The effects of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, have been far reaching and will continue to be felt by Americans for months to come, when everyday life regains a sense of normalcy. Businesses, like people, have been forced to quickly adapt to a “new normal,” which for most isn’t normal at all. Many in the business of conducting research or utilizing research to inform decision making are facing uncertainty over how to proceed and wrestling with tough questions.

With that in mind, Alpha’s research team has compiled guidance on how to navigate these challenging questions.

Should we continue to conduct research?
The short answer to this question is, in most cases, absolutely. While many things in the world have been jostled, if not upended, life is going on.  Consumers are still buying things and using most services, often in new ways. But purchase behaviors and engagement with services have shifted, in some cases quite dramatically in a very short period of time. Keeping your finger on the pulse of what people are thinking, how they are feeling, and what they are doing is critical, perhaps now more than ever.

One important consideration here is that research conducted before COVID-19 may not be as relevant (or at all relevant) as it is now. For example, research conducted a few short months ago about online or brick and mortar shopping should likely be set aside, at least temporarily. As brands try to stay agile, making rapid and essential shifts in messaging (e.g. new positioning, labeling, advertising) and their sales channels (e.g. shift to direct-to-consumer, online retail), decisions need to be made using current and relevant data. Now is not the time to stop talking to current or prospective customers. Companies that stay connected will be able to make the quick decisions necessary to survive – and even thrive – in uncertain times.

What adjustments should we make to how research is approached?
Questions about the value and reliability of data collected during this time are certainly reasonable ones. This is a truly unique situation where nearly everyone – researchers and the people who participate in research – are impacted by the same situation, albeit to varying degrees. And researchers need to bear this in mind. It is well understood that people will answer questions differently than they would have before the pandemic in areas such as travel, finance, health, and shopping. However, this doesn’t mean these questions shouldn’t be asked. In fact, asking now is often critical. But it is important as researchers or those using research to look at data collected through this current lens.

One way to do this is to add specific questions to your questionnaires. For example, we have been working with our clients to add questions around awareness, impact, and how closely they follow the news to many studies. This has allowed them a way to understand how much the data is influenced by COVID-19 and also to give them a sense over time of when things are returning to “normal.”

Are there certain topics or audiences that should be avoided?
In some cases, it does make sense to not conduct research that you may have been planning a few weeks or months prior. If you are doing research to inform an app focused on in-person meetups, it would be advisable to pause this research. Consider also reflecting on how you can do discovery work to understand how your focus might shift to making virtual connections. If you are in the hotel or travel business, it’s highly probable that you’d want to pause, regroup, and scale back your research agenda. But I would advise conducting research while things are in flux to understand your customers and how their mindsets and behaviors are changing. And in other scenarios where worlds have been completely upended, it is definitely worth taking a breath (or series of deep breaths) and carefully considering how to adapt your research agenda.

Additionally, if you are conducting research with specific groups that may be dramatically affected by COVID-19, such as medical professionals, you may see lower rates of participation and should temper expectations on conducting research and do so with due consideration. If you’re working on a project that has been put on hold or have had initiatives redirected, I would encourage you to be thoughtful in how you approach research, but also to not let these trying times divert you from conducting research altogether. Learning continuously is still essential, even if your focus shifts.

Will people keep responding to surveys?
Supply should not be a concern during this time. In some cases, research providers have observed an uptick in response rates and availability of people to share their opinions given that so many are stuck at home. At Alpha, we haven’t observed any differences in feasibility, engagement, or data quality. And while we remain confident, we continually monitor responses we receive on an individual and aggregate level. One of our key partners, Lucid, a global research marketplace that provides access to people through a variety of sources, has been transparent in tracking and making their metrics available publicly.  With Lucid’s size and scale, the health of their platform is a great proxy for the health of the entire research supply ecosystem. Aside from specific groups, such as the aforementioned, people are as open and ready as ever to respond to surveys.

Ultimately, no one is certain how the effects of COVID-19 will impact people in the U.S. and globally, but it is safe to assume that there will be changes in consumer behavior that linger long after the visceral threat of the virus has passed. Elements of this “new normal” may very well work their way into the fabric of people’s everyday lives. Understanding these changes, how they impact things now, and how they play out in the future is crucial for businesses in all stages of growth – or even decline. Doing good research, talking to people, and staying connected empowers businesses and the people that make up these businesses to continually adapt in these uncertain times.