FEATURE13 February 2019

The unusual suspects

x Sponsored content on Research Live and in Impact magazine is editorially independent.
Find out more about advertising and sponsorship.

Charities Features Finance Impact Mobile Public Sector Trends UK

Researching the hard to reach is as challenging as it is important for charities, governments and brands. Jane Bainbridge looks at how market researchers are ensuring they hear the opinions of all sections of society.

Unusual suspects - 2019

At the end of last year, the UK had the ignominy of being told by the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, that its levels of child poverty were “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity”, and that austerity was in breach of four UN human rights agreements. The government, predictably, disagreed with his findings.

Setting aside arguments about the levels of and reasons for poverty in the UK, people living on the lowest incomes are often overlooked in society and are in danger of falling outside many research remits.

There are various groups that can be deemed hard to reach – the disabled, the mentally ill, physically remote communities, the very elderly or indeed, the very wealthy. With 22% of the population living in households earning below average income, however – and 7% in persistent poverty (ONS figures) – those with very limited incomes make up significant numbers of those hard-to-reach groups.

Even the phrase ‘hard to reach’ is loaded, with many in the industry eschewing it for terms such as ‘seldom heard’, so the onus moves from the participants to the researchers. As one researcher says: “Most of the communities we’re dealing with aren’t necessarily hard to reach – we know where they are; we know what they do; we just have to go there and speak to them.”

We need to get the terminology right and we need to ensure the voices and opinions of the marginalised are heard. While charities and policy-makers may seek their feedback, are brands to blame for market research not garnering the opinions of these groups? Jhanne Litson, head of casting for Flamingo, says the problem is broader than just brand investment.

“It starts with the brief,” she says. “Many fashion or beauty briefs still exclude over-40s, despite this demographic being more independent and having more disposable income.”

Viki Cooke, co-founder of BritainThinks, says it’s too simplistic to say brands are only concerned about people with disposable income. The consultancy’s briefs have included researching people living in fuel poverty, vulnerable customers for a water supplier, and low-income households for a restaurant chain.

“There are many reasons why brands want to hear from less affluent customers,” Cooke says. “Some have a core base of low-income customers, while some have statutory or regulatory duties to engage low-income audiences. Others see themselves as purposeful companies and have well-developed cause related marketing schemes to support deprived households.”

Cultural inspiration

There are two things brands should consider: people’s circumstances change, and they are still spending money on essentials and making choices – it’s just that this expenditure may be a bigger proportion of their income than it is for the more affluent. “Scruffier, more chaotic and less affluent parts of society are the source of much cultural inspiration, so it would be a mistake to focus only on customers who are currently considered profitable,” says Cooke.

Researching marginalised groups may require a reassessment of what methodologies to use. Jayne Humm is head of research and learning at Local Trust, a Big Lottery-funded organisation that helps people make their communities better places to live. She says that, with the right methodologies, poorer communities aren’t harder to reach.

“If you’re going to knock on the door, they’re much more likely to be in than anyone else,” says Humm. “People in some areas might not be online very often – about a fifth of everyone who responds [to us] will do that on paper.”

She feels focus groups aren’t necessarily a good environment – “they’re not just a disadvantage for people in poorer communities, but also for people who aren’t as articulate, or who are shy and unused to being asked their opinions.”

When NatCen researched the hidden economy (HE), getting people to take part was particularly challenging because of the sensitivity of the topic. David Hussey, the company’s head of statistics, says: “We highlighted our independence, the purpose of the research and that it was confidential, to reassure respondents.

“We weighted the responding sample to correct for any obvious biases in the profile of people taking part. To ensure we did not systematically exclude people who were in the HE and worried about admitting it, at no point did we collect names or contact details from participants – and we combined two separate approaches: a telephone survey and a face-to-face one.”


Niche groups

While traditional focus groups may not be appropriate, the explorative nature of qualitative means it is preferred by many.
“Researchers need to be imaginative about what methods are used,” Cooke says. “Relying on online methodologies excludes the one in 10 households with no internet access; holding fieldwork at awkward times can exclude those who can’t afford childcare; and demanding lots of written contributions can be difficult for those with low literacy skills. Using multi-method approaches and being as flexible as possible can overcome some of these challenges.”

Issues around quality of respondents are exacerbated for hard-to-reach audiences, adds Cooke. “The industry needs to be prepared to go out and find those who are not ‘the usual suspects’, even if it is more expensive and time consuming.”

