OPINION7 May 2020

It’s mad to ditch qual research right now

Covid-19 Opinion

While Covid-19 presents some difficulties for researchers, in many ways there has never been a better moment to conduct qual, writes Peter Fenton-O'Creevy.

Research agencies are reporting that a lot of clients have pulled their qualitative research projects, mostly because of two key concerns:

  • Will people’s reactions be ‘normal’ at the moment and will they still hold true in the future?
  • If you can’t do it face-to-face, will it work?

I’ll come back to those in a moment, but first let’s just focus on the other part of the picture, the part it seems is being missed at the moment: in many ways there has never been a better time to run qual research.

Most of the time, consumers do things on autopilot: they buy the same things in the same way because they lack the time, energy or perceived need to change their behaviour.

Right now, the opposite is true. They can’t find everything they usually buy, so they’re making substitutions and are more open to buying in new product categories. A large proportion have more time on their hands, which impacts on what and how they cook as well as how they shop, so shopping is more mindful. Consumers are reflecting more not just on what they are doing but why, making it easier to get a detailed understanding.

Consumers are also happier to give more time to research right now. This is fantastic for methodologies with extended periods of engagement. People are spending more time on tasks and, importantly, more time and thought on feeding back to us.

But are these thoughts and reactions affected by the bizarre circumstances we find ourselves in?  Will marketing or comms concerns seem trivial by comparison to what the world is going through? Well, experience suggests not.

The circumstances people are responding to have changed, but this hasn’t fundamentally changed human nature or the way consumers operate. They are still engaging in the same ways with great advertising. Good packaging still draws their eye and frames their expectations in the same way. They are still happy to talk about these things. They know there are bigger issues in the world, but it was ever thus.

In the projects we and many others have been running, the pandemic doesn’t impinge on our discussions with respondents because it generally isn’t pertinent to their rational and emotional responses to, say, a new comms strategy.

Of course, there’s a different set of questions around ‘can they tell us how they’ll really act in the future when they don’t know the shape of that future?’ For sure, qual is not a crystal ball – nor is any other kind of research. But that’s not to say there aren’t very important pointers out there. 

Many things are still in flux, but some mindset changes have already happened. Some of these are connected to changes in their underlying world view, and for that reason, seem highly likely to persist. The new reality will take some time to fully coalesce, but that doesn’t mean it will all happen at once. Some aspects are already solidifying. Early access to these types of insights is clearly advantageous.

In times of change it’s not certainties that start to emerge, but rather an array of potentialities. Consumers know what they feel now but not what influences they might come under as we move forward.

For example, there’s been a reconnection to family activities: playing games together, cycling, going for walks etc. Many parents want to hold on to this, but they know when things get busy again it’ll become more difficult. They hope they’ll do it, but they don’t know for sure. So there’s a window of opportunity for sporting brands to help solidify the intent, but that window won’t last forever.

Now is a time of reassessment and re-evaluation for consumers and that makes it the perfect time to get into their heads; to help shape the new consumer reality rather than waiting for it to emerge and then adapting. Qual is in a unique position to help identify which levers to pull.

Can we, though, get the same level of insight when all qual is confined to online? Well, there are some research topics where face-to-face is simply superior, for sure. But that is far from true for everything. There are others where online is actually preferable.

In between the two extremes there’s a significant area where face-to-face might be the natural choice, but with care and the skilful deployment of a range of different online and other remote techniques, we can still engage with consumers very effectively. This includes a range of approaches which allow us to better engage with consumers in the moment, as they go about their day.  

Yes, there are some challenges to running qual research right now, but there are significant advantages too. The big question is: do you want to create the new rules of the game, or to play by them once they are set?

Peter Fenton-O’Creevy is founding director at Folk

1 Comment

5 months ago  |  1 like

Well said Peter. It's time to stop panicking, or waiting to see what the 'new normal' (ugh) looks like, and just get on with it. People will remember brands that talk to them in this period, and stick with them as we come out of it. And as for 'you can't do qual' at the moment: where have you all been for the past 5 years, we've been using quicker and better digital approaches for a long time now. Firefish, like Folk, is very much open for business.

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