Amy Marta and Emily Mandell co-wrote this blog post with Fiona Taylor.
It’s hard to believe that it was merely a month ago that we made the decision to proactively convert all ongoing or planned in-person primary market research to remote methodologies. A month is a long time when you’re sheltering in place with two toddlers, but that’s another story. That initial methodological change marked the beginning of a series of questions and adjustments to the market research community, driven by COVID-19.
As you embark on a primary market research study in this environment, it’s important to address COVID-19’s impact on three key areas:
1. Methodology and design: No one will be surprised to learn that in-person research has been cancelled around the world. Ongoing projects are being adapted to remote-only formats wherever possible, while new projects are being designed and optimized with this at the forefront.
There are clear advantages to leveraging qualitative methodologies during times of uncertainty. They allow for a robust understanding of how a respondent is contextualizing the situation within the research. Further, they provide the flexibility to pivot as the situation evolves. Many respondents express gratitude at the opportunity to connect with researchers in the midst of social isolation, and empathetic, highly skilled moderators are able to shepherd conversations to uncover critical insights in these challenging times.
Asynchronous methods, which allow respondents to participate on their own timeline and terms, may be the sweet spot. Quantitative research remains one powerful tool in this toolkit, particularly for topics where COVID-19 would likely cause minimal impact, or where specific scenarios can now be predefined (for example, if social distancing measures proceed for three, six or 12-plus months). Mobile research to deeply explore an individual’s experience—or fostering an e-forum or online community where peers can share experiences, address key questions and co-create new solutions—allows respondents to participate for only a few minutes a day over the course of weeks or months. These methods reduce cognitive burden on respondents, allow flexibility in highly disrupted times, and can create opportunities to share and connect with like-minded peers. They are particularly well-suited to understand the evolving impact of COVID-19 on customers.
2. Fielding feasibility: Fortunately, most primary research continues to field successfully, and with barely a hiccup. Qualitative and quantitative studies have continued to successfully field worldwide for the past several weeks. Most recruiters continue to be active and have adapted to new ways of working. For studies that have continued, ZS has not yet seen any negative impact on recruiting timelines and response rates for both qualitative and quantitative studies.
Specifically reflecting on research with healthcare professionals (HCPs), companies have begun asking whether it’s appropriate to field market research studies with HCPs at this time. Companies are worried about burdening HCPs or garnering negative backlash. Fortunately, there’s some research on this. Recent studies by M3 Global Research and MedeField don’t tell us how many physicians are not responding to research, as they wouldn’t have responded to the surveys. However, they do assure us that there are tens of thousands of doctors worldwide who want to participate in primary market research, and that they won’t develop a negative perception of the sponsoring company from being invited to participate. Of course, the sponsoring company is blinded to the respondent in nearly all market research.
Inevitably, some research is being postponed temporarily, particularly non-critical research with frontline physicians in selected European markets. Depending on the business objectives of the study, it may be possible to quickly pivot to pursue a patient market research study to address critical gaps in understanding in lieu of HCP input. For the research that truly, absolutely cannot continue, stay tuned for creative alternatives to primary market research.
With most standard office visits cancelled, HCPs who have not been pulled to the frontline of patient care have proven increasingly willing to share their expertise and views. Patients who are working from home or unable to work due to social isolation measures may have higher availability for research, and incentive payments can help them through these challenging times. However, if you're concerned about respondent willingness to participate, make a simple change by adding some language that acknowledges the situation at the start of your screener or study: For example, you could say, “Being mindful of the evolving COVID-19 crisis, we understand if you prefer not to participate in a market research study at this time.”
3. Customer perceptions and behaviors: COVID-19 is impacting customer perspectives and behaviors in two ways that are relevant to market research: disrupting daily life and biasing perceptions.
We are all experiencing the disruptions to daily life now. Some of these disruptions, such as social distancing, are hopefully only short term, while other changes that may cascade from COVID-19 may fundamentally shift the future market, such as advancements in telehealth. Primary market research is needed to unveil what customers now need and believe because historical data is insufficient in these unprecedented times. Understanding evolving customer behavior will enable companies to put their forthcoming efforts in the right place and align with where customers are going, not where they were six months ago.
The other impact to consider is whether the ongoing pandemic will meaningfully bias customer views within research. For example, the crisis may cause heightened sensitivity to immune-suppression drugs or higher-than-realistic acceptance of vaccines. There may be situations where this bias is significant enough to affect the underlying business decision and should be postponed, though in many cases the research can be designed to account for and potentially mitigate those biases.
Companies undertake primary market research to provide insights that empower critical business decisions. Where those decisions are still being taken, primary research remains the ideal source of insight. In addition, the pandemic is prompting new and difficult decisions to be taken. Many new research studies are emerging on the impact of COVID-19, how to pivot business priorities and how to best support customers in these trying times.
Looking forward, it’s clear that customer insights are more important than ever to fuel critical business decisions in a shifting landscape, where historic data no longer serves as a reliable indicator for what might happen next.
For more ZS insights on the impact of COVID-19, visit zs.com/COVID19.