Views from the industry: How COVID-19 has impacted media research

Posted on: Wednesday 22 July 2020

Members of IAB UK’s Research Advisory Group share their views on why research is so important at a time like this, how different areas of media research have been affected by COVID-19 and the impact they predict this crisis will have going forwards

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How has this crisis emphasised the importance of research in the media industry?

Mike Follett, Managing Director, Lumen

The COVID crisis has unleashed a torrent of (often conflicting) advice and opinion. In response, smart marketers will see the importance of getting real, behavioural data on what is actually happening and what really works. Decent research helps brand owners see through the chaos and take advantage of the opportunities out there. In the next few months, we’ll see lots of divergent strategies on how to build brands and win customers in the new world – if, in fact, there is a ‘new world’. Essentially, brands will be taking different ‘bets’ on their vision of an uncertain future. The brands that will be most successful will be the ones whose ‘bets’ most closely fit reality. Research is vital in understanding what that reality is, and whether your marketing matches that reality. There will be big pay-offs for those who bet right.

Matt Rodriguez, Senior Insight Executive, Immediate Media

When lockdown first hit we saw a real demand for insight into audience behaviour. While there was a large body of work on behaviour during traditional recessions, there was nothing comparable to this scenario. Businesses carry on and we need to adapt to the events as they happen, so up-to-date audience research is vital, especially as behaviours can change very quickly. Lockdown also had the potential to unlock new opportunities and create new behavioural trends. It’s important to understand what these are and, as we enter the easing of lockdown, what behaviours are here to stay. Insight and research are crucial to this.

Francesca Bender, Insight Manager, The Guardian

Given how uncertain things are (and will likely continue to be), it’s important to be able to frequently and easily conduct research to understand how consumers are reacting in key moments and what this means for the media industry. For us, this means a continued understanding of how our readers perceive our journalism - particularly understanding responses to our COVID-19 coverage - as well as perceptions of our marketing and the wider impact on the advertising industry. All of this insight is critical to underpin business decisions. This has meant that we need to become more creative and agile, repurposing research or redefining certain areas of research like ad effectiveness, and making the most of any available data sources we have. Our reader panels have been crucial to this as we are able to conduct research on key topics whenever we need to in a speedy, cost-effective way.

Susan Wu, Market Research Director, PubMatic

The rapid global onset of COVID-19 steeply impacted the advertising industry. This shook advertiser confidence, causing ad spending to contract rapidly. The pandemic created an urgency for every stakeholder within the advertising industry to watch near-term ad spend trends and market research with a crisis-conscious lens. It is even more important during times of a downturn to rely on behavioural research for leading indicators during a market recovery to better optimise monetisation strategies. For example, we see specific formats and verticals fiercely driving the road to recovery within the programmatic industry. This type of intelligence helps us all better plan for the short to medium term future.

Luke Devereux, Lecturer, Middlesex University

The pandemic has definitely highlighted the importance of getting to know customers and their world. We never know what will happen, when it will happen, or indeed how people will respond. I certainly never thought I’d be witnessing (okay participating in) fights about the last box of muesli. It’s interesting how some behaviour that was taken for granted is suddenly thrown up in the air. The rules of the game have changed. Now they may have changed only momentarily, but they changed nonetheless. And so having an idea of what consumers are doing, and what’s working for you during this time, is only going to be beneficial. We can respond quicker that way.

 

Which areas of research have been most affected by this crisis?

Mike Follett, Managing Director, Lumen

This crisis will create challenges for futurists. The uncertainty generated by the current situation should give anyone predicting the future pause (including me, in this article). Research that relies on face-to-face fieldwork will also be affected. This doesn’t mean that qualitative research will go away: focus groups by Zoom were a thing before COVID, and have only grown more popular given the current restrictions. Qualitative researchers may need to adapt their patter somewhat, but there are still important insights to be gained through discussions – even ones mediated through a chat app. What will grow are all forms of remote research, especially methodologies that use mobile phones. Getting people to record video diaries or make short films or do eye tracking on their phones won’t just be one research option amongst many, but will be the first port of call. 

Eva Ruiz, Insight Manager, The Guardian

With several advertising campaigns paused or postponed, our ad effectiveness research reduced in volume initially. This has now started to pick up again with brands realising that it’s still important to communicate with their current and potential consumers. But we have made some changes. We’ve adopted a more flexible approach to measurement by slightly amending our minimum spend threshold and testing new approaches. We’ve also set up an ongoing tracker to provide insights on readers’ sentiment over the course of the crisis, how they are spending their time and how their consumption habits may be changing. There is a need to think long-term about the impact of coronavirus too and, as such, we have started to draw together industry insights to understand the future of key sectors. The fact that we have access to our readers’ views ‘on tap’ through our panels is invaluable during this pandemic.

