The Show Must Go On: Consumer Research During Difficult Times

Navigating the COVID-19 situation has proved to dramatically shift the daily lives of entire countries. The COVID-19 pandemic evolves at a rapid pace with the uncertainty of when the outbreak will abate, resulting in a lot of unrest. Job security, travel restrictions and mandatory lockdowns are just some of the variables impacting daily life. For the latest updates regarding COVID-19, please consult the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO) and local government websites as recommendations will vary by location. While the safety of employees, recruiters, researchers and participants is at the utmost importance, the health of many companies is also suffering. Market research must reposition and adapt to the current status of restrictions and limitations set forth by government officials. To help alleviate the outbreak spread, new efforts can be put forth to keep the health and safety of all individuals who contribute to research at the forefront of planning. Conducting research does not have to cease, but it absolutely must evolve to appropriately respond to the current environment.

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The New York Times

We must take steps to flatten the curve.   

At the same time, it is also important to us, as an innovative research supplier, to look for ways to continue to meet client and industry needs. Below we will discuss the steps HCD is taking to accommodate our research during this difficult time as discussed on our webinar on March 19, 2020.

A Solutions-Based Approach

With almost thirty years of experience in the market research industry, HCD has been around the block and has learned that accommodating during hard times is necessary. During times of crisis or economic turmoil, such as 9/11, company and consumer moods change drastically. Companies look inward to advance, while the focus on target markets diminishes. Precipitous change forces a shift in product positioning to meet the needs of the environment.

In 2001, examples of adaptability were shown in the increase of tele-web and telephone interviews. Any hesitation to incorporating internet usage in the job market faded as it was a useful way to modify services while still performing. Similar responses occurred during the market crash of 2008, where companies reflected on consumer attitudes and adapted to the new perspectives. Consumer confidence declined causing companies to reposition and rebuild trust. To continue to innovate, challenging times promote partnerships, collaboration and discussion. Our research works to select optimal methodologies appropriate for each unique research question. By diversifying in client base and services, HCD can match the demands of the environment while producing quality research. We flourish in hard times by working together towards new and exciting opportunities to advance. 

Start from the Ground Up

The safety of our employees, partners, clients and research participants is of the first and foremost importance. Doing a wellness check on research partners, employees, clients and research participants is crucial in times of distress to act as a gentle reminder that their health will always remain a main concern. We encourage efforts which help minimize the spread of the virus, such as practicing social distancing, self-isolating after travel for at least 14 days, limiting nonessential travel, avoiding large crowds, keeping up with hand hygiene and disinfecting common surfaces. Hashtags like #JustStayHome and #FlattenTheCurve are circulating on news and social media platforms to encourage behavioral change, spread awareness about ways to stop the virus from propagating and ultimately diminish the demands on the healthcare system. Converting in-person meetings to virtual meetings is an easy alternative that reflects how the wellbeing of teammates, clients and their families is a top priority. 

In-Person Fielding

As news of COVID-19 increased and the threat became more real, HCD responded by remaining flexible in the ever-changing climate. Questions about travel, illness or illness exposure were incorporated into the participant screening criteria, while also including day-of calls to ensure that no additional symptoms developed since being screened. As seen in many industries, HCD eased cancellation policies over concerns regarding the virus to contribute to minimizing the contact and spread. Additionally, sanitization stations and providing PPE (personal protective equipment) were very important for research that continued.

HCD employs physiological tools, such as fEMG, GSR and HR, which require in-person contact. Projects involving this type of research needed to change. While the equipment and surfaces are disinfected regularly as part of the protocol, it was important to reinforce these habits during this time to provide comfort to participants by showingthem how we were protecting them. Additionally, protective gear, such as gloves or masks, was available to individuals attending on-site research during the original discussions around COVID-19.

Technicians were also briefed on other physiological considerations that the toll of COVID-19 may have on participants. Part of technician training involves knowing how to navigate the conversations with a participant to help the participant reach a stable baseline. Emotional contagions, like a calm voice, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to help it adjust to the dynamic of the environment. However, anxieties during trying times may elevate stress levels which could result in a moving baseline. While it is healthy (and actually a great immune booster) to have inflections throughout the day, reporting on a participant in a prolonged agitated state will not provide strong findings. If a participant arrived in a prolonged agitated state, the technician may have decided to not include that individual in the study.

HCD and our clients were consistently reevaluating the situation to make changes as necessary. Rightfully postponing or reassessing methodologies for online capabilities guaranteed the safety of all members involved in the research. Even in the current landscape surrounding COVID-19, as lockdowns emerge, HCD seeks out ways to evolve and elevate research designs while complying with the recommendations of our public health organizations.

