Global Update – Market Research during the Coronavirus Pandemic

Posted on 5th May 2020 by Berlin in Uncategorized

With many markets and regions seeing a growing stabilization of the coronavirus situation, the first signs of a “new insights normality” are emerging.

This week’s post takes a look at some of the practical aspects of research in this current climate – for both face-to-face and digital.

The first viewing facilities are opening again in Germany this week – faster than perhaps expected.  As mentioned last week, some facilities have already re-opened in Asia.

But as with many other aspects of life, the “new” viewing facility set-up will probably be quite different – at least in the following weeks – to what we are used to from before the shutdown.

On the digital side: the steep digital qual learning curve and our enhanced familiarity with screen-to-screen methodologies have been amongst the few positive curves of the last few weeks; learning is ongoing. This update shares practical tips from our most recent experiences.

Looking forward: we see the pace of change slowing down in the market research world. We will continue to post updates regularly, but every 2 weeks rather than weekly. We will post more frequently again if circumstances change.


Continue to stay healthy. Happy Thinking People


Back to Real Life, back to Reality….?


It’s what many people suffering from corona-induced cabin-fever wish for: just get back to normal. But maybe we need to start with a reality check.

It seems that the willingness of consumers to participate in face-to-face research is going to vary strongly by country. This likely relates to the severity of the outbreak and the strictness of the lockdown imposed.

In the UK and Italy for example, some of our partners believe that people are going to be quite hesitant to going back to viewing facilities or allowing people (researchers!) into their homes.

Andrea di Franco from sees it as being “unlikely that our respondents are ready to go back to “normality” and participate to face to face sessions”. He sees this lasting at least until well into the summer.

In France there is also a great deal of uncertainty. An end to lockdown is not really in sight yet. In a recent nationwide poll 60% of parents said they would not send their children back to school.

Given this backdrop, participating in a f2f focus group is probably not top of many people’s lists of things to do. In regions less affected like Bordeaux, Toulouse or Marseille, things may of course move faster.

In Germany and South Korea, it seems that potential research participants are generally less worried.

Our recruitment staff in Germany report that about three quarters of the research participants we are talking to seem to be ready to head back to our viewing facilities.

A recent survey by the Acorn Korea team ( shows that 96% of the participants in their database are willing to participate in offline research.


Face-to-Face? Cover your nose and mouth!


As stated above, the first viewing facilities opened their doors again currently in Germany. Some viewing facilities have re-opened in Asia.

All viewing facilities looking to re-open have to follow strict hygiene rules stipulated by the respective authorities.

Reception areas have protective screens, meeting and viewing rooms must be disinfected regularly, strict distancing rules all apply.

Some interview rooms and focus group spaces are also equipped with partitions between participants for further protection.

Most viewing – at least right now – will very likely take place via streaming rather than direct attendance. Travel is still challenging or impossible between countries and even cities.

Finally, in countries where masks are mandatory, participants will be wearing masks. Our view is that his is likely to become the case in many geographies as mask rules and policies are increasingly adopted globally.

The overall effect is of a set-up that is quite far removed from being relaxed and natural. This is something that viewing facilities have always been criticized for. the new set-up emphasises this even further.

The term “lab” now applies almost literally with all the measures in place.


Discovering Digital Closeness


Client feedback over the past weeks on the digital research experience has been quite surprising and positive with respect to the ‘closeness’ enabled with consumers.

There are two key contributing factors. Firstly, and simply: a screen distance of 50cm sometimes feels closer than the 5m or so through a one-way mirror.

Second up is the fact that people are in their own homes, the space they live in adds an intimacy and sense of realness that a physical viewing facility lacks.

We wouldn’t argue that digital spaces offer a better experience than ‘live’ research – they offer a different experience. And one that follows different rules and principles.

Let’s focus on some of the very practical implications.

Digital groups have a very different sense of time and space. Groups tend to be shorter and need to be more to the point than traditional focus groups. Digital arguably very much brings ‘focus’ into the focus group! Screen-to-screen groups tend to work best with fewer participants (4 to 6) – but again this is also something that many moderators swear by in a face-to-face setting.

Most importantly, the space is very different. People tend to interact with the moderator more than they do with each other.

Because everyone is looking into a screen, the natural interaction between participants is not the same as it would be in a room. Moderators need to take this into account and it can be a good idea to inject online sessions with small digital tasks rather than rely on an organic discussion alone.

Accompanying this different interaction is a different style of moderation. There is no body language for the moderator to work with. Creating empathy in a digital context requires more work.  Moderators need to use facial expression more, create eye contact be looking at the camera rather than screen – whilst still trying to react to participants’ facial expressions. This takes a bit of practice!

Most importantly, a lot of thought and planning needs to go into the structure and timing of different sections of the guide.

Live focus groups can be more productive when things happen spontaneously and when a moderator is able to improvise when reactions are not as expected. Digital groups seem to work better when they are clearly structured, when individual speaking times are monitored, when participants know exactly what is expected of them.

This doesn’t mean that there is no room for spontaneity. Given that we are ‘in people’s homes’, we can use the setting to our advantage and quickly integrate ethnographic elements – a quick visit to the bathroom to check on toiletry brands, or a look in the fridge to see which of the healthy ingredients about to be discussed are actually in stock.

Last but not least, we should mention the “digital elephant” in the virtual viewing room: technical challenges. The memes being shared around failed video conferences of the past few weeks invariably touch a raw research nerve – and send a shiver down a digital moderator’s spine.

In a research context a lot of precautions can of course be taken before the actual event. The right choice of platform (a discussion in itself), attention paid already during recruitment (do participants have appropriate devices?) and the best technical support should anything go wrong, for example.


What Next?


Whether it’s more online or offline: we will all need to get used to research looking a little different in the next few months.

Just as those of in the West are gradually getting used to wearing masks in public spaces, we will also get used to seeing masks in viewing rooms.

Whilst potentially awkward, this has an upside. Being separated from a cashier through a screen today is reassuring for shoppers and retail frontline staff alike, not a sign of distrust. In the same way, less cosy (but safe) viewing facilities may actually make participants feel more rather than less comfortable. Though this may look strange at first, it might feel better.

The digital learning curve may flatten off, but the online experience is likely to have a lasting impact.

Digital options have proved their flexibility and value over the past 4 – 6 weeks for a broad range of tasks. To what extent researchers choose to continue to master new qual software options may well be a source of future advantage. In some countries it is possible, even likely that people remain hesitant to meet in closed spaces for quite a while.

Finally, the pandemic and accelerated shift to digital qual has taught us that online tools can actually create more rather than less closeness.

Everyone is communicating more via digital platforms and becoming comfortable with a broader range of functions, mobile or otherwise.

Whilst an over-exposure to digital can indeed lead to online fatigue (as some of you may have experienced after a day of online meetings…), we are seeing a digital literacy emerge unlike anything we have seen before.


We will keep you posted!

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