Girl Effect – the non-profit organisation empowering vulnerable and marginalised girls – created its own methodology in the form of TEGA, its mobile-based, peer-to-peer research app. Predominantly used in developing countries, it was also piloted in the US in 2017.

Zoe Dibb, senior manager of evidence, says: “We’re trying to meet girls where they are, rather than use household surveys, which end up reaching girls’ dads, so you don’t get to speak to them directly.

“We created TEGA because there’s very little data about those marginalised girls, particularly 10- to 19-year-olds. Girls in the community are trained as qualified researchers and the technology works in places where there may not be good tech infrastructure.”

Girl Effect extended into developed countries when challenged by a funder to prove that one girl talking to another girl was effective universally. It piloted in Saginaw, Michigan – chosen because, in 2014, it was identified as the worst place in the US to be a woman, with high rates of crime, rape and gender-based violence.

Dibb says they assumed recruiting respondents would be easier in the US than in Africa because “everyone’s got a mobile, everyone’s on Facebook”. Instead, they found high levels of mistrust and lots of doors being closed in their faces.


Recruitment is a challenge cited by many when trying to reach the disenfranchised. Invariably, the answer is to partner with another organisation – which is what Girl Effect did with mentoring programme Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Dr Claire Bennett, head of projects for nfpsynergy, points to ‘gatekeepers’ being really important. “It’s hard to go in completely cold. We are at an advantage working with charities’ networks, because there’ll be some form of communication where someone says ‘this is what the research is, and this is what we hope to learn from it’.”

Local Trust has the advantage of going into communities with money for them, so there’s a very clear reason to interact with the organisation. But Humm says it’s still vital to earn people’s trust. “Very often, these communities have been promised things in the past and it hasn’t come off. If you’re in a community that has been lied to, or left behind, you’re not in the best place to be receptive to research – and often for good reason,” she adds.

Litson points to the fact that many people simply don’t know what market research is. “Trust is definitely an issue, so we need to build this slowly and maintain integrity,” she says.

“Many ‘real people’ don’t know that agencies like ours exist, or understand the complexity or breadth of the market research industry. Being clear and explicit on detail helps to build trust and partnership with people who aren’t often given a voice.”

When she was at NatCen, Bennett researched some very specific groups, including prisoners. The power dynamic there meant the prisoners had been told by prison officers that they must be part of the evaluation.

“You’ve always got to get informed consent and I’d say to people, ‘if you don’t want to be here, don’t be here; it’s OK; we can sit and chat and I’m not going to tell the guards that you’re not participating’. But sometimes you talk to people and then they change their minds and do want to talk,” she says.

This gradual opening up came to play when she was doing research for her PhD in lesbian asylum seekers. “People were talking about their experiences of sexual abuse and torture, which I never asked for, but people talked because they felt safe.

“Following a very rigid questionnaire isn’t going to work; it will disenfranchise people because they process information in different ways. It’s your role as a researcher to understand that quite quickly.”

Shocking stories

For this research, Bennett sometimes needed translators. “You are very dependent on what the translator is saying. There are difficulties around LGBT asylum seekers because people come from communities that have a lot of homophobia – and even if an asylum seeker trusts talking to you, they may not want to talk to an interpreter from their country. So, often, you end up researching people who speak English.”

With difficult-to-reach communities, using members of that group to recruit others can be effective in boosting respondent numbers.

Opinium conducted research for the Finance Foundation into the ‘elder elders’ – those over 80 years old – and how they access money. It used its standard nationwide qual recruiters, but – to increase the sample – it asked respondents to invite friends over to their houses for the mini-groups.

James Endersby, managing director, says: “The over-80s are so under-researched. Some of them brought shocking stories to life of being financially scammed; others made us realise how we take for granted the fact that we can totter down to the ATM machine in 10 minutes for some cash.”

Opinium’s research is also a salient reminder that who falls into the hard-to-reach categories is fluid and changing. The young get old, the healthy get sick, people who had money can fall on hard times – and people’s vulnerabilities are often interconnected.

Cooke says: “Our view is that anyone is at risk, so our approach is not to identify certain demographic groups as vulnerable or hard to reach – but to always approach each audience with fresh eyes, and tailor an approach to engagement that best suits them.”

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of Impact.