Like many companies, research agencies had to adapt or die during the pandemic. The days of travelling around and speaking with people in focus groups and IDIs, in bars or in their own homes stopped abruptly. Almost overnight, Incling communities, Zoom groups and Google Meets became the life-blood of qualitative research.

Agencies started whole new learning curves as it became clear that new skills were urgently required, and clients needed reassuring that these new techniques would still get the job done. Nonetheless, slowly but surely, everyone settled down into this new routine. Agencies developed new and innovative ways of using technology to better extract knowledge and insights. Clients were able to get their research and business questions answered and without having to pay for travel expenses and research facilities. It worked.


Almost 12-months on, and with light visible at the end of the COVID-tunnel, the key question in the research industry is what happens as the pandemic restrictions gradually relax?

Will we see a return to the heady pre-COVID days of in-home visits and face-to-face conversations, or will clients, many of whom will have had positive research experiences during the pandemic, voluntarily opt to keep research online in an attempt to scale resources and manage budgets?

It’s an interesting dilemma. Has the research industry done such a good job of adapting to the changing circumstances of the pandemic that they’ve eliminated the need to return to the tried and tested methodologies? Are the days of visiting consumers’ homes and checking what they’ve got in their fridge gone for good? Aren’t they just a bit old-fashioned in a digital world? There are those in the research industry actively advocating this approach, brazenly claiming in LinkedIn posts that online approaches are more cost-effective and “just as good” as face-to-face research.

Statements like these are enticing, but the reality is far more complex.


Research Managers around the world have likely seen their budgets contract since the start of the pandemic, so naturally, they are very keen to get the most bangs for their limited bucks and an online-only approach might be very tempting to make the budget stretch further. Clients with this mentality should have research agencies running for the hills. After months of being stuck at home, any true consumer researcher should be chomping at the bit to get back out and see the real world and meet the people at behind the Zoom tile.

As for the cost savings, this feels like a false economy. Although face-to-face projects are probably a bit more expensive on average — especially if travel is involved — there is more richness and tangibility to insights gathered in-situ. These oft-missed nuances are very hard to capture with other approaches, because they rely on the instinct of a researcher asking an unscripted question, making an observation, uncovering an insight. Online research may be cheaper, but it’s not always better value.


Aside from the ever-present technical challenges — dodgy Wi-Fi, poor sound, and the virtual backroom — there are genuine limitations to online research. If you want to see how people authentically behave on a night out on the town, that’s hard to do online. If you want to do research with kids or disadvantage groups, that’s hard to do online. If you want to make cultural learnings relevant for a different audience, that’s hard to do online. These are real frictions that cannot easily be adapted for remote research.

Even mobile self-ethnography — possibly the simplest form of online research — has an element of “performance” about it with a safety-net in the knowledge that if you don’t like a “take” it can always be edited or done again. You still only get to see people want to show you.


The fundamental problem with online tools is that, when all is said and done, they just aren’t very human. Humans are naturally sociable creatures. We have evolved to live in groups and to forge relationships. We are tactile and sensorial. We like sitting down for a drink and a meal, telling jokes, sharing stories and doing it all face-to-face. We like talking over each other, laughing, playing, swearing. Even the best online research experience cannot replicate this.

One key reason for this is the severe challenge of building true empathy through online approaches. Empathy is facilitated by eye-contact and body language — social cues that we rarely even think about because they are so ingrained within us (as this guide by Dr Paul Marsden makes clear). Trying to make eye-contact on Zoom is next to impossible and most body language is also obscured, hidden beyond the boundaries of the screen. The consequence of this is that many online conversations quickly become transactional despite the best efforts of all involved. Even after months of usage, the inherent artificiality of the situation persists.


Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not anti-online research at all. Some of the work I’ve seen over the past year has been incredible given the circumstances. There are lots of things that online does very well, but it cannot be the solution to everything.

Moreover, there are things we can learn from and steal with pride. Whether it be the role of online communities in shaping insight territories before going deep with consumers in groups or the agility and speed at which we’re now able to work, those of us working in innovation have been forced to ‘eat our own dog food’ and innovate ourselves. These learnings shouldn’t be thrown away as soon as borders are reopened.

However, as researchers, we should be obsessed with solving our clients’ problems, not enamoured with any one particular solution. After all, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then suddenly everything starts to look like a nail.

Marc Edwards is a director at Brand Genetics, an agency specialising in human-centred insight and innovation. With nearly 20 years of agency and client-side experience, Marc is an insight and innovation specialist, with and a track record of driving value in brand and products through strategic planning and creative ideation.



Human-Centered Insight, Innovation and Trends from Brand Genetics

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