Luke Devereux, Lecturer, Middlesex University

Survey-based research appears to be carrying on normally, so that’s great. The biggest effect has been on qualitative, with interviews taking place remotely via online channels etc. This does raise issues, as sometimes tech issues cut out valid points. However, it also offers opportunities - we have all headed online, so there is some form of digital behavioural footprint being left behind. I’ve also seen more digital ethnographic research than usual. As always, we’ve got to follow where the customer goes. If they’re all online in lockdown, that may be where we need to go. This crisis also highlights the use of less formalised research. For example, the informal qualitative ‘data’ that organisations pick up from their customers, and employees, on a day-to-day basis. There’s lots to be learned from this general fact-finding and I wonder how that has affected insight on some level too, particularly for offline SMEs. There’s also been interesting points coming out about AI and how our new behaviours have been messing with the algorithms. I think this highlights the nature of AI in an interesting way.

 

What long-term effect do you think COVID-19 will have on research going forwards?

Mike Follett, Managing Director, Lumen

COVID has had a pretty shocking effect on research budgets. When the choice is between learning about the future or protecting the present, today beats tomorrow every time. When the shock is over, I think lots of marketers are going to look at their research needs and ask: what really works? Which of these datasets actually helps me with my decision making? Many will have found that they have coped pretty well without some ‘essential’ data, but the things that were ‘nice to have’ are, in fact, vital. Whatever data and insight they decide they need, it will have to justify itself commercially, and quickly. Budgets will be reduced, so research managers are going to have to be more selective in their investments. Research that identifies wastage and helps clients reduce costs while driving sales will be at a premium. We are all short-termists now. 

Matt Rodriguez, Senior Insight Executive, Immediate Media

I would expect that there will be an increase in the amount of what was previously face-to-face research being conducted online, using platforms such as Zoom or Teams. This would help flexibility, cost, increase the scope of what can be achieved, and potentially participants. It would be a shame if this was the end of face-to-face research though – some things are just better done face-to-face. For example, a focus group dynamic would be quite different online and could lead to less insight and discussion coming from a session – we could lose those unexpected insights which often generate the most interest and excitement from research.

Monika Pick, Senior Insight Manager, The Guardian

Research will continue to be an important part of driving business decisions going forwards. Given the impact of COVID-19 on budgets however, there will be a need to streamline and prioritise research to focus on the things that will have the most impact across the business. There will be an increased expectation of research teams to be agile and think outside the box to provide innovative and cost-effective solutions. Online panels will continue to play an essential role, but we also believe there will be a need to try new methodologies, particularly digital techniques that allow you to get the most out of respondents remotely. Given the ongoing social distancing guidance, it is likely that qualitative will be online more than face-to-face, potentially making exploratory research less expensive. Plus, seeing consumers in their own habitat could provide us with much more authenticity and deeper insight into our readers’ motivations and behaviours. Whilst there will be challenges for research going forwards, it is also an opportunity to seek out new approaches and maximise the value that research projects can have.

Susan Wu, Market Research Director, PubMatic

Downturns push companies to be more resilient and put more emphasis on operational efficiency. This applies to our approach to research as well. Companies looking to invest in their future will continue with key research projects, but at the same time they need to stay nimble and active on gleaning short-term insights. Companies will probably spend more effort in the years to come on gathering information on ad spending changes before, during and after adverse events to better prepare and navigate the next fork in the road.

Luke Devereux, Lecturer, Middlesex University

Qualitative research may take time to get back to where it was, but I think we might just adapt how we do it. We should make the most of the opportunities we have, rather than focus on what we’ve lost. I don’t believe it’s the death of qualitative by any means, I just think we may adapt our methods and - who knows - may find out new things as a result. I’ve also been wondering if there will be more scope for simulation-based research were we to find ourselves in a similar situation again. I‘m interested to see how this may change our approach to research in general, and not just from a data collection perspective. How has COVID-19 affected us as researchers? What does it teach us about the world, or system, that we are trying to understand? Does it show how unpredictable things can be, or highlight how sensitive we are to context? I wonder if a long-term effect of this is less about data collection methods, which will always adapt and follow the consumer, and more about our approach to data and analysis going forwards. I find that exciting.

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