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Marketing Research: What to Run and What to Pause During Unpredictable Times

Marketing Research: What to Run and What to Pause During Unpredictable Times

Evelyn Chun

illustration of bar graph with fingers pointing in different directions surrounded by question marks

A guide to evaluating appropriate research methods during a time of crisis

Research is an important component of any marketing effort. And in these times of shifting consumer behavior, it’s more important than ever to keep your finger on the pulse of what your customer perceives about your category, products and competitors. We will come out of this, and when we do, the research you have maintained will have you well-positioned to address your customers and marketplace.

While it may not be practical to conduct the full range of market research given the rapidly changing buying landscape and uncertain time horizon for getting fully back to business, there is essential research you should be running right now. The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is that any research efforts undertaken now should be led with empathy for the participants and sensitivity to the current situation. Here’s how to determine what research to run and what to pause.

Before Taking Any Action, Review Business Objectives and Timelines

The first step to take when considering which marketing research programs can provide value in this current environment is to review your business objectives and place them into two buckets: short-term goals and long-term goals. Then, evaluate each existing research project to determine if it will help inform short-term or long-term objectives. If there’s a need to adjust the research budget, prioritize through the lens of “nice to have” versus “need to have.”

What Research to Run

Any research outputs or insights that inform a time-limited question or objective (e.g., campaign, messaging) are important and worthwhile to understand regardless of what’s happening in the marketplace. To help you understand consumer perceptions, usage of your products, and the effect of today’s reality on your segment and your brand, quick studies can help you decide whether to stay on course or pivot. Whether you have research currently in place or are just initiating it now, these are the tools you should consider using:

  • Brand trackers: Brand health tracking is a way of measuring the overall strength of your brand and tracking its strength over time. If you have an evergreen brand tracker already in place, it can provide timely information on consumers’ changing preferences and behaviors by analyzing past and current data.

  • COVID-19-related research: To gain insights around COVID-19-related campaigns or perceptions, use online qualitative/quantitative platforms. Tapping into the online panels right now may be more fruitful than usual since response rates and completion rates will most likely be higher due to respondents’ availability and increased online activity.

  • Social tracking: Social media can provide real-time feedback and provide information on interests, emotions and vantage points. In times of potentially changing consumer sentiment, monitoring social media to listen to what’s being said about your product, brand or category can help you stay ahead and pivot quickly.

  • Media tracking: With day-to-day life literally changing every day, people are consuming media differently. Knowing where, when and how people are interacting with content can help you reach and engage core audiences more effectively.

  • Trend analysis: Whether obtained from third-party sources, competitive analysis or a socioeconomic landscape study, trend analysis will provide a quick view of current consumer behaviors and perceptions.

  • Sales analysis: Studying retail data changes can help you forecast short-term profits or losses and purchase behaviors. 

During this uncertain time, be empathetic and mindful of the changing needs and priorities of consumers when designing your research. Many people are facing difficult times now and into the foreseeable future, and you do not want to be insensitive (or perceived as such). Closely consider respondents’ demographics and psychographics not only at the outset of conducting research but also as the data is analyzed—given the rapidly changing situation, particularly in certain regions at any given time, timing could significantly affect results. In some cases, if third-party data is readily available, it may be better to take advantage of its capabilities to compare historical data from other crises and the context they can provide. 

No matter which research methods you employ, make sure your stakeholders understand that results are meant to guide short-term decisions and that there may be biases due to the crisis.

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What to Pause

Research outputs and insights that are designed to inform longer-term business decisions are best paused right now, including:

  • Customer segmentations

  • Evergreen message testing

  • Product concept testing (unless it’s specifically designed to address the problems of today)

  • Large brand change or repositioning tests

  • Never-done-before, long-term studies such as brand trackers and NPS

  • Anything that requires in-person research

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should pause all long-term research projects. There are methodologies available to assess past behaviors that could be helpful once the dust settles. For example, a clickstream study that looks back at collected online shopping journey data from certain time periods could help inform long-term marketing plans in the future.

Where to Get Creative

Whatever your business strategy was a few months ago, it’s likely changed. And in today’s environment, there is a level of assumption that previously set goals on long-term profits and business decisions are being adjusted regularly, and whatever steps you take now would serve to test the waters and benefit future decisions.

  • Be flexible. Use this as an opportunity to reevaluate custom research projects (which could be costly and time-consuming) and see what can be run as a part of an existing, continuously run study. 

  • Experiment! Use new approaches and methodologies to test and expand on research capabilities. For example, with the increased participation in telephone and online research, this may be a good time to expand the pool and find new ways to use them.

  • Find new ways to build relationships, test features or mine for unknown variables.

Looking Forward

The big question now is when we can expect to resume business as usual. Consistent research during this time—at whatever level is appropriate for your organization—can help provide guidance. As research data comes in, there will be a moment when KPIs start to stabilize into familiar territory, and over the next six months to a year we should see stabilization across industries. Although things may not return completely back to normal, there is sure to be at least a slow roll back to business again.

Evelyn Chun is associate director, strategy and insights at global digital marketing agency Firewood. She works with Firewood technology clients to find the most compelling story by identifying consumer insights and business growth opportunities across each firm’s brand and product portfolio.