OPINION4 May 2021

How Covid-19 accelerated the digitalisation of research

Covid-19 Opinion Trends UK

The pandemic has forced many people to change behaviour and switch to online purchasing and services. Louise Leitsch argues researchers should follow suit.


The last 12 months have been characterised by significant behavioural changes in almost every aspect of life. As people have spent a year indoors, more people are embracing the digital landscape whether that’s online grocery shopping or even buying cars online. Therefore, it’s only fitting that the UK census was carried out entirely digitally for the first time, truly entering the modern day.

Where some industries have had to pivot quickly and perhaps feared the reduction in face-to-face contact, research is an area that should be completely geared towards fitting into our increasingly-digital lives. As we conduct more of our daily activities via our phone, be it ordering a taxi, getting a takeaway or even seeing a doctor, it makes sense that the research sector should also adjust accordingly.

The fact that digital methods are also faster and cheaper means that customer-centric brands can carry out market research more often – which we understand to be hugely beneficial at times like this when attitudes and behaviours are shifting at rapid pace. Through our own research that we’ve been conducting every month since last spring, we are only too aware of the quickly-changing views on topics from buying behaviours, vaccine fears and general wellbeing. And it’s been fascinating.


The UK is now ahead of other European countries in conducting its census digitally. In Germany, for example, they’ve postponed the research until 2022, giving themselves more time to adopt digital market-research technology. The ease of completing the census questionnaire online, paired with the prospect of a £1,000 fine for not participating, has no doubt helped in ensuring a very high completion rate.

For research companies to adjust to a more digital-first approach, it’s important to consider that 84% of UK adults own a smartphone, clocking an average of more than two hours of screentime every day. Staggeringly, there are some studies that conclude that more people have mobile phones than toothbrushes. Covid-19 has accentuated this – people are using their smartphones more than before and market research needs to reflect this.

The growth of mobile phones has occurred alongside the slow death of the landline phone, and the method of ringing individual people’s homes to ask them questions now feels incredibly archaic. Embracing digital has made it far easier to reach people in a way that doesn’t feel intrusive. The ease of logging onto the native environment of an app or your laptop where you get a gamified and fun experience is likely to lead to more attentive, honest results and is ultimately far more intuitive as it incorporates our natural everyday behaviours. Whereas traditional market-research methods, which are usually carried out in a more artificial environment, open the door to increased biases in the data, as participants are more aware of their choice to participate in the survey.

Generation Z

We’ve now reached a point where the GenZ generation has grown up with technology ingrained into most aspects of their lives, be it for education, entertainment or socialising. So it’s the optimum time for market-research companies to ensure they have properly embraced digital tools that can reflect this.

The younger generation have traditionally been a tough group to capture but are, arguably, the most important as they tend to be the most impressionable members of society – they are the age group whose behaviours are most likely to change in response to a new product or service.

As a result, the ‘mobile first’ trend is perfectly suited to this. A simple push notification can nudge them into logging on to an intuitive, well-designed and easy-to-use app on their smartphones and simply share and compare their opinions. Of course, there will always be  offered incentives like leveling up and getting rewards that should be personalised and aligned with each users’ interests, but it can also just be a process that is a bit more fun and something to pass the time, instead of playing Candy Crush.

As a result of intrinsic motivation as a driver of participation, we see higher quality data as participants don’t see surveys as a means to an end. Ultimately, this has informalised the process of conducting market research and has increased the quality of the data itself. Failing to leverage mechanisms that lead to intrinsic motivation for participation in research risks poor responses, dishonest answers and higher dropout rates.

Despite a year of unbelievable turmoil and disruption, the digital acceleration caused by the pandemic will ultimately benefit the market research industry. Society, especially young people, have been shifting towards a digital-first world over the past decade. Capitalising on smartphone tech and GenZ’s willingness to engage with this is crucial in achieving quality results at a much faster pace and lower cost than ever before. It will be interesting to see how quickly the landscape adapts.

Louise Leitsch is head of research consulting at Appinio.