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Covid-19 Business Impact: A Time For Market Research?

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on our health and economies, businesses, governments and not-for-profits are struggling to keep pace with circumstances that are changing day-to-day, if not hour-to-hour. While organizations try to find their operational and financial footings, many activities are being put on hold. Decision-makers are struggling with the question - should we be doing any market research now, when our customers, partners and stakeholders are likewise trying to adapt?

I don’t have any hard data to report, but anecdotally the answer for many seems to be: Let’s put on the brakes. Over the past two weeks, we have seen multiple clients pause or cancel multiple projects. This response makes intuitive sense in the current circumstances. There are lots of good reasons to pause or cancel customer insights or market research studies right now – changing business plans and priorities, and concerns about preserving cash chief among them. 

We don’t want to bother you…

One concern I am hearing that I think could be misguided is a reluctance to “bother” people (customers and stakeholders alike) when they are worried about their jobs and the health of their families. Note: I say “could” as there are certainly some scenarios where sensitivity to these issues trumps all, but I don’t believe an extended or blanket pause makes sense for most organizations. 

COVID-19 Business Impact: Why should you proceed with market research?

Staying close to your customers is more important now…

While I can be accused of being self-serving, here are three good reasons to ensure customer insights and market research activities keep moving forward:

  1. Things are changing, and quickly. Organizations need to adapt to changing social and economic dynamics. As consumers and businesses adapt to the pandemic and its economic fallout, organizations need to understand how they can support their customers and partners. This starts with understanding their changing needs and concerns. That’s what insights functions do best.
  2. There will be new opportunities. As people change, they will need new goods, services and messaging. Where are the opportunities for your organization? How are they evolving? How do you position your products, services and brand in the new atmosphere?
  3. People actually want to provide input. Let’s face it, we are always “bothering” customers when we ask them for input on new product ideas or messaging approaches. However, in stressful times like this, we are actually seeing increasing interest in participating in research studies. Anecdotally, we are finding it easier to recruit participants for B2B studies right now, and our participation rates are up. Our panel partners have hard numbers to back up this trend:

“Over the past week, we have seen a positive increase in survey participation from InnovateMR’s consumer and B2B panels. We’ve seen a 39% increase among users and 52% increase among sessions. Our respondents are ready to participate in surveys,” reports InnovateMR’s Chris Young.

Similarly, Amber Bartlett of AskingCanadians has also seen increasing response rates to that company’s surveys, especially among Millennials. “It’s awesome to see these younger groups going up as they’re often the harder groups to reach.  I would be guessing but I think it will continue to go up,” says Bartlett, who adds that interest in signing up for their panels and communities has increased in the past week. And other panel providers are reporting similar trends.

Why is Market Research Interest Increasing During the Pandemic?

Why would interest in market research among businesses and consumers actually be going up? Some potential reasons.

  • Changing work circumstances = increased availability. Many respondents are working from home, have reduced hours or have unfortunately been laid off. This means that they have more time to participate. (For people who have taken a hit to their incomes, incentives certainly don’t hurt either).
  • Need for connection and distraction. The opportunity to speak with someone when you are mostly staying at home to work is a welcome break for some respondents. Spending an hour talking to a qualitative researcher by phone or via video chat breaks some of the isolation of social distancing and provides a distraction from an anxiety-inducing and depressing news cycle
  • A need to be heard. Many if not most of us feel some sense of powerlessness in the face of this pandemic. Providing input and feedback, even in the form of an online survey, gives many a tiny sense of control, that we matter. Moreover, knowing that brands and organizations we rely on are moving forward with plans is a welcome sign of stability.

Keep calm and research on...

All of this is not to say that it's business as usual for marketers, product managers, and insights professionals. Decisions need to be made sensitively and on a case-by-case basis.  What may make sense for a bank might not for a retailer or an auto manufacturer.  I don’t have all the answers, but I’ll leave off with two key questions to guide decisions on whether to put research on extended pause:

  1. Is the underlying initiative going to move forward? If your organization is still planning to move forward with a new product or service, why would you not continue with planned customer input?
  2. Do we need to recalibrate? In light of changing circumstances, do we need to change our offerings or our messaging? If the answer is “yes” or “we’re not sure”, then you should be connecting with your customers, prospects, and stakeholders to find out if your new ideas will resonate.

Timelines and priorities will shift, but eventually the pandemic will pass, and you will be competing for your customers’ time, attention and dollars.  You need to understand them now more than ever.

Written by Michael Dolenko

Michael Dolenko, MA, is a partner at Phase 5 and the co-lead of the Innovation and Product Development practice. Michael is a sought-after moderator and survey researcher for clients in financial services, retail, technology, education and publishing. He and his team focus on product and service innovation and studies that support go-to-market initiatives.