Covid-19 has certainly put the world economy through changes. Supply chain disruptions, lockdowns, massive unemployment, social distancing, and financial constraints on small business and average households have generated unrest, confusion, and a significant loss in production and economic activity.
Marketing research, the sector in which Applied Marketing Research (www.appliedmr.com) participates, is also facing significant changes brought on by the Covid-19 environment. Historically, our sector saw a significant change occur during the early part of this century, when quantitative research moved from telephone data collection to web-based data collection, made possible by web panel companies that offered millions of potential test subjects that could be culled and tailored to meet specific screening requirements at a much lower cost that recruiting by phone. Further accelerating the move to web-based surveys were web-based survey platforms that made it easy to program survey instruments (along with photos and videos if necessary). More recently these web-based survey platforms have been engineered to migrate surveys seamlessly between laptop pc and mobile smartphone environments, thus enabling wider access to survey participants who often are on the go.
So where is the industry headed? Barring a vaccine or an anti-viral medicine that works to limit infection, here are a few projections:
- Decline of in-person focus groups: In-person focus groups are dying. This one should be easy to understand. Sitting in a room with a group of strangers in a small confined space is not anyone’s idea of fun. As a long-time moderator, I have had instances where participants were clearly sick when they showed up to do a focus group. But Covid-19 goes beyond simple Kleenex and cold remedies. So, the effect on focus group facilities will likely be devastating, and, despite the difficulty, many will move to local recruiting for on-line interviews and focus groups.
- Decline of on-site surveys and interviews: On-site interviews may experience a hard slowdown as well. Firms that conduct in-store intercepts or companies that want to do in-person executive interviews will likely find this avenue of research closed off. Speaking through masks in a store where social distancing measures are in place would be unappealing to most. And, with retail sector chains facing downsizing and potentially bankruptcy, it is hard to envision doing research like this – at least for the foreseeable future.
- Rapid acceleration in the use of web-based focus group platforms: While facilities offering in-person focus group rooms will endure a slowdown in business and opportunities, many focus groups will move to on-line platforms – either virtual (real time) or bulletin board (diary). Even with their limitations for product research, on-line focus group platforms can be useful to understand issues related to branding, consumer attitudes and lifestyles, usage, competitor analysis, concept testing, dial testing, advertising, and communications. Even packaging can be tested with the judicious use of video or photography. But when it comes to product research, firms often need to show product to consumers (late-stage disaster checks, prototype testing, etc.) to evaluate business and household consumer reaction, understand product questions and consumer willingness to purchase. However, even here workarounds can be developed to enable product research over an on-line platform. That said, I expect IHUTs to get a second look.
- Product research will likely move to In Home (Business) Usage Tests (IHUTs). While many firms have engaged in this type of testing to evaluate new product prototypes and sometimes bench-marking products against competitors, IHUTs were considered by many firms too expensive to conduct. After all, compared to in-person focus groups, IHUTs lacked the visual and visceral appeal that in-person focus groups offered marketing executives. More importantly, there was the major investment in shipping costs, which depending upon sample size and the weight of the product, was a disincentive to doing this kind of research. However, with Covid-19, this appears to be in flux as companies such as ours are seeing increased activity in doing this type of research. Why? Individuals can do the test in their businesses or in their homes, severely curtailing the risk of exposure to the virus. Furthermore, since web-based survey research is well-established, data can be gathered using PCs and smartphones as with any other type of quantitative research. One would be remiss in not pointing out the advantages of doing pre and post surveys using this technique and that responses can be further analyzed using segmentation techniques.
- Studies centered on coping strategies and the effects of the Covid-19 environment on consumer beliefs, attitudes, and willingness to purchase. As the economy moves away from office workspace to telecommuting from home there will be increased interest in understanding how to make this “work at home” environment more efficient and effective. Any industry whose products directly pertain to this migration (think PC hardware, furniture, or video telephony for example) should consider studying how their products might be enhanced to fit this growing market. Just what are the needs of telecommuters and how these needs can be addressed will be of growing interest over the near future. One recent study estimated that 30% of the US workforce could be telecommuting permanently. Conversely, how will businesses who benefited from the commuting workforce adapt to this significant change and address their consumers who will work from home? What will happen to commercial real estate and what new markets might best use empty office space? How will businesses adapt to changes in supply chains? How will the entertainment (theme parks to movies), event (trade shows to sports), restaurant (fast food and on-site dining), and travel industries cope with changes in demand and services? These are fascinating questions that interested parties should address.
The post Covid-19 world is threatening to many companies. But turned on its head, it also offers great opportunity for those willing to confront the new realities and adapt to them. Applied Marketing Research and other research firms stand willing to help companies as they transition to the new reality and new opportunities.