how you can adapt research in a pandemic for effective results

by: Katherine Savage

Almost every aspect of our daily lives is being directly impacted by coronavirus.  Around Australia, ‘social distancing’ measures are changing the daily habits and behaviour of Australians. In the past week alone we’ve seen schools shut, major events cancelled, and universities and workplaces changing their policies to ensure the safety of their staff and to help contain the spread of coronavirus.

At PLAY, we’ve made similar changes and have had many chats with our clients about upcoming project approaches to ensure our respondent and personal safety isn’t compromised, and our results aren’t either. The good news is there are many research methods that are still on the table. From the ol’ classics to the more innovative, we give you a run down on what could work for your project. 




consumer research online

Method, method, on the wall, can I get real results from a video call?

Yes, yes you can. Research is more vital than ever to understand the intricacies behind our evolving behaviour. At PLAY, and in line with recommendations from the federal government, we can use a number of research methodologies that don’t require face-to-face contact with and between participants, including:

  • Video calling: You can still conduct one-on-one interviews with someone at home. Anyone with access to services like Skype, Whatsapp or Facetime can take part, and clients can dial in too. We’ve had participants showing us around their home using their phone camera and sharing their opinions with us in Sydney and with clients in Singapore live.

  • Online focus groups and discussion boards: These allow multiple participants to be gathered together in discussion, without having to be in the same physical location. Participants in an online discussion board are assigned tasks per day that they complete when they log on. The additional flexibility and time given to the participants means that the tasks can stretch beyond asking questions to setting scenarios (“make the perfect ‘working from home’ afternoon snack and send us the recipe”) and exercising their creative muscles (“show us what an ad for an amazing home delivery service would look like”). 

  • In-home use testing: Involves sending products to participants’ homes for them to use in their real lives. They provide feedback on the product through quantitative methods such as online surveys, or qualitative methods such as video selfies reviewing the product, audio recordings and diaries recording their usage patterns and rating of the product.

  • Pre-work: Any home interview or research can be enhanced with this addition. This usually comes in the form of setting the participant an exercise to do (“look for a better deal on your internet”) or asking them to keep a record of their behaviour (perhaps a diary of their exercise habits). The research itself then explores the results.


online research community

What about the ol' classics?

Of course, at PLAY we also have our faithful go-to’s that are certainly still on the cards:

  • Online surveys: This flexible approach can be used to conduct a full suite of quantitative research, from traditional quant surveys to shopper research (in particular with those who can’t get to the shops). We already conduct a number of shopper studies online, including ‘time to find’ exercises that measure pack findability, and purchase exercises. This pandemic might also cause many clients to review the shopability of their online retail sites, which online surveys can help to answer. Online surveys can also be used successfully to gather qualitative feedback, though not with the depth of other qualitative approaches. 
  • In-store shopper research: One-on-one research in store is still possible, if care is taken to maintain social distance. We run eye tracking studies (both in-person and online) that allow us to see where the shopper’s eyes are going in stores, which is a great way to capture shopper behaviour. In supermarkets especially, we need to understand what’s going on in the minds of shoppers at this time where shoppers are behaving differently than usual.
  • Mini focus groups and in-depth interviews: Yes, we said it! Unless we’re advised otherwise in the coming weeks, our facilities in Sydney are large enough that we can easily accommodate focus groups with smaller numbers of participants or of course, do one-on-one interviews (that includes eye-tracking!), and maintain social distancing and good hygiene practises to allow participants to attend in safety.

This is a unique time in history - we have a few questions of our own! 

"Jesters do oft prove prophets." – King Lear.

For the market research world, it is an interesting time to observe this shift in people’s behaviour (and in fact, our own behaviour). Rumour has it, Shakespeare allegedly wrote King Lear during his self-isolation from the plague. So, how are people changing their typical behaviour?

Some topics we’ve been discussing, and that we’ll be exploring over the coming weeks, include:

  • Are people going to be turning to their trusted brands at this time, or looking for value, long shelf-life and bulk buying? Is there a role for brands to reassure, be responsive, and help consumers?
  • We’ve already seen stockpiling of FMCG products like pasta, rice and tinned food, but what will happen if those products aren’t used up in the next couple of months? Will there be a lull in sales in a few months’ time, or will people be looking for new occasions or recipes to use up their stockpiled products?
  • Are people going to start exploring home delivery services: meal kits, meal delivery, groceries, alcohol, apparel?
  • What will self-isolation mean in terms of “cocooning”? Will subscription to entertainment services increase? Is this the time for all those home-improvement tasks that have been put off for years?
  • Will people feel less job security and use their time at home to consider a career move? Or spend time reviewing their finances to make sure they have the best deals on mortgage and interest rates, insurance and telco services? 
  • Will people spend time planning activities beyond COVID-19 by researching the perfect holiday for 2021? Will they want to commit to a future booking now or will something more be needed to trigger the booking? 
home delivery services more popular in the pandemic


How we're independently monitoring the effects of COVID-19 on Australia.

We're running a weekly survey with our Australian online panel to better understand how COVID-19 is changing people's behaviour, purchase preferences and impacting daily habits. If you’d like to see the results or are interested in online consumer research, we're here to share what's possible. 

If you’re curious to know what people are thinking or how you can evolve your research approach, the PLAY team is on hand to help.

Give us a buzz on 02 8097 0200 or email at any time. 


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about the author

Katherine Savage

Katherine is PLAY’s account director and resident packaging expert. She started life as a qualitative specialist before becoming a qual-quant researcher. Her 12 years of experience spans across FMCG, retail, tech, media, financial, auto, social, employer, and B2B: she loves diving into new categories and exploring the forces at play. She’s a fan of setting herself arbitrary goals and trying to complete them like translating the first Harry Potter novel from Portuguese (she hasn’t got to Hogwarts – yet!).

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