Using qualitative research to stay close whilst staying distant

by Guest Contributor Andy Truslove | March 25, 2020

Author: Andy Truslove

Andy Truslove
Global Director, Operations & Quality, Insights Division Qual

These are uncertain times for all of us. As well as presenting a major health hazard, Covid-19 may trigger a global recession. Emotionally, psychologically and practically, people are struggling to re-adjust. From a business point of view, it is now more important than ever to stay in touch with how people are responding to this uncertainty. Qualitative research, enabled by technology, allows us to do this remarkably well.

The technology-free William Shakespeare captured the issues facing us beautifully at the end of King Lear:

“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

It’s of primary importance that we understand and express our feeling and emotions right now. I myself have felt in the last few days apprehension, anxiety, fear, panic, resentment, anger, frustration, sadness, and dare I say it even excitement. Covid-19 brings with it an emotional roller-coaster.

The situation is made worse by not knowing how long it will last. It was commonly believed at the start of both World War One and World War Two that each would only last a few months, prime examples of how poor people are at predicting the future. Most cultural institutions in the UK are now closing their doors until the end of April, however the scientific evidence suggests that Covid-19 will be with us until at least early autumn.

If that’s the case, then we need to adjust to it. We live in a world of ‘new normals’. Since 2008, low interest rates have become ‘the new normal’. The next new normal that we need to adjust to is this rather locked-down style of living. We will begin to find a new equilibrium and part of that new equilibrium will be to fight against Covid-19 economically.

It’s not business as normal, and it may even be that business is truly is more important than normal. The jobs of everyone reading this post depend, at least to some extent, on avoiding recession. We have to create light at the end of the tunnel for ourselves, we have to develop arresting brand propositions and then bring them to life in all manner of captivating ways. Brands are the bedrock of business and are fundamental to getting business back on the right track.

Effective marketing is grounded in understanding your customers; the best way to do that is through research. So it begs the question, is it more or less important to understand your customers in a Covid-19 world? The answer is surely ‘more’. Our behaviours and our attitudes are changing, certainly for the short-term and in some cases maybe for the long-term. It’s difficult to think of many categories – and hence brands – which are not impacted by this change.

As a qual practitioner, I would say this of course - I truly believe that qualitative research is the best way to deeply understand your customer. Qualitative research seeks to understand the whole person, the rational, irrational, emotional as well as how social and cultural influences affect mindsets and behaviour. You very possibly agree with me. Perhaps you even want to do some qualitative research yet struggle to really envisage this when close physical social contact is banned.


Technology to the rescue. Virtual discussion groups are a completely viable alternative to classic discussion groups and in some ways, they even have advantages. Researchers don’t have to spend many hours travelling, which can slow down the delivery of the debrief; nor do participants, they can join in from wherever they like (most likely home right now); for all it is a time of social connection in a time of social isolation; and you can have participants from wherever you like, not just specific cities. Clients can view the groups from home and can chat to each other and post questions to the moderator, just as with face-to-face groups. Of course, there are some trade-offs: such groups tend to be a bit smaller in terms of numbers of participants and they are best kept to 90 minutes. Importantly though, your objectives will still be fully addressed.

In addition, online bulletin board projects may include around 15 participants for a three to five day project, assuming you want the findings quickly. Participants can work at their own time and pace, and in they may even provide more considered and more candid responses than in a live discussion group. Here they can share their individual stories with the researcher as well as interact with others.

In recent years, we have used technology for all kinds of ethnographic /observational work. Participants can share videos and photos, using anything ranging from their mobile phone to tiny cameras or camera glasses, and this can be edited and translated into rich and useful insights. Mobiles are also a perfect medium for participants to complete diaries over a number of days. Further, social media analysis enables Kantar researchers to pinpoint themes and sentiments on a range of topics, by mining articles, posts and social comments from a variety of social media sites. In this way, initial hypotheses can be formed and investigated further through these online discussion groups.

And of course, activating insights within your organization at a quicker pace is also critical in this new normal. Kantar is experienced at running virtual workshops in creative and engaging ways. Virtual workshops generally require two hours per day over say 3 days; the benefits of this are that you’re guaranteed some social contact every day, plus you get more thinking time (in between sessions) than in a normal one-day workshop. Virtual white boards, webcams and engaging content means participants are eager to join the session.

“There will come a day when we shall
be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.;
(Caliban from The Tempest)

Then we will run into the streets, embrace each other, and perhaps even dance with joy at resuming our previous way of life! At that point, you will also likely be eager to see your customers again face-to-face while sitting right next to your colleagues. Regardless, my hunch is that won’t forget all the new connections that you’ve made in recent times, nor will you soon forget all those who shared their experiences with you and honestly spoke of what they felt, through the power of online and digital qualitative research. Stay safe and connected, and together, we can embrace the new normal.


Leave a comment
  1. Denise O Reilly, March 30, 2020
    Totally loved this article - as a quallie at heart - everything you say resonated with me.  Excellent article!!
  2. Emmanuel Mireku, March 29, 2020
    Great piece! Thanks for sharing.
  3. Gabriela Vazquez, March 27, 2020

    Relatable, inspirational and truth about how we can get to understand the new context implications and how we can still support clients taking decision at the distance.

    Virtual connections are strong enough to make this happen in the best way for all of us!

  4. Ed C, March 26, 2020
    Wow. Beautifully said.

    Leave a comment