Image for Market Research Shifts to Online Surveys, Virtual Focus Groups

The COVID pandemic has changed work, shopping and voting patterns. It also has changed the structure of market research.

Quality, reliable research remains as valuable and necessary now as before the pandemic. What’s changed is how research is conducted, moving away from telephone surveys and in-person focus group to real-time digital feedback.

Digital feedback relies on databases rather than randomized samples. Digital analysis moves from tracking emotional responses to observing actual facial expressions and eye movements. Online access has made distance and time irrelevant, while making market research generally less expensive, faster and easier to undertake.

These changes mean research consumers should go back to school for a refresher course, so they understand how these new and emerging techniques work and the kind of information they fetch. Like all research, the devil is in the details. Matching research needs with research techniques is key.

Traditional telephone surveys were hobbled before the pandemic, as people traded in landline phones for mobile phones. The people with landlines installed caller ID to screen annoying dinner-time calls, while mobile phone users simply turn off their ringers and ignore calls.

Even when telephone survey researchers managed to reach their target sample size, they often failed to interview enough political conservatives or conservative-leaning fence-sitters who are skeptical of pollsters and decline interviews. People of color also avoid interviews, sometimes because they work more than one job and don’t have time. Weighting may correct these statistical imbalances, but the absence of these cohorts distorts the texture of the findings.

Online surveys are less intrusive, as respondents can pick when they answer survey questions. Online surveys, especially when visual materials are used, can be more engaging, even for skeptics. Plus, researchers can get away with more questions because online attention spans are slightly longer.

Online research offers other advantages, such as the ability to follow up with respondents based on their responses, which isn’t practical with telephone surveys. A typical pattern is to send an online questionnaire to select respondents to probe the reasoning behind their answer in the original survey. This gives researchers the opportunity to see whether respondents are open to additional information and persuadable.

In-person focus groups suffered because of lockdowns. No one wanted to gather in a small room to talk with strangers while the virus was spreading. The sudden popularity of Zoom and other online meeting platforms made virtual focus groups more achievable and appealing when other forms of social interaction weren’t available.

Online surveys and virtual focus groups existed before the pandemic and benefitted from the social isolation the pandemic caused. People had more time to respond to online surveys and participate in online focus groups. Plus, many people were acclimated to remote work and online interaction. There were fewer inhibitions about discussing issues online, especially minus all the trolling and sniping that abounds on Twitter and Facebook.

An online foundation allowed researchers to employ other digital tools. For years, market researchers have asked focus group participants to register negative or positive reactions on toggling devices as they view TV ads or product demonstrations. Researchers now can take advantage of computer cameras to observe facial expressions and eye movements as participants react to visual media, which can be more reliable reflections of emotional response. Virtual focus groups also can test a larger pool of target audience respondents, regardless of their location.

There are added bonuses using digital research. Digital surveys can go live quickly and capture reasons behind respondents’ answers. Virtual focus groups also can be set up quickly and generate a montage of revealing non-conscious reactions to a new gadget, a TV ad or a controversial issue. Psychology studies indicate 95 percent of brain processing occurs below conscious awareness, which means you can’t always rely on just what people say.

Maybe the greatest advantage of digital research is how it can leverage digital databases. Researchers turn to firms that maintain databases based on publicly available information to conduct traditional surveys and virtual focus groups. They also can tap into customer databases. What digital research can achieve is greater outreach and far larger sample sizes because no phone calls or focus group rooms are needed. Digital research is relatively unencumbered by space and time. It is perfectly suited for database-centered research projects.

All is not lost for traditional research techniques. Personal interviews remain one of the best research tools to gain perspective and context, which can inform a public affairs or community relations plan. Think of a series of one-on-one interviews as conversational research. Personal interviews can be conducted effectively online, with less scheduling hassle and minimal travel time.

Changes in market research shouldn’t obscure the enlarging need to understand how markets are changing because of the pandemic and after the pandemic. Digital market research is perfectly suited to gain a better understanding of e-commerce, for example. As it should, market research is evolving to make greater use of technology, as are the respondents queried by online surveys and virtual focus groups.

As it should, market research is evolving to make greater use of technology, as are the respondents queried by online surveys and virtual focus groups.

Market research firms are adapting like most other businesses and professional services. One of the most interesting adaptations is the emergency of market research networks, with multiple firms teaming up to tackle sprawling projects, yielding even greater sample sizes that increase reliability of results and the opportunity to capture unique insights.

On balance, the changes in market research are for the good. Market research firms are being disrupted, but the innovation that results will be healthy. For savvy market research consumers, that innovation can deliver the answers they need faster and more reliably.