Covid changed research. Are higher incentives, new tech here to stay?
By Russ Rizzo|4 min read|Updated Nov 17, 2022
The past two years have been anything but normal for the research industry.
Medical and market researchers alike were forced to adapt to sudden, seismic changes that profoundly altered how they did business—and some of those changes are here to stay, leaders of these companies say.
Firms across the board, of all sizes and specialties, uniformly report Covid massively disrupted their businesses—though some sectors were hit harder than others. Travel and leisure, for example, as well as humanitarian surveys and in-lab medical research were particularly challenged by quarantines and a general societal shift away from person-to-person contact.
As the industry builds toward a post-Covid world, a survey of 15 market research firms, interviews with more than a dozen market research executives and project managers, and research from more than two dozen third-party sources indicate these trends to continue into 2022:
increased demand for global remote research;
a focus on recruiting (and managing) remote teams;
attracting participants with higher incentives; and
pushing innovation with tech-driven research.
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All types of researchers reported substantial limitations brought on by the pandemic and its effects. Thousands of clinical trials unrelated to Covid stopped when the pandemic emerged. Companies responded to uncertainty by cutting back on their research spending in an effort to conserve resources for an unknown future.
Quarantines made it impossible to host in-person research. And even if quarantines weren’t an issue, firms say, participants weren’t willing to come in.
According to one report, almost 2 in 3 market research companies canceled or postponed some of their planned research during the pandemic.
“We were forced to close offices and shift the way we do business in order to stay profitable,” a finance director at a qualitative research recruitment firm told us.
“We do travel surveys. No one was traveling,” a researcher with a global research and analytics consultancy said.
“Some of our partners closed their facilities, so [we had] less projects,” said the owner of a different qualitative research recruitment shop.
Adapt or die
Faced with all of this sudden change, company leaders say, they adopted an agile mindset to get through it.
Across diverse disciplines, researchers are revamping study designs to bring the trial to the patient (or consumer) rather than vice versa.
Consumer researchers created hyper-realistic digital human feedback avatars to assist with virtual research and pioneered new methods to capture quicker insights. Consumer packaged goods (CPG) researchers figured out how to ship products to people’s homes and pay them electronically. Focus group moderators figured out how to master eye-tracking software.
Still others pioneered automated and video enabled online communities and brushed up on computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) techniques.
All of a sudden medical researchers had to figure out how to do remote medical trials while staying HIPAA compliant. They introduced decentralized trials and leaned on agile market research and adaptive design to switch quickly to remote research.
Researchers say Covid may well represent a tipping point in the adoption of remote research methods—though there’s still plenty of debate over what that means for research quality.
Some researchers report that remote research has helped boost participation rates and diversified their sample pools while also making it easier to collect data compared to traditional lab settings. Many still have their concerns, though, especially because of the lack of control in a remote setting.
As one owner of a Texas-based focus group and participant recruiting shop told us, “We try to tell people to dress nice, be well lit, make sure your kids are not running around next to you, and you're being distracted. But you're doing this in people's homes and can only control so much.”
One of the biggest ongoing challenges facing research firms, leaders say, is the sudden shift to remote workforces.
While remote work carries benefits like the ability to hire from a global talent pool, researchers say there are challenges, too.
“Finding experienced talent who are knowledgeable about online research is difficult,” a research operations specialist with a global medical devices research firm told us.
“Remote employees are not interested in coming back to the office long-term,” a director of a full-service market research firm said.
“We lost many employees due to the ‘Great Migration.’ Our work is fairly specialized, so hiring new folks is challenging with the learning curve,” said a researcher with a global research and analytics consultancy.
“It went both ways for us. On one hand, we had to furlough a lot of good talent. But we were able to persevere and bring folks back. Now that demand is rising, we’ve been able to hire new talent,” said a senior project manager at a research and technology platform.
“I ’m short part-time staff for the projects I have and don't have enough new projects to hire more full time staff,” said Andrew Teblum, project manager at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based consumer research firm Mars Research.
Almost across the board, medical researchers say they’ve had to increase incentives for participants to get them to take part in research. Given the backlog in research projects, it’s a compounding problem firms are keen to solve.
Some researchers say they had good luck getting certain types of medical staff to fill out surveys early in the pandemic, since fewer people were visiting doctor’s offices for routine visits.
“One of our clients benefitted because people weren’t visiting their doctors—so physicians had more time for surveys,” said a vice president of healthcare research for a large full-service firm.
Others reported that doctors and nurses only got harder to reach.
“Doctors and nurses were working overtime and so many of them weren’t available for interviews or taking surveys," said an operations specialist doing medical devices research.
Across the board, medical researchers told us it’s as challenging as it’s ever been to recruit participants now that people are returning to doctor’s offices.
“The demand for these types of studies rose since the start of the pandemic,” said a senior project manager at a research and technology platform. “We raised incentives to entice folks to participate. It's a hard audience to get, so it takes more incentives.”
Others are testing non-monetary benefits, such as charitable donations or keeping the participant in the loop as the research progresses so they get the “all-access” treatment.
“We would never be able to pay a financial advisor with $1 million in assets under management enough money to participate,” said a research operations consultant at global insights firm.
Though nothing new, market research technology came into its own during 2020 as a means to alleviate cost burdens and do more with less. Growth in MR tech accelerated rapidly, leaders say, as they leaned on AI and machine learning to take the pressure off resource-heavy human-led operations.
According to a Greenbook report, technology-driven research exploded in 2020 and became a core driver of the industry. This includes emerging market research methods like social media analytics, micro-surveys, gamification, and eye-tracking—all of which are on the rise in 2022.
Researchers found that remote qualitative research sometimes offers a way to get a more compelling and granular understanding of how people stuck in their homes are reacting to new ways of shopping. Firms on the cutting edge are advancing new fields like intent monitoring.
Several firms mention being in “growth mode” or “recovery mode” following pandemic slowdowns.
“With Covid the world shut down and in-person research shut down with it. Virtual worked to a point, but then Zoom fatigue set in,” said Teblum of Mars Research. “Now that travel is picking back up, in-person is back on the rise, especially with product testing.”
“Things overall seem to be getting back to the new normal,” a director of a full-service market research firm said.
All of this tech disruption has led to improvements, researchers say:
Virtual research has helped lower drop-out rates and increased study efficiency for medical research.
Following the Covid-19 vaccination, the interest levels in patient participation are on the rise in clinical trials.
Mobile samples are leading to more diverse (and often, more representative and statistically meaningful) participant pools for consumer research; and
For researchers of all types, AI and automation are helping teams gather and process large volumes of data and glean faster insights.
That’s a new normal many researchers say they can get behind.
Published November 17, 2022
Updated January 23, 2023