Great qualitative market research is critical to uncovering insights.  Doing this research face-to-face often provides the best results.  But how will a global pandemic like COVID-19 affect your ability to get the insights you need?  In any high flu season, qualitative research is affected, but research staff can often quickly recruit and rebook to ensure the project is delivered.  With COVID-19, we are not only facing many people unable to assist because of illness; we also have to deal with heightened concern and perceptions of risk.

Already the impact of COVID-19 on business supply chains has started, but what about the insights supply chain.  Even without high levels of infection, the impact of a pandemic is felt by consumers and business taking action to try and insulate themselves from the risk.  Many economic commentators are pointing out that the effects of fear can have a much bigger and long-term effect than the direct impact of illness.

In 2009 during the Bird Flu pandemic, I noticed the impact on research I was conducting.  Projects took longer, booking facilities was harder, costs increased, cancellations and refusals were more common and how we needed to approach consumers needed rethinking.  Not all research, however, was affected in the same way, and not all consumers were affected in the same way.


What type of impact are we talking about?

The main type of impact is unlikely to be an illness.  Instead, the main effect will be consumers trying to avoid infection.  Even in normal high flu seasons, agency and field staff spend more time managing the higher interview cancellations and late non-attendance to ensure a project is completed.  However, when consumers change their behaviour to avoid getting sick things to become difficult.  Consumers become more likely to refuse to attend interviews and more likely to cancel, making it harder to fill groups.  Groups with harder to find consumers become impossible to fill.  At the outcome stage, the underlying profile of consumers changes that can change the chances of finding the insights you need.

Think of the working mothers!  Even though more fathers are taking on household chores, mothers still do most of the caring for sick children and relatives.  If you are trying to recruit working mothers for interviews, be aware they may also be caring for their parents.  These mothers are trying to reduce the chances they transmit illness to others in their care.

For many, getting sick has costs.  Because marketers have a salary job and can occasionally work remotely, they greatly underestimate the impact sickness can have on wage earners and those who work in service roles.  People in wage roles have their income tied directly to the hours they work.  Even with sick leave, their income can go down when they are sick, or they need to take time off to look after others.  Self-employed, tradespeople, retail and transport workers, and people working in small business acutely feel the impact of sickness on them and their co-workers.  People in carer roles like education, healthcare, aged and disability care are also in positions where the impact of getting ill on their employment is much higher than for office workers.

Even if you are not specifically targeting your research at high-risk impact groups, any representative research will include these people.

Different areas; different impacts.  The location will make a difference in how COVID-19 will affect your research.  Suburbs and regions can have different employment and demographic profiles.  If your research is location-specific, you may notice differences in regions that are driven by how these groups are affected by the pandemic and not something related to your research objectives.

Be kind to your recruiters!  The increased workload of finding people well enough to attend an interview, or just willing to participate in can take the toll on recruitment staff, who are also likely to be understaffed from illness in their own office.


Which types of research will COVID-19 impact the most?

In short, any research that consumers see as posing a risk of infection, or them transmitting the disease, is feeling the biggest impact.  Some types of research will be more affected than others.  Consumers will want to minimise the chances they will get a disease or pass it onto others.  This means face-to-face types of research like personal interviews, group discussions, and intercept interviews will be the hardest hit.

Group discussions, in particular, are the most susceptible to high flu season affects and fear affects from pandemics like COVID-19.  Unlike many other types of research, consumers attending a group discussion face increased risk and uncertainty.  Consumers need to travel (increased infection risk) to a location where they are in the company of several people (increased infection risk) who are unfamiliar (increase perceived infection risk), in a confined space (increased infection risk) and then return home (increased transmission risk).

Despite what appears like a dire situation, there are ways you can still undertake your qualitative research and get the insights that you need.


Three questions you need to ask yourself

Will consumers feel that doing the research will increase their chance of infection?

If you are undertaking qualitative research in areas affected by COVID-19 or during any other period of high respiratory infection, there are three questions you need to ask.

  • How can you reduce the number of people placed in face-to-face contact?
  • How can you interview people without face-to-face contact?
  • How can you reduce the potential exposure from travelling to interviews?


What are the alternatives to group discussions?

Overcoming obstacles is not new to doing research, and there are many ways to undertake qualitative market research during the pandemic.  Different methods have different advantages.  Listed below are some techniques to consider when designing your next study.

  • Depth Interviews. One-on-one interviews reduce concerns about being in a group environment.  Doing your interviews one-on-one can let you conduct the research when and where consumers feel safer.
  • Telephone and Web Interviews. Interviewing people over the phone can allow people who care for others to more easily be accessed.  With web interviewing, you have the option of interviewing multiple people the same time, to create an online group discussion.
  • Online Research Communities. Over a few days or longer, an online research community allows consumers to engage like a group, give a personal response, reduce the need for travel and physical attendance in a group.
  • In-home and local community groups. Before group rooms, group discussions were done in people’s homes and community places.  Some groups still are conducted this way.  Doing interviews closer to where consumers live or locations that feel more familiar with may help consumers feel more comfortable.
  • Pair Interviews. Interviewing people in smaller groups can combine the best of group discussions with the depth of personal interviews.  Paired discussions using people who know each other can also reduce concerns about being in an unfamiliar group environment.

There is one other way to get a qualitative understanding if consumers are not willing to venture out, do better surveys!  Standing on the shoulders of past research will let you get deeper insights.  Using different analytical frameworks, statistical and theoretical, will help you uncover new insights.  Better still, ask better open-ended questions and include innovative and probing approaches to getting consumers to engage with your research so that they are motivated to dig deeper and be insightful about their own actions.  Don’t rely on the naive assumption that asking a lot of blunt ‘what do you say that?’ or ‘why did you give that score?’ to uncover anything but the obvious.


What is the role of Focus Groups in 2020?

Focus groups are a great way to speak with consumers and an efficient way to uncover insights across a breadth of people in a single night.  Where appropriate, some of our projects will still include them over the coming months.  However, putting consumers, staff, and clients first, also means adapting our approach to reduce the health risks and put consumers’ minds at ease, in a way that will still maximise the chance of uncovering the insights our clients need to drive their business forward.


If you want to know more about doing qualitative research for your business, visit our Insight + Strategy, contact us to discuss at