Let’s Get Digital – and FAST!

Some might say that we (all of us in business, regardless of your industry) should have been embracing digital technologies in the workplace long before now. I’m talking about simple digital adaptations such as tele-working, eliminating airfares for meetings that can be held on Zoom, and in my industry – market research – using digital means to interface with and engage consumers in our research methodologies.

To be fair, in market research, we’ve been moving forward with innovations in digitally engaging respondents when we do cultural anthropology work for awhile now, but since the old-fashioned, tried-and-true “face-to-face” route is usually considered the preferred way to get close-up and personal with consumers for data collection, we really haven’t been forced as an industry to push forward with figuring out how to make digital methods work better.

But as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato so aptly put it over 2,000 years ago in describing the emergence of creative efforts to meet a need or solve a problem:

Necessity is the mother of invention.

All of our efforts in the past are now coming in handy, since at CarterJMRN, we’ve innovated focus groups, bulletin boards, follow-up surveys to in-home product placements, and even extended-length communities “online” over the years. We’ve also aggressively incorporated digital practices into our own operations via a secure company Intranet, including team file sharing, closed chat system and article sharing via our own internal social media system.

In addition to safeguarding our own employees by encouraging “work-from-home” activities during this time of COVID-19, we’re also helping our clients to reach out to their customers in new and different ways through online research methodologies.

Being Japan-based, we were among first to feel the effects of COVID-19 on daily life and business, and while we have not yet seen a downturn in the number of research respondents willing to attend research gatherings (even in our face-to-face facilities), clients themselves want to send the right signals by offering alternatives to the usual way of doing things.

Early on, we saw a shift from face-to-face to online focus groups (a typical way of bringing together 6~8 consumers in a facility with video documentation for discussion led by a professional moderator) to handling these proceedings in an online environment – allowing consumers to join and participate from the comfort of their own homes.

Now we are even seeing the holy grail of qualitative research – in -home and in-store ethnographic studies– being re-purposed in the digital context.

Just last week, we helped our large international FMCG (fast-moving-consumer-goods) client re-engineer their approach to previously scheduled in-home and in-store ethnos. As the recruiting of respondents progressed on schedule in mid-February, suddenly the company policy was put into place to “prohibit conducting face-to-face interviews with consumers,” out of an abundance of caution.

In order to continue with the work, a digital solution had to be innovated, since all work would now need to be done by the consumers themselves (with no researchers or clients attending the interviews to document the proceedings) … and our team did so with enthusiasm and creativity. These 2-hr interviews required consumers themselves to follow a series of tasks using digital devices (while video recording themselves) during a live, in-home, and online interview to be viewed by researchers and clients:

  • Digital devices (in this case, iPhones, chargers and stands <for hands-free video recording> were rented and delivered to all participating consumers, so that we could receive their documentation in a consistent format
  • Instructions were developed for not only handling the iPhone and logistics of videotaping and photographing rooms and items in their homes … but also for the exercises that guide respondents through illuminating what the client wanted to learn
  • Adaptation were made to the original methodology to accommodate for the difference(s) in conducting the interviews in this more remote manner (i.e., adding an in-home “diary pre-interview task” so we could gather hints as to how to modify the instructions considering the new methodology)
  • Pilot interviews were conducted to ensure high quality video and audio for viewing purposes in the actual interviews
  • Testing was done for handling of interpretation from a separate, remote location (with the interpreter listening in and feeding her interpretation into a separate telecommunications channel, such that clients could access this audio)

On the negative side, there was a bit of a communications delay with conducting the interviews in this manner compared with qualitative research face-to-face methodology, and certainly, the consumer environment cannot be “seen and felt” in the same way as if researchers and clients are there in person to observe. In addition, in this case, we had to cancel the in-store and in-office observation components of the study, since the client was not comfortable asking respondents to “go out and shop in public venues” and office visitation were out of the question (both due to concerns with the virus).

On the positive side, whereas with typical ethnographic studies only 2~3 clients can observe the actual interview, with this online, live “consumer do-it-yourself” style, multiple client team members can observer the qualitative research interview online, with an unlimited number of clients able to observe) – and important insights can be gleaned without losing valuable marketing time. Costs related to the methodology change (phone rentals, development of extra instructions, and testing of video and audio) were fully offset by the costs related to in-person visits (including transportation and time).

As my fellow Australian, Olivia Newton John might have written (had she found herself in this situation): “Let’s get digital.”

 There is no doubt that we are learning and improving by doing – although it’s a pity that it has to be under such duress. Nonetheless, this COVID-19 situation will force many companies to look at new ways of doing things, including remote work and work from home. I predict that Japan’s world of work, one of the four mega-trends that CarterJMRN has highlighted, will be changing even more rapidly now. For example, it is unprecedented that the Japanese government has advised citizens to “stay home from work if they’re sick” – not to mention the school closing through mid-March.

New ways of working – including teleworking and online meetings – will no doubt be much more well-adapted in post-COVID-19 times, now that they have proven themselves to be effective.

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