualitative project virtual assistant (VA).

  1. Participant Recruitment: A virtual assistant (VA) can help with participant recruitment tasks, such as liaising with recruiters, identifying potential participants, reaching out to them via email or phone, and scheduling interviews or sessions recruited through a client’s database.
  2. Transcription Management: A virtual assistant (VA) can handle transcription tasks, either by transcribing the recordings themselves or by outsourcing the transcription to a third-party service provider or AI platform. They can also organize and manage the transcribed data, ensuring it is properly labeled and stored for analysis. This can include creating a system for coding or categorizing data for easier retrieval.
  3. Literature Review and Research Support: Imagine having someone to assist in conducting literature reviews, summarizing key findings, and organizing reference materials. They can help with background research on specific topics (ChatGPT, anyone?), gathering relevant articles or reports, and assisting in organizing and documenting research materials. This can be a huge help when preparing a proposal or adding some additional context to a qualitative report.
  4. Administrative Tasks: Haven’t we all gotten frustrated at times with the mountain of administrative tasks that have to happen over and above the actual research work? A virtual assistant (VA) can handle various administrative duties, such as managing calendars, scheduling meetings, handling correspondence, preparing and formatting documents, organizing files and folders, and managing project timelines. They can also assist in coordinating logistics for research activities, such as booking venues for focus groups, arranging travel, or coordinating with external vendors or participants. Your company of one can become a full-service agency overnight!

You can also find other cost-effective services through marketplaces (i.e., Fiverr and UpWork) to help you with PowerPoint design, transcription, website maintenance, logo design, and blog writing to help you build your personal brand and profile and make you more efficient.

STEP 3: Embrace the Cloud and Technology

Another key effort you can undertake is to leverage the power of automation and technology platforms to create more efficient and seamless workflows.

Imagine having a digital ecosystem where you can take a brief, enter the details into a predesigned proposal template, and send it through to the client within 24 hours. Then, once you win the project, your accounting software picks up the quote from your proposal platform and sends the first invoice—all with a few clicks of a button.

Here are some of my favorite tools:

Online proposal platforms such as Proposify or Qwilr streamline the quoting process. These integrate with accounting software so you can raise invoices directly from a proposal once it has been signed electronically. You can use templates so that you are not starting from scratch every time. Create qualitative packages to make it easy for clients to buy from you.

Project Management (PM) software, e.g., Trello, Monday, or ClickUp, helps you manage multiple projects, assign tasks to other researchers/partners working on a project, and keep track of progress. It provides a visual tool that keeps all your “jobs to be done” in one place. We use Monday.com as it has fantastic integrations with other platforms (e.g., Xero, Slack), and you can create different automations so your leads pipeline board “talks to” the project management board, which “talks to” your client database. Once you understand your workflow, you can tailor the platform to work the way you want it to.

Messaging Tools: Slack and other messaging tools keep your inbox streamlined so that you are not scrolling through mountains of emails and multiple conversation threads. It is a great tool to communicate with multiple researchers/partners working on a project with you and speeds up collaboration and real-time communication. Slack can also integrate with Google Drive/Dropbox, so you can centralize all your relevant documentation by project or create an individual channel for each new project.

Cloud Accounting Software: Xero enables easy accounting and invoicing without the need for an accounting degree. You can also use QuickBooks, FreshBooks, or Wave. There are basic packages that you can use being self-employed, which ensures you have everything ready for tax time.

AI Transcription Tools, e.g., Otter, Descript, and even Zoom, can give you a transcription in minutes (and your VA can then proofread).

Admittedly, it takes time to set it all up and find the right combination and integrations that suit you and your business. But once these automations kick in, life becomes a lot easier!

STEP 4: Finding a Lead Generation Network

What if I don’t have existing networks or clients I can call upon—how do I get work? There are many different types of professional services marketplaces in the market today, and they all play a role in delivering services based on quality, expertise, and price.

The three main types of business models used in the talent marketplace space are:

  1. Pure Marketplace (e.g., Fiverr, UpWork)—you can post a profile so buyers can connect with you directly. You control the price and what you offer. This might be where you find work as a transcriber, competitor analyst, or conducting interviews for a startup—budget is definitely a key driver in these marketplaces.
  2. Managed Marketplace—where you apply to join, are hand-selected, and then could be offered projects, offered to bid for projects, or invited to join a project team. You work with a project manager who is the intermediary between you and the client. You work for a fee set by the platform. Toptal is an example of this type of curated, highly selective marketplace.
  3. Professional Collectives—a loose market network where one person brings in a lead/project and then invites others to participate in the project where the fee might be negotiated.

There is no turning back from the professional gig economy—particularly as the global economy continues to fluctuate, job security is less reliable, and shifting attitudes to work-life balance become entrenched. The question now is will you embrace it or work alongside it? Don’t get left behind… step up and into the future of work.