FEATURE12 September 2023

An international outlook: Has Zoom broadened horizons for market research?

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Digital ways of working are facilitating more opportunities for research across borders. Research Live explores how the outlook for international research has changed.

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Kantar has seen an upwards trend in international research since the pandemic. Amy Cashman, executive managing director, insights division, UK & Ireland, Kantar, says: “That’s partly because it’s easier to do – researchers and participants are more familiar with digital tools like Zoom now.”

For Basis, more of its research than ever before is now international and it is working with clients based in a broader range of markets. Commercial director Lynsey Showman explains: “Some of this is driven by a recognition of the value that agencies can offer over and above finding respondents, for example, the strategic recommendations and the need to potentially cast the net wide to find the expertise required.”

Tom Gould, research director and head of consumer and services at Impact Research, saw an increase in international online research during the pandemic, particularly with retail and FMCG clients. He says: “Since then, the need for international research has continued with clients interested in the impact of cost of living on shoppers’ behaviours.”

The UK research industry has “a heritage and now also a responsibility as a leading, progressive voice in the global research space,” says Savanta’s chief research officer Nick Baker. Savanta has seen growth in its international client engagements, adds Baker, reflected in the agency’s opening of an Emea office in Amsterdam last year.

Kantar’s Cashman says: “With budgets under strain, we have seen some clients trying to make cost savings by centralising global or regional research. It could be that businesses are looking to boost revenue by growing overseas too. 

She adds: “Brands want to tap into global trends, but it is vital that they understand the nuances between different audiences. The human stories told through local data or qualitative research are key to doing that.”

Technology is playing a bigger part than ever before in the production of that local insight. The proliferation of video tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams in the sector began initially out of necessity due to lockdowns, but has continued, both to conduct research and to communicate with clients.

In an international context, there are pros and cons of the use of virtual tools across borders, says Sabine Stork, founding partner at Thinktank, which specialises in international qual.

“From a qualitative perspective, it’s a big advantage that we can now easily talk to audiences beyond the big metropolitan centres, which just didn’t happen pre-Zoom. I love having access to people in remote Chinese provinces and small towns in the US – in this respect these tools have broadened our horizons.”

Qual can also be carried out more cheaply when not having air travel to consider, and saves researchers time on travelling. However, Stork notes the downsides: “Undoubtedly, you lose immediacy of contact with respondents, suppliers and clients if you don’t see them in 3-D.”

Digital tools have had a “transformational effect”, says Dan Coombes, UK head of qual at Basis. “It’s possible to run research in several markets in a single day across multiple time zones, purely through Zoom. We can cover more markets, quicker, at a lower cost to the client than ever before.”

Basis now has well-established relationships with clients based in international markets who “we have never ‘met’ in person but ‘see’ all the time on video calls – this would have been very unusual pre-Covid”, adds Coombes.

Savanta’s Baker believes the growth and acceptance of increased digital interactions has “liberated” the industry and says while there is still an important place for in-person debriefs, status meetings or pitches, they are best used “when fit for purpose”.

Baker says: “Carbon impact of travel, the time investments on all sides and the wellbeing considerations and advantages for many that can come with ‘not travelling’ are clearly more important than ‘always sitting in a room together ‘because that’s what we always did before’.”

Digital norms have contributed to making research “more representative” in the qualitative space, adds Baker, by removing the requirement to be in a particular place at a set time for a focus group or in-depth interview – making participation more accessible for those with childcare or other commitments.

International insights: lost in translation?

Working from home during lockdowns coined a new term: ‘Zoom fatigue’. Researchers aren’t immune to this phenomenon, or the breakdowns in communication that can occur more easily when communicating digitally. 

So is there a risk of valuable insights being ‘lost in translation’ in international research? “I find it more difficult to concentrate on observing groups on Zoom in another language than when sitting behind a viewing facility mirror,” says Thinktank’s Stork. “As researchers, we have the feeling that the whole experience is quite removed – so yes, there may be more of a risk of losing things in translation.”

To mitigate this, several agencies we spoke to highlighted the importance of post-session debriefs with local moderators.

Stork says: “We rely on them more than we do when we are closer to the action. This also means that we’re becoming ever more selective about who we work with and genuinely value them as partners in interpretation when having possibly paid more lip service to their contribution to analysis in the past.”  

Impact’s Gould says: “To mitigate language or cultural barriers, it is vital to brief these partners comprehensively on the objectives and complexities of the research, ensuring they convey the intended message accurately.”

Coombes, from Basis Research, agrees: “In projects where budgets don't allow for our researchers to travel we are leaning more heavily on the knowledge and interpretation of our local expert partner agencies, to help ensure we don't ever conduct research in isolation of local market norms around culture, the consumer, and the category.”

Thinktank has debriefed remotely for years, but Stork says it is easier to land findings with clients in person, noting they are more likely to ask questions, and may be more focused rather than being distracted, which can hamper remote debriefs. However, she adds: “I have a lot of sympathy for losing focus when listening to a video debrief and we tend to offer follow-up sessions or questions once clients have digested the written report after the presentation.”

Gould says that rather than insights being lost in translation, instead, virtual platforms can offer more opportunities to preserve quality and the integrity of information from participants. “For example, they allow us to record meetings and interviews, which can then be transcribed for detailed analysis and reference,” he notes. 

Challenges and considerations

There’s no substitute for getting a real feel for a place, sometimes. Olly Robinson, senior director, Basis, says: “Being able to conduct international research remotely is a great way to reduce costs, but it’s easy to overlook how much you lose when the team doesn’t spend any time locally, on the ground. That direct cultural immersion pays dividends when it comes to correctly contextualising and interpreting the findings from the research.”

While Thinktank’s Stork admits that pre-Covid international research was “hugely unsustainable”, adding: “I am embarrassed to think about how many air miles I accumulated over 20-plus years travelling to other continents watching people react to a bunch of concept boards,” she highlights the value of seeing first-hand the places and products participants may mention, adding depth of understanding.

Stork also points to a new generation of researchers who may not get this in-person experience. “For me, the biggest issue in international research is going to be how new generations of international qual researchers without much of that on-the-ground exposure will develop a sixth sense for other cultures and their everyday lives. I’m not sure digital means can ever be a substitute.”