What insights and research do we need? What should we stop, start, continue, and change?

Go StopPosted by Ray Poynter, 25 March 2020

Earlier this week, I posted a blog called ‘Hit the Pause Button’, where I suggested that organisations should pause for a moment, check they were heading in the right direction, change some of their plans, and then move forward. I also promised to share some thoughts on what people might want to consider, here is that post.

Organisations are flying blind

Nobody alive today has had to manage an organisation through a time like this. I have been running companies since 1980 and therefore experienced recessions in 1980-82, 1990-92, 2001, and 2008-9. But the last time this sort of crisis hit would have been WW2, or possibly the combination of WW1 and Spanish Flu. The world has changed and this means everybody is flying blind, people need the right information in order to be able to make better decisions.

The New Normal

From about mid-March 2020, we are living in a New Normal. Many companies that were healthy and growing at the start of March are now not trading. Around the world, in a growing number of cities and companies, restaurants, cinemas, casinos, shopping malls, and factories are closed. Millions and millions of people are being stood down or fired. Many famous and strong brands have changed their marketing – for example Coke announced this week that they have suspended ALL marketing in the UK.

We are in a ‘New Normal’. This new normal is a condition of uncertainty. The world before mid-March has not changed to a new specific state, the world has changed to a condition of uncertainty. We do not know how long it will be before we know how long it will last, and we do not know whether April will be as different from today as today is from last month. We do not know if this uncertainty will last for weeks, months, or years. The new normal is one where the NOW is the only point of reference you can rely on.

The uncertain nature of the new normal, and the primacy of ‘Now’ has big implications for the sorts of information organisations need, and information that is less useful.

What Insights and Research Are Needed?

The research that is needed is research that will help organisation deal with these unprecedented times. So, here are some of the things that I think are needed:

  1. COVID-19 communication testing. Governments are struggling to get their messages across, many brands are sending tone deaf messages to staff and customers, and anything that looks like profiteering is damaging brand values. More messages need to be tested, but they need to be tested really quickly.
  2. Employee Research. For any organisation the most important first step at the moment should be to look after its workers. How are they, what do they need, are they understanding the message, what suggestions do they have? This is not the traditional 360 review research, it is not traditional employee satisfaction research, it is research that helps you help your staff.
  3. Mapping the New Territory. The world has changed, organisations need to explore what that means. What are customers (and beyond that society) thinking, feeling, doing, worrying about? If you don’t know what the new normal is, how do you expect to be able to meet people’s needs, and if you don’t meet people’s new needs you won’t succeed. Almost everything you know about people’s shopping behaviour, consumption behaviour, leisure behaviour is now out of date.
  4. Tracking Your Brand. You do need to track people’s relationship with your brand, but this tracking might be quite different from the tracking you have done in the past. In the past you might have tracked product quality, range of choice, stylishness etc. Now the key criteria are likely to be whether you are seen to be helping customers and the wider society. The two key questions are a) are you getting it right at the moment, b) are you building a desire to do business with for the future.
  5. Pre-test Everything. If you are going to run a new ad campaign, you must test it, to avoid disasters. If you are going to change your product offering (which might mean you plan to scale things back), you need to test it. Because budgets will shrink and timelines will get shorter, these tests need fast and affordable.
  6. Crowdsourcing Solutions. There are more good ideas outside your organisation than inside it. Try to leverage ideas for how to solve ‘Now’ problems from wider sources.

What Research Should or Will be Reduced?

There are a variety of areas where research should or will be reduced, these include?

  1. Face-to-face research. Nearly all F2F should stop until it is safe to do it – in the developed markets that means stopping all F2F.
  2. Research with essential frontline service staff. Several voices from the world of Pharma have already said they will not conduct research with doctors and nurses. This will be true of other essential frontline staff too.
  3. Most research for companies that are not trading. If you are furniture store and have closed all your stores in a country, or a restaurant that has closed all its restaurants in a country, you have sent all your staff home, you are going to conduct very little research. I think you should do some research to map the territory, to check on staff, and to track people’s relationship with your brand – but maybe this could be syndicated research? Maybe it could utilise social media research?
  4. Research that is mostly focused on the preMarch 2020 world. Many, perhaps most of the norms from before March are likely to be useless at the moment (and maybe in the future too). So, those parts of trackers that are all about long-term measurement and benchmarks are not going to be valuable – except to historians. When we come out of this crisis organisations will need to check to see if the world has gone back to the pre-crisis world (in which case some of that legacy research can resume) or whether the world emerges changed. There are plenty of forecasts that we are likely to emerge from this crisis more digital, less product focused, with a different view about travelling, eating out etc.
  5. Strategic Research. I would not want to do any research now that laid out my plans for the next five years. For example, a segmentation conducted at the moment could be irrelevant in 2021 – indeed it could be irrelevant by June 2020. We do not know how many people will be working in 2021, 2022, we do not know whether they will be working from home or in offices/factories, we do not know whether people will be doing group activities and how those group activities will differ from the pre-crisis world. You must research the NOW, but this state of uncertainty is not going to provide many useful predictors for the future.

Be Sensitive

I hear some people, mostly people whose livelihoods depend on research, say ‘Organisations should not cut their research budgets, companies who keep researching will do best.’ In my opinion this is insensitive, it pays no attention to what is happening to some organisations. Some of my clients have sacked 80% of their staff and are planning on not paying rent and debt payments. Research would undoubtedly help them recover better when the crisis ends, but some of them simply have no money, in order to prosper after the crisis, they first need to survive. The second criteria is to grow after the crisis, if they survive.

I do think that Governments should keep spending on research to a) improve what they do and b) protect to knowledge infrastructure of their countries. I also think that companies that are doing well in the crisis should keep spending to improve what they do and to protect the insights ecosystem for their future needs. And, I do think that companies that intend to keep trading through the crisis need to conduct research, but they will spend less and their needs will be different.

What is the role of Insights in a Pandemic? – Webinar 31st March

Next week I am conducting a webinar, hosted by Potentiate that looks at the wider picture of what is the role of insights in the current situation. It will start with a short presentation from me and then go into an extended Q&A session. Here are the links to register:

• Asia-Pacific: Wednesday, 31 March 2020 at 11.00 am AEDT (Sydney time) REGISTER NOW
• Europe: Wednesday, 31 March 2020 at 2.00 pm GMT (London time) REGISTER NOW
• North America: 
Wednesday, 31 March 2020 at 10.00 am PT (US/Canada Pacific time) REGISTER NOW

Your Thoughts

Other suggestions for research that SHOULD be happening or research that SHOULD NOT be happening at the moment?