Responsibility and Sensitivity: Research in the Time of Crisis

Christopher Martin

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Christopher Martin

    Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been some fantastic advice published on how to adapt research methodologies to fit into a world adjusting to strict social distancing. I’ve read a good number of reassuring statements and analyses demonstrating how research can continue throughout this challenging time. However, for many, the pertinent question isn’t just if research can continue – but whether it should.  

    Do research activities appear insensitive at a time of crisis? Are brand and commercial interactions important to people at the moment? What sort of messages do research communications send about the approach a company is taking to the situation? These are all questions that are equally valid, and without an easy answer.

    Further complicating matters is how the wider marketing industry is both being impacted and responding to the outbreak. According to data from Marketing Week, 60% of marketers are reviewing budget commitments, while 55% are pausing product and service launches. In the survey of over 800 UK marketers, 39% say their company has already experienced lowered demand for its services, while more than half (61%) expect to see this lowering of demand continue over the next two quarters.

    Tweet from FlexMR Tweet This
    60% marketers predict the COVID-19 crisis will lower demand for services. 55% are pausing product & service launches. Researchers must be adaptable to these changes too.

    It is safe to say that as commercial decisions are put on hold and revenues decline, there will undoubtedly be a knock-on impact which affects the research sector. That leads us onto the first ethical question it is important to examine:

    Should Research Continue?

    The answer, of course, is yes. But with caveats. From a commercial point of view, a reduced number of decisions still means decisions must be made. As product launches and campaigns are postponed, a different set of questions arises. Not driven by planned projects, but by response and reconfiguration.

    To continue business as usual is not an option. The lives of millions have been changed radically in the short term, and likely still by a significant amount in the long run. The virus has impacted our politics, our economy and our social interactions. These are changes that are not going to evaporate overnight. The research teams that will do best during, and after, the pandemic are those that stop and consider the following questions:

    • What do stakeholders and decision makers need to know right now to operate effectively?
    • What will the marketplace look like after the crisis and what does that mean for us?
    • How can research and data add value to the firm’s current operations?

    The second set of caveats to consider are not commercial, but public. Though we have seen a significant amount of evidence that response rates to research are increasing, the motivations and potential vulnerability of participants may be much greater. Unemployment is increasing, tensions are high and social distancing is a difficult adjustment to make. In short, while people may be more willing to take part in research – we should take extra precautions to undertake research in a responsible, sensitive and emotionally intelligent way.

    Responsible, Sensitive Research

    Now, more than ever, it is vital that research is conducted in a way that is in tune with the wider world. The following advice covers topics such as deciding on areas of research, communicating with participants and providing the necessary support to balance business and public interests:

      • Drop the brand tone of voice. There is a time and a place for brand tone of voice, and it is not a global pandemic. In moments like this, communication should be concise, practical and human. Even if just temporarily, researchers must shed two layers of corporate language; first brand tone of voice, and second – business speak. Any level of communication during a crisis should be person-to-person, not business-to-person. Researchers may be accustomed to this practice in qualitative moderation already, but now is the time to expand it to all forms of contact.
      • Carefully consider visual cues. As the old adage goes, an image tells a thousand words. And the right or wrong choice of an image can speak volumes. During any crisis, be sensitive about choice of imagery. At the present time, our team suggest avoiding any visuals that suggests close physical proximity or encourage behaviours that governments & health officials are advising against. It is these small cues that will let participants know if firms are in tune with the gravity of world events or not.
    Tweet from FlexMR Tweet This
    Researching in times of crisis: be sensitive about choice of imagery and visual cues. Ask what message it promotes and whether that promotes the right or wrong behaviour.
    • Be more deliberate. Over the past few years, the research industry has increased automation, speed and efficiency. Modern market research happens fast. But with speed comes repetition, familiarity and standardisation. Those are not qualities that can suffice in a crisis which is changing drastically every day, week and month. Now is the time to slow down and be deliberate with research. Consider each question and each activity. Choose words that send the right messages and focus on quality over quantity.
    • Be open with participants. If researchers question whether or not it is right to continue our activities, it is only natural that participants will too. We must be open with participants about why we are conducting research at this time. Is it so that business can continue once the crisis passes? Is it to help your firm bring new value to customers during the pandemic? Is it to understand the impact the situation will have on your business? Open, honest and clear communication builds trust and reassures participants of your firm’s approach to the crisis.
    • Balance long & short-term activities. There will naturally be fatigue around consumer interest in short term, pandemic related research. Equally, as decisions are put on hold, there is only a finite supply on long-term research that can be conducted. Aim to carefully balance these two interests, so not to burn participants out on repetitive or difficult topics.
    • Brush up on guidance for vulnerable groups. The UK Market Research Society (MRS) highlights that vulnerable groups include those who face a sudden change in circumstances, including: loss of employment or income, bereavement, relationship breakdown, or caring responsibilities. Ensure your team are aware of this, and the recommended practices that the guidance documents suggest. A PDF of the MRS documentation can be found here.

    These six steps should help you navigate the challenge of conducting market research in the time of an unprecedented global crisis. But, as an industry, we are all in this together. If you have advice, best practices or recommendations on how to conduct research in an ethical, sensitive and responsible manner during these difficult times – I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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