OPINION8 September 2020

How Covid-19 has reset the insight function

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The market research sector has been at the heart of Covid-19. Not just in terms of reporting on the fast moving impact of the pandemic on consumers; client organisations and agencies have also been very much impacted by the economic and public health implications. The MRS Delphi group set out to examine the issues that Covid-19 has created for the research industry, talking to a range of key decision makers, including Vodaphone, eBay and BT. Chair of the group Colin Strong pulls out some of the highlights from the report.


The impact of Covid-19 on the businesses we spoke to for our report was rapid and significant. It was quickly apparent that carefully made plans for 2020 were simply no longer relevant and that a fundamental re-appraisal needed to be made, requiring a great deal of time and focus. The longer term impacts and emerging recession suggest that we need to think carefully about the emerging themes and how best to respond. 

The MRS Delphi Group report ‘Fast-forwarding research’ makes key recommendations to help ensure insight teams and research suppliers are focused on radically different businesses challenges. The practical implications will be explored at a webinar on 29 September with speakers from Tesco, Aviva, Ipsos and Neuro-Insight. You can register for the free webinar here.

The immediate impact

The immediate impact of Covid-19 on the research sector is quickly becoming apparent, but it is worth summarising the points we observed in our conversations with decision makers:

  •         Budget pressure is creating fundamental budget challenges: There have been very direct impacts on budgets with many (but clearly not all) reporting that their budgets have been seriously eroded. As is clear from the reporting here on Research Live, Covid-19 has created a massive budget challenge which has filtered through to research agencies.
  •         Impact on research methods has been comprehensive: The research industry has had to act very quickly.  At the most extreme, face-to-face interviewing was suddenly halted in line with government regulations concerning social distancing (although this is now restarting). There is a lot of admiration and praise for agencies that have acted quickly to move methods online and there has been excitement about the adoption of new tools. 
  •         Reporting on Covid-19: It was generally recognised that there has been a huge effort by the industry to report on the impact of Covid-19 on the general population. Many of these were found to be hugely useful but the enthusiastic response of the research industry also resulted in an over-supply and, at times, variable quality. 
  •         Speed and agility: Perhaps it’s not surprising that speed and agility are mentioned, but Covid-19 has clearly put even more pressure to deliver insights in a yet more agile and fast manner to meet increased demands for insights in a rapidly evolving situation.
  •         Risk: There is a strong sense that the actions a client organisation takes with its customers now can have long term reverberations; when combined with uncertainty about how to act in a novel situation, this is a risky situation for any organisation. 
  •         Long-term trusted relationships: Trust in supplier relationships was a consistent theme in the client interviews we conducted. Clients would often report on focusing spend with their trusted partners to help maintain the working relationships, as they felt this was critical for their businesses.

Overall there was a strong sense that the research industry has often risen to the challenge and indeed there is an increased recognition with many of the stakeholders for research that it is more important than ever. 

Practical implications

We cannot understand different groups in society if they are not properly represented in our industry. Many felt that despite efforts having been made, there was much work to be done in terms of diversity and inclusion.   

A rapidly changing novel environment that Covid-19 places us in means we can find ourselves in an environment where we have little data or historical precedent to fall back on. The triangulating of insights from a range of different data sources will become more important than ever.

Linked to this is the need for agile judgement; there is real demand for the experience, judgement and expertise of people to be able to use data in an intelligent and wise manner. Speed is not simply a matter of data collection but the ability to rapidly detect patterns and insights from data sets that are necessarily less robust or comprehensive than we would usually want them to be. 

Taken together, there is a sense by which winners will be those that not only gather data carefully and comprehensively but are able to seek out signals from a variety of more tenuous data sources and then, importantly, make sense of them. Expertise borne of embedded long-term relationships is likely to be critical in this new rapidly changing environment.

Concluding thoughts

There’s a lot in this report that should interest and concern suppliers and users of consumer insight. Too much to summarise here, so I do urge you to read the report.

While change is inevitable, we simply do not know what shape it will take and as we move towards huge markers such as massive calls for social justice and BLM, Brexit, the US elections...the reality is that we simply cannot predict.

But what we do know is that research is needed; we need data that is both collected routinely and consistently but we also need data that is necessarily light touch, to detect those early signals. And above all, we can see that we need the research industry to bake agile expertise into delivery to make sense of this all for our clients and stakeholders.

Download the report

Download the full report ‘Fast-forwarding Research: How Covid-19 has reset the customer insight function'.

Join a webinar with Tesco, Aviva, Ipsos and Neuro-Insight

On 29 September, clients and agencies will discuss the outcomes of this report and the practical implications for the sector, with case studies from Tesco, Aviva and Neuro-Insight. The webinar is free for MRS members and company partners, £25 for non-members. You can register for the webinar here.