14 Jun 2021 17:43 IST

What the pandemic taught us about market research

Online research is a mixed bag. It offers a wider sample size but restricts access to those with smartphones

The pandemic has, in many cases, taught us lessons that we may not forget easily. For example, the importance of hygiene and health. Or how to do business differently. So let us look at some of these lessons in the market research domain, too.

Researchers need to adapt to using technology, impersonally and from a distance, for much of their research. When family and close friends are supposed to maintain a distance, it is hard to imagine a stranger being welcomed by respondents. Doing research impersonally may become the norm, and may pose a bit of a problem. For instance, not being able to observe the body language of the respondents during an interview. But there are cost advantages in online interviews, and the feature to record the interview is an added benefit. A tech platform that enables live video fares well compared to email responses as it allows the researcher the opportunity to verify the identity of the respondents. This brings more credibility to the recorded responses.

Also, the recording obviates the need for a cross-check to prevent fudging by investigators and clients, as they get to see some of these interview recordings, increasing their faith in the results obtained from the research. For cost reasons, countries like the US rely on the internet and the telephone for a long time, despite the associated problems. Maybe in India too, we will have to make peace with it.

This makes the use of technology for primary research become pervasive, or at least, more frequent. Just like working from home has become.

Increased reliance on secondary sources for data

Market research has always relied more on primary research. But post-pandemic, the reliance on industry reports and newspaper reports in the area of research may increase. Though we did use secondary data even earlier, it was mainly to provide a starting point for primary research in most cases, or as providing a background. But due to the difficulty in accessing respondents, we may see a lot more reliance on secondary data. Of course, these have to be credible sources. In turn, companies providing such data may likely turn to a subscription model even if they do not currently need a subscription. From the researcher’s point of view, the ability to identify good secondary sources of data may turn out to be critical.

Sampling limitations

Market research depends a lot on unbiased sampling and retaining authenticity. A valid sample is usually assured through defining the population correctly and selecting respondents randomly according to a pre-designed plan.

The first problem when using technology-based primary research is that of a bias towards those who own either a laptop or have access to one. If not a laptop, they must at least have a smartphone capable of participating in an online survey or an in-depth interview. Getting consent may become more difficult, for synchronous access, like a video call using Zoom. In traditional research, you could go knocking on doors selected randomly, at your convenience. Finding a substitute was also easier, in traditional sampling, door-to-door.

Snowball sampling — getting a reference from one respondent to find the next one — may also pose problems, as people may be relatively more reluctant to refer friends because of suspicions that come with an unfamiliar researcher.

Planning your sample will have to take these issues into account. Some populations will still need personal interviews done in a traditional format, if they have no access to digital media — rural, illiterate, or tech-averse ones, for example.

Panel research, a serious contender

For both qualitative and quantitative research, market researchers may rely on large consumer panels or data banks. And international research may become easier if some way of accessing a sample can be found. Drawing a fresh sample is a costly affair, and with panels, the cost of interviewing people across geographies, even within India may reduce, if panels are recruited for various contingencies and segments. Some businesses such as freelance writing and tutoring already work through global intermediaries.

Maybe databases (phone numbers or email IDs) of willing participants from multiple countries will gain prominence, with paid access, through intermediaries. This already happens in internet-based online research. Academic researchers have already begun using such databases for their sampling, across countries, depending on which population segments they want to sample from.

Data can also be culled from social media pages of consumers, or brand communities, through programmes written for the purpose. Though it is restricted to people active on social media, it could be integrated into some parts of the research.

Validation will remain critical

For reasons mentioned above, validating that the sample is representative of the defined population for a study will remain an issue. Pilots can always serve as a precautionary first step, just like in traditional primary research studies. With questionnaires, or instruments being simplified for an online study (through video calls or otherwise), it could become easier to get these faces validated by experts. They can also be pre-tested on relevant populations, as is done now, though the medium or technology for doing so may change.

Multi-method studies (a larger study using technology, with a smaller sample for validation in person) may also come into vogue, given the difficulties in meeting people physically/in person. There is value in a personal interview done physically, so it could be used as a validating measure with a smaller sample, instead of being the first, or only, choice.

(The writer is Director, NMIMS Bengaluru.)