How COVID-19 is busting research myths

Mary Winter
By Mary Winter | 4 June 2020
Mary Winter

During COVID-19, qualitative researchers have been forced to move exclusively to online research challenging the notion that face-to-face research is superior. Principals insights director Mary Winter says a new confidence in online research is emerging that may change qualitative research for good.

There are few industries that have not been disrupted by COVID-19 and research is certainly in the mix. With people unable to attend focus groups during the pandemic and researchers unable to visit people’s homes, much of the process has shifted online.

There’s long been a perception that online research doesn’t cut the mustard quite like in- person methodologies. But in many cases, this is actually a myth. And this isn’t the only misconception COVID-19 is about to change for the profession and its approaches.

Myth One: online research is not as sensitive as face-to-face
Before COVID-19, it was believed that understanding inarticulable notions such as brand personality, communication nuances or voice required face-to-face research. Online research was seen as creating emotional ‘distance’.

Running a group in a group facility has, for many years, been the commodity through which research has traded. Before we had Zoom, it was the only way a marketer could physically see and hear their consumers. However, it was never truly authentic. Consumers sit around a table (akin to a boardroom table) with a group of strangers and tolerate the feeling of being stared at through a mirror. The group room means the social ‘contract’ of a meeting is established, where people subconsciously obey rules like speaking up, waiting your turn, listening to others and paying attention. It is a very structured environment.

CV-19 has shown us that people act differently in the comfort of their own homes. These environments are natural to them and they relax. Relaxing makes a big difference. It means people move from System Two thinking (rational) to System One thinking (irrational) faster and reveal what’s going on at a deeper level. This means we are just as capable of achieving a holistic response online, in fact, it may be even better.

Myth two: city-based samples are mostly good enough
Over the years, researchers have narrowed the geographic pool of qualitative research for logistical and cost reasons, concentrating mainly on inviting people in Sydney and Melbourne. A large percentage of the population live in urban areas along the eastern seaboard, so we concentrated there.

We also conducted research in central locations because it was the easiest way to draw people from a diverse cross section of suburbs. Regional centres popped up occasionally if it was important but rarely, if ever, would we talk to more rural or remote participants.

In reality, Australian culture is diverse across geography. The regions are interesting and colourful with different needs and challengers. Since I have been conducting research online during CV-19, I have spoken with a much more diverse range of people including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities in remote Australia and well as regional areas in WA and SA.

This has fundamentally changed the findings of the research as people in these regions will naturally have a different take on issues than inner city dwellers.

The reality is, online research offers the chance to get a more rounded picture of the market. During CV-19, we are all learning that there is a bigger, richer world from which to be inspired.

Myth three: being face-to-face makes ethnography better
Researchers have been moving to in-home immersions to try and deal with some of the artificiality of the group room and to absorb cultural influences. We have taken photos and videos and interpreted consumer worlds. Researcher-led observation has been considered important from an analysis point of view – we know best what to look for and what it means.

However, researchers conducting face-to-face ethnography can have limitations. Firstly, we are constrained by time.

Sometimes what was an ethnographic session just turns into an in- home interview with no time for real cultural observation at all. Immersions are also still constrained by geography because researchers can only travel so far.

Self-ethnography through online communities has a number of advantages. Firstly, it enables people to reveal themselves and their behaviour over time. We can ask people to photograph their lives and behaviours over days. We can observe differences between weekdays verses weekends. As they write stories, draw pictures and make collages, they reflect. And given time to reflect over a period of days, not hours, we get to a deeper, richer place.

COVID-19 has helped us question the concept of "distance". In the context of research, distance means being disconnected from the truth. Being face-to-face does not mean we are always closer to the truth. We are learning that there is no need to wait for the group room to open. In fact, we may see that moving to online more often means we have greater reach and authenticity.

Mary Winter is the insights director for branding agency Principals.

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