In the year since the pandemic began, few businesses have been unaffected. To get an insight into how this has affected the objectives and methodology used to conduct research internationally, we spoke with our friends at the global research agency, Studio Into.
In a wide-ranging conversation, we chatted with Global Strategy Director, Onika Simon, about how Studio Into’s business model made adapting to the ‘new normal’ easier, what challenges they faced in understanding audience behaviour and what new opportunities the global disruption has created.
How has the pandemic changed the scope and focus of international research?
As a business, we’ve always operated in the remote research realm, so there wasn’t much of a transition in terms of how we operate to a different way of doing things once the implications of the pandemic became clear.
A lot of projects that we already had with clients were looking at expanding to markets overseas. For instance, UK brands launching in China or Japan. There was a lot of nervousness about whether those strategies for moving into new markets were still sound.
We found that the nature of the conversation changed slightly in a sense of what they would do with the research. Previously much of that conversation with clients focused on driving growth by launching into new markets. The tone became more about how do we stabilise and how can we be resilient? How much of what’s happening now is short-term and transient versus what will change things permanently?
So, the scope of our research projects didn’t change much, but the implications and the strategic actions that would come out of the outcomes did.
What questions has the pandemic raised for brands that are operating internationally?
The big one is how much of what’s happening now is short-term or special, versus how much will have a lasting impact? That’s the main thread of every single conversation or interaction we have with clients and prospects. They want to know, what’s fixed and what’s fluid?
The other question we always get, but it’s become more poignant is where do we fit in people’s lives? Now that the scope of people’s lives has shifted and everything is focused on the home, has our presence either as a brand or product or service, shifted with people’s lives? And if it has, have we gone up or down in relevance? As researchers, most of our missions and investigations have been around helping brands to reorient where they belong in people’s lives. And also, to be honest, if they are no longer relevant.
Has that opened up any new opportunities for brands?
Definitely. To give an example, we were in talks with a digital education platform that provides education assets for teachers. All of those assets and tools and programmes were designed for people who have been trained in a uniform way to deliver to children who are primed and in a set environment, but home-schooling doesn’t work like that. So, we were talking about how do we modify or invent new products for unqualified, untrained, time-poor parents who are not in the perfect environment at home.
What challenges has the pandemic posed for doing research and what alternative methods have you looked at to overcome some of those challenges or difficulties?
The short answer is none! It’s very difficult to use the word lucky after a 12-month long pandemic, but we were very lucky. Our business, Studio Into has been around for 10 years, and our founder, Jo Brassett, always intended to build the business to do remote, qualitative research for all sorts of reasons. To make sure that as an agency and as a business, we didn’t have to fly everywhere.
A typical research agency that’s based in the US, the UK or Europe, gets these research projects commissioned and then typically a researcher, a director and a camera person get on a plane to another country to figure things out as they go. Jo deliberately structured the business to avoid that scenario for cost reasons, for eco and environmental reasons, but also so that she could hire people that don’t have time or the mobility to travel constantly. People like mums, people who are disabled, and people who for lots of different reasons can’t have that jet-set agency lifestyle.
Jo started the business deliberately to avoid that scenario, so invariably 12 months ago when the pandemic hit, borders closed and research projects that involved travel got cancelled across the board, while many of the respondents that researched often talk to became nervous. They were in lockdown, they don’t know how they would get their groceries, they’re not behaving how they normally would behave. Research relies on understanding behaviour patterns that are universal or behaviour patterns that are the fabric of everyday life. So, it was a really interesting time in March last year. We were uncertain what the damage was going to be for a good two months.
What did that mean for research methodology? How did you ask those bigger questions when everything is coloured by Covid-19 and the pandemic?
From a methodology perspective, we had no disruption because the business model was already built for that. Nobody had to travel, our local experts in over 50 countries were still able to orchestrate the research and recruit people, but the big question mark was whether customers or respondents would be able to give us insight into their everyday lives when their everyday lives are in flux and nothing is normal.
There were a couple of alternative methods that we used to get around that. For instance, we’ve always used diaries. We’ve always designed an exercise pad for respondents to plug in information over a series of days. But given that people were stressed and highly anxious or having to work from home, we realised that were might not get the discipline and the commitment required to fill a 7-day or 5-day diary. So, we had to modify that tool.
We had to make the timeframe shorter and make it more moderated, by asking our local experts to check in with respondents more regularly. For the sake of ease and convenience, we also let respondents use whatever platforms or apps were already native to them to capture data, like their phones, WhatsApp or Line, to remove any hurdles that might stop them from giving us the data.