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Pandemic and paradigm shift: defining a market research strategy for the COVID-19 era

It is an awkward time for market research. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force massive shifts in lived experiences and market behavior, market researchers are grappling with uncertainty around research priorities and data capture best practices. For example, market researchers may be asking:

Researchers might be tempted to pause data collection until the economy returns to “normal” after national Stay at Home orders have ended. However, that could be a mistake and would only add to uncertainty around consumer needs and preferences. And perhaps, there’s less uncertainty than you think.

Epidemiologic and economic models are used by policy makers to make decisions about how to respond to the virus. They can also help market researchers think strategically about research plans.

What do we know from current models?

Market researchers must accept that this is not a pre-coronavirus vs. post-coronavirus situation. The virus and associated economic impacts will ebb and flow. It will flare up in different regions and then go away, then come back. The virus is expected to be circulating in the global population for at least 18 months, the soonest that a vaccine might be developed. Epidemiologists have recommended gradual easing of restrictions like “Stay at Home” and “social distancing,” and some countries and regions are opening up more quickly than others.

When it comes to economic impacts, a global recession could be experienced as a “V-shaped,” relatively quick economic upset, in which it bounces back to previous levels. Or it could be experienced as a “U-shaped” or “L-shaped” trajectory where the economy doesn’t return to how it performed before COVID-19. Economies around the world will react differently and will likely go into and out of production as the virus flares.

There are strategic and tactical next steps that researchers should undertake based on considerations of these models.

Immediate Concerns

  1. Be sensitive in viral hot spots.

Market researchers should be extremely sensitive about data collection in hot spots, particularly in the United States and Europe. In the United States, hot spots like New York City and Seattle have come under control, but smaller cities and rural areas are now seeing a rise in cases.

Be mindful of new hot spots that emerge. Any request for information should acknowledge this environment directly. Pause research about behaviors that require leaving the house. Most obviously, be aware when the death tolls are expected to rise in certain areas and don't ask painful or triggering questions in those periods.

  1. Don’t overtax health care providers in hot spots.

Health care providers will be overtaxed in hot spot areas as they emerge. Pause data collection with this population unless your pulse is essential to the management of COVID-19 or their well-being.

However, it is not a good idea to pause data collection with other populations. As people's behaviors and priorities change, regular and frequent data collection will provide insights into how your business can provide support in times of need and refine strategy for the duration of COVID-19.

Long-range Considerations

  1. Maintain or start continuous data collection.

Don't assume that people will be back to normal this spring and summer. Plan for long-term constraints on purchase behavior and mobility outside the home. Despite what you might think, it's a great time to start an opinion (e.g., brand) tracker, as long as you approach it with a sensitive mindset and genuine concern for your customers and markets. It will be the best way for companies to assess the impacts of social and economic changes on their market. The sooner research gets in the field, the better organizations can understand the impact of these ongoing fluctuations and how to tailor their messages and offerings in response.

  1. Avoid strategic market research, and focus instead on short-range tactics designed to measure change.

Now is likely not the time to conduct a market segmentation, competitive landscape analysis, or long-range product innovation research. Instead, focus on introducing trackers or retooling existing research to monitor fluctuations in perceptions. For example, use an attitudes and usage study to gauge how consumer priorities may be changing. Or conduct message testing and ad effectiveness testing to better understand the types of messages and tone that resonate in this new environment.

The Takeaway

We’re in the era of COVID-19 and will be in it for a while. Market research should of course reflect the appropriate tone, and market researchers ought to maintain investment in periodic data collection to understand customers’ new priorities. But beyond that, market researchers can and should incorporate pandemic forecasting into their overall strategy. Such forecasts continue to shift rapidly as new data becomes available; a few sources that are updated regularly include:

A failing market research strategy would be to focus on planning for an economic bounce back; on the other hand, a research strategy that accepts and responds to ongoing economic fluctuations can help organizations more nimbly navigate the coming change.

If you have questions about your immediate research plans or long-range research strategy, Qualtrics’ Research Services team can help. You can also find more information on how Qualtrics is helping organizations navigate and respond to the unfolding COVID-19 situation at

Upcoming webinar: COVID-19 resilience in market research

Elizabeth Dean // Senior XM Scientist

Elizabeth Dean is a senior experience management (XM) scientist with 20+ years of designing and leading research for commercial, academic, and government customers. Her expertise is in survey and market research design, UX research, brand health, technology adoption and cross-cultural research. She is passionate about designing questionnaires, contact strategies, and experience management tools that reduce respondent burden and simplify the data capture process. Liz has published research in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Military Psychology, and Social Science Computer Review, and co-edited the book Social Media, Sociality and Survey research, published in 2013 by Wiley Press.

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