Should you be fielding research during the Covid-19 pandemic?
There's a general sense that now is a terrible time to conduct research, but this is an overreaction. Continuing to field selective research studies can help marketers stay on top of consumer needs of the present, but also help keep their previously planned initiatives on track and be ready as we recover.

I have been getting a lot of questions lately about whether it is appropriate to be running survey research right now during the coronavirus pandemic that is meant to help with business decisions for “normal” times. There’s a general sense that now is a terrible time to do research, and I see a lot of companies dropping their research initiatives. However, I think this is an overreaction, and in this blog post I’m going to layout some guidelines to help you identify which types of research you should avoid and which types you should feel comfortable with. First, let’s talk about the risks of both postponing and conducting the research.

Risks of Postponing the Research

Most people are thinking of the risks of conducting research right now, but don’t forget there are also risks associated with postponing your research. If you have initiatives that depend on the research, you’re going to want to ramp those up as quickly as possible when the business climate is right, and skipping the research will cause future delays. Not only that, your competition is probably sitting on their hands right now, so keeping your marketing planning and research moving will give you a competitive advantage as we pull out of the pandemic.

Another consideration is that we could be in this situation for some time, so depending on your business it may make sense to research the current environment. Small, quick, agile studies can help you understand changing attitudes and behavior in these unusual and challenging times. As an example, we’re currently working with a pizza chain to test a wide variety of promotions through a conjoint model, which they will use to optimize their takeout and delivery offers right now.

Risks of Conducting the Research Now

The general concerns of conducting research during a holiday or after an unusual event such as this, is whether you can reach the right people and whether their mindset will skew results. Often during a holiday for example, response rates decline so there is a risk that your sample won’t be representative.  In addition, those that answer could have holiday events on their mind which could impact results. In our current situation however, having everyone at home makes it a great time to reach people. People have more time on their hands now and it’s likely that this will improve response rates.

B-to-B research is a bit more questionable and will depend on the line of work. For white collar jobs, people are accessing their work emails at home, but those that rely on being at their work facility may be more of a challenge.  Consider your sample sources.  Online access panels typically use people’s personal emails, so this source of sample should not give you any problems for B-to-B targets.  However, if you’re working with work phone numbers or emails, it could be more of an issue. Discuss these issues with your research or sample partner.

OK, so we’ve established that people are available, but what about the psychological skews from the pandemic that could affect your research? To address, this I see two key considerations:

  1. The types of products/services you’re researching and the research topics
  2. The types of research you’re conducting

Let’s start with point #1 above. If the studied product or service is directly impacted by the pandemic, such as toilet paper or hand sanitizer, then there’s absolutely a strong risk of getting abnormal opinions about your research topic. I think there’s a general feeling from a lot of marketers that all categories fall into this problem, but I would disagree. For example, what if your product category is furniture, or personal tech, or soda? Do you feel you have a different opinion about the Coke brand right now than you did a month ago? I doubt it.

It’s true there could be some subconscious impact that you are not aware of that could alter your opinions slightly about certain brands.  For example, behavioral economics has shown us that people tend to be risk averse in general, and we developed that trait as a matter of survival. During a natural disaster, I could see it being possible that we become even more risk averse but it’s not clear how that would affect our affinity for certain brands or products.  For example, does it make us more likely to select brands we trust and not take a chance on new brands we’ve never heard of? Very possibly.  However, I wouldn’t kill all research initiatives for fear of this. You will need to use judgment as the impact will be a sliding scale, with directly impacted categories like toilet paper on the high-risk side, packaged food products probably in the middle, and un-impacted products on the low-risk side.

Higher Risk Studies to Avoid

The second key factor to consider is the type of research you are conducting. The highest risk types of studies are going to be those that are trying to predict purchase behavior, such as concept testing or those that simulate shopping behavior like conjoint/choice modeling, and those measuring price sensitivity. You might be fine if you have what we explained above to be a low-risk category or service. But, if you have a moderate to high risk category, any research you conduct now could be skewed. This only is a problem of course if you’re trying to use the research to model behavior outside of the pandemic – if you want to know how people are reacting right now then you have no issue.

Other types of higher risk research would likely fall into strategic research studies where you’re trying to assess your consumers’ attitudes, and you plan to use this to set-up your marketing strategy for the next 1-3 years, such as a market segmentation study, needs assessments, and some attitude and usage research. These also tend to be bigger, more expensive studies which adds to the risk factor.

Lower Risk Studies to Consider

Although strategic research may be higher risk, I think many forms of tactical research has much lower risk of being skewed due to the pandemic:

  • For example, studies where you are testing different executions and are looking for the best alternative like packaging, messaging, or positioning, for low to moderate risk categories.
  • Awareness and usage research and tracking studies could be fine depending on the category.
  • Feature optimization, customer satisfaction, product testing, home usage tests all could be perfectly fine for low to moderate risk categories.

Hopefully this post gives you some guidelines to help you decide whether to conduct your research initiatives in the current environment. Don’t turn a blind eye just because of the situation. Many studies are perfectly appropriate to be running right now, and if you do, when we come out of this, you’ll be that much ahead of your competition who are probably sitting on their hands right now.

About the Author

Rob Riester is Founder and Partner of Peel Research Partners, Inc, a market research firm. Rob leads market research engagements to help companies effectively manage risk and make better business decisions. Find out more about Peel Research Partners