Market research is more important than ever in the age of COVID-19

The rapid decision-making power of market research and consumer insight is never more valuable than in times of crisis. How can businesses use market research to support fast decisions during COVID-19?
08 April 2020
Nigel Hollis

Chief Global Analyst, Kantar

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Faced with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, those of us working in market research are feeling the same uncertainty as everyone else. And yet market research professionals have an important role to play, by putting their management teams in touch with customers and offering sound, evidence-based advice.

So what can you do? The real question is, what do you need to do? You might not need the same information as before but there are still important decisions that need to be made, and they should be made on evidence not assumption. People know what they are doing differently and how they feel: all you need to do is ask them.

After the initial rush to respond to the pandemic, now is the time to identify what is going to best help people going forward – practically and emotionally – and in doing so help ensure the companies we work for ride out this crisis as well as possible. This is not necessarily about growing revenues, it is about supporting customers in the right way, helping to safeguard jobs and not making hasty assumptions or ill-advised decisions. Evidence from past crises finds that how brands react and communicate has a big influence on their survival and how quickly their business recovers once the crisis has passed.

Fast consumer feedback is critical

Luckily, online data collection and reporting means that “physical distancing” need not prevent you from generating the insights you need. A crisis on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic is not a time for delay; it is a time to speed up. The good news is that today’s consumer insight tools, enabled by technology, allow faster feedback than ever before. Fieldwork and data processing that might have taken weeks in the past can now be completed in hours using automated, online and self-serve systems.

Here are five questions that your company might need to answer quickly:

1. How are people responding to the crisis, and what are the implications in our country?

On a broad basis, Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer is just one source of information that allows you to keep track of how behaviours, fears and expectations are changing by country as the full implications of the pandemic unfolds. Additionally, while a survey will allow you to look at issues that might not automatically occur to people, the cloud of text and images from social media also represents an important resource for consumer insight, allowing us to explore the changing consumer response to the pandemic. Artificial intelligence can mine text and images in order to highlighting changing topics, concerns and sentiments.

2. How is customer behaviour changing in my category and what they expect of my brand?

Around the world, brands have adjusted their supply chains and sought to alleviate customers immediate concerns with a barrage of emails detailing their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but what comes next? With shops closed, people are flooding ecommerce websites, call centres and social media to shop and get advice. The experience is often far from what they might hope for, and frustration has unleashed a barrage of discontent on social media. But, beyond the obvious complaints, what are the issues that must be addressed? Now is the time to assess the changing needs, behaviours and concerns of your customers and adjust your offer, logistics and communications to meet their practical and emotional needs. My colleague Susanne O’Gorman has recently published a post with further detail on how organisations might achieve this.

Your existing CX and brand tracking can provide insights into basic changes in behaviour but perhaps you need to dig deeper, to see how buying patterns and brand allegiances are changing at a more granular level. If so, fielding an omnibus or custom study are the obvious solutions, but perhaps there are other alternatives to consider. Remote qualitative research offers a means to get a more compelling and granular understanding of how people stuck in their homes are reacting to new ways of shopping, being cut off from their favourite brand and what further reassurances might help bolster faltering trust. Technology opens up a number of ways to get a quick, qualitative understanding of what people expect of your brand. And if you want to get a sense for how people’s use of your product might have changed in the current situation, how about using an automated and video enabled online community to understand the factors influencing its usage?

3. Will my marketing content resonate well during the crisis ahead?

When people are shut up at home, focusing on media like never before and ready to share their views on social media, now is not the time for a communications misstep. But brands still need to make that connection with people in order to remain salient, something that is all the more important when people order online or have to ask for a brand by name. The ability to check the likely response to new content within hours is more important than ever, allowing companies to make quick decisions about whether to run or pull their content.

4. How are your fellow employees feeling?

Your fellow employees are feeling no less uncertain than the rest of us. Some will be vocal in their concerns, demanding various actions be taken to protect their safety and that of others. But beyond the obvious, what other practical and emotional needs must be addressed? What are the unvoiced needs that leadership should to respond to? What information do your people want and not want? How do messages from management resonate with the organisation? Again, a more representative view of employee confidence, or lack of it, can be an important guide as to what needs to said and done at this time.

5. How will the crisis impact your brand’s longer-term prospects?

Faced with short-term turmoil it is tempting to abandon hope of a return to normalcy, but a recovery will come. The question is, will your business and brands be ready? Maintaining relevance and salience is important if a brand is to recover quickly. Sadly, as people suffer the economic consequences of the pandemic, we can expect people to cut back, trade down and defer purchases. The immediate response will vary by category, but once normalcy returns the question becomes will they still want to buy the brands they enjoyed before? Brands need to make sure that they are well positioned for the recovery, and that means keeping track of what is happening right now, then planning and investing for the future.

If you have an existing tracking study in place, it will provide invaluable insight into how behaviour and attitudes are changing, allowing you to assess whether it remains meaningful and salient to its potential customers. And a crisis does not just bring challenges, sometimes it brings an opportunity for new innovation or a more emotive positioning. During the Great Recession several brands succeeded in establishing a strong, new emotional positionings that helped them not only survive but prosper. In that case, a stand-alone study might be needed to assess the new opportunity.

A pause for thought

Evidence-based decision making is more important than ever right now, this said, there are some types of consumer insight work that probably should be deferred to happier and more stable times. If you have been planning an ad hoc predictive study of some sort, then you might want to put it on hold. There is an in-built assumption to all predictive research – that the future will be similar to today – and right now things are certainly not stable. This said, if there is a mandate to do the work, there are many ways to calibrate your results, like retesting past stimulus to see how much responses vary between then and now, or including questions which you can compare back to an independent, normative database. Unfortunately, the same is not true of forecasts made from models built on behavioural and attitudinal data prior to the pandemic, plan to update them as soon as some stability returns.

Fast feedback for fast-changing times

Many companies are only just emerging from their initial response to the pandemic and are only beginning to understand its implications. Following this initial phase will come a period of reassessment, adjustment and fine tuning. This is the time when it is important to make the right decisions and ensure the right tone of voice. People will appreciate that these are chaotic times for businesses as well as themselves but only for so long, and missteps made now will likely shape people’s longer-term view of your brand. Your company needs to know what is happening as it happens, and automated and online research tools and existing research platforms can help you check how people are feeling and likely to respond to new initiatives, from innovation to marketing content. Whatever the decisions to be made, market research should play an important role in ensuring the right actions are taken to safeguard the future of the business, its employees and the wider community.

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