Very Virtual

Remaining flexible is a key component to adjusting to the climate while still providing great research alternatives. Postponing in-person research or using online forums are ways to discourage unnecessary contact. The growth in discussions and innovations will allow market research to accommodate client services while still providing high quality research. 

Understanding and analyzing how a consumer responds, perceives and evaluates a stimulus is imperative in gaining actionable findings. HCD integrates traditional, psychological and psychophysiological tools to give value to the research by matching the right tools with the right question. Remote traditional research can be designed with the following:    

  • IDI (In-depth Interviews): Digital work, such as video streaming, is an effective method to convert to a no-contact research approach while still gaining in-depth responses. Moderators can connect with participants in remote places to conduct in-depth interviews or focus groups. Furthermore, videos of the interviews (with the proper consent forms) may be recorded for later review. Streaming services frequently provide features, such as chatrooms, for clients to communicate directly with the moderator or members of the market research team while the interviews are being conducted. Also, the client can curate potential questions for the moderator to utilize in the interview in real-time by taking advantage of the chatroom.
  • MaxDiff: MaxDiff is a forced choice method allowing the researchers to determine ranked priorities. Consumer buying behaviors shift during times of crisis, giving companies an opportunity to reevaluate and learn about the new preferences. Catering to these changes quickly is both comforting and beneficial to the consumer, while helping products or communications improve.

Comprehensive research may include gaining more insight into research questions through employing behaviorally driven exploration such as:  

  • Behavioral Coding: Usability projects, such as website design, can also use screen sharing or screen recording methodologies to learn about consumer computer behaviors. Observing the user experience without interrupting it promotes a more naturalistic experience, thus showing how consumers interact with specific exposures. Furthermore, HCD can provide diagnostic suggestions backed by behavioral economics to help guide the consumer to better interact with the stimulus design.
  • Eye Tracking:  Learning about the visual attention of a consumer gives insight into where the person is looking, ultimately detecting areas of interest or places or components lacking fixations. Print ads, messaging, websites and video advertisements benefit by analyzing the outputs of eye tracking, such as heatmaps.

Furthermore, psychological tools can measure emotion virtually through a large sample size of a target demographic.  

  • Implicit Testing: Consumers are learning to adapt to the current environment, which ultimately affects future purchases. By following consumer associations, companies can gauge how to innovate for the normative needs. Detecting the strength of automatic associations between words and stimuli via this timed reaction test can help reveal perceptions of brands, concepts and product experiences. Unlike the traditional check-all-that-apply (CATA) and scale questions, IAT differentiates the strength of each attribute.
    • Merging MaxDiff with implicit testing is a powerful combination that can be conducted completely remotely. Comparing the highest priority concepts to the association strengths of the product reveals the congruency of the product meeting the expectations of the consumer and possible improvement innovation opportunities.
  • Self-Assessment Manikin (SAM): The intensity of the different underlying dimensions of pleasure, arousal and dominance are measured in this non-verbal pictorial assessment. The three dimensions map out a participant’s response to a product without concerns regarding language barriers, making widespread research very accessible with this measure.
    • Furthermore, HCD offers a virtual version of the patented Mood Map (U.S. Pat. No. 10,430,810). Mood Map LITE uses the numerical dimensions of SAM to concisely summarize the tested experience. Mood Map LITE is a remote and cost-effective way to determine levels of emotional and perceptual congruency. 

Times are Changing

During this period of disruption, companies can reconnect with target demographics to better understand consumers. Use this time to explore the market space- try to investigate target consumers with fresh methodologies to learn the language, trends and associations tied to products. Identifying the unmet needs of the market by reconnoitering routines via qualitative research will allow for productive product developments, updated communications, and ultimately, workplace success.

Companies can revisit and review the habits of consumers by learning about the new necessities as the world continues to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances. HCD assisted in creating consumer technical models with the tools measured throughout this blog to understand behavior and gain information about inconveniences that can be improved upon through innovation. Innovation and adaptability occur out of necessity for growth. Challenging times are wonderful opportunities to build partnerships, overcome obstacles and learn through experiences together. While the COVID-19 pandemic is uncharted territory, HCD is committed to supporting our employees, clients and partnerships. The company’s diligence in producing quality research to serve a global market has historically aided in streamlining powerful market research tools. The inevitable changes and limitations which result from COVID-19 may provide the foundation for collaborations or ideas to aid the market research field in continuous progress. If you are interested in starting a conversation with our team about overcoming challenges of the current marketing place, please contact Allison Gutkowski at Allison.Gutkowski@hcdi.net.