Editor's note: Susan Fader is qualitative researcher, strategist and moderator at Fader and Associates, a New York research firm. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared under the title, “Opportunities conducting market research during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world of market research and unleashed:

  • The rush to move previously planned in-person studies to online platforms.
  • The cancellation of many already planned in-person, as well as online studies.
  • Questions of whether we should proceed with the research studies previously scheduled during this current time of uncertainty.
  • Concerns on whether findings would have any long-term relevancy since peoples' states of mind or perspectives may change as COVID-19 becomes less of a threat.

Recognizing that some research studies should be shelved and that some demographics should not be contacted right now, there are some unique opportunities that COVID-19 has provided market researchers. 

In fact, many crave the chance to have a conversation and share their opinions today. Here are a few tips to get you through this unusual time.


Review all the demographics you generally want to conduct research with and see if any, especially the ones that are ordinarily harder to recruit, seem open and available to participate. Some demographics may be more accessible and be more willing to share, talk and participate in a research study in the COVID-19 world. In addition, the high incentives we usually pay for participation in these studies can be a bonus form many who have seen their income cut. 

While COVID-19 has overwhelmed frontline medical professionals in the U.S., the CDC and the Surgeon General have recommended non-urgent appointments and surgeries to be postponed. Therefore, those who focus on elective surgery, e.g., orthopedic surgeons, cataract surgeons, elective cosmetic plastic surgery and even dentists, are significantly less busy. Many physicians/non-surgeons who have mostly office-based practices are finding themselves with time on their hands – with many of staying within the confines of their homes – and available to take part in a market research study.

Over the past few weeks, I have found these medical market research discussions to be more focused, informative and relaxed compared to other physician and health care professional in-depth interviews and focus groups that I have conducted previous to the COVID-19 pandemic world. These professionals are stuck at home, with more free time, which has created a craving for sharing their opinions and having a conversation around them. Thirty-minute interviews can turn into 45-minute discussions as doctors want to spend even more time talking to you.

One orthopedic surgeon, who generally has a six-month waitlist for hip replacements, participated in research for the first time:

"I've been sitting at home for the last three weeks, with my wife and four kids, and just being able to have a conversation with someone to share my opinions on medical issues is why I agreed to participate in the research study."  

Incorporating open-ends

Structure your online studies to incorporate more open-ends and allow respondents people to share stories. This is especially important in the upfront part of any research. Brené Brownwho has spent her career studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, describes what stories can provide the researcher: "Stories are data with a soul."

People long for water-cooler, random conversations, which makes them more open to sharing stories. In the market research world, storytelling is primarily the output, an end deliverable where the story is a vehicle to deliver critical insights to the C-suite. In the COVID-19 world, stories are the input as we begin to integrate narrative economics into how we design our research studies. Robert J Shiller, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize Economics and the father of narrative economics, explains: 

"A narrative is a story or representation used to give an explanatory or justification account of a society, period, etc. … A story may be a song, joke, theory, explanation or plan that has emotional resonance, and that can easily be conveyed in casual conversation."

In normal times, one of the difficulties that researchers need to overcome is to get people to open up and share. Many times you have to layer in ice breakers or projective techniques to get people beyond short answers. COVID-19 has created a situation where people want to talk and share stories. As they stay in their homes, they miss random, everyday conversations, for example, with the barista at their coffee shop or talking to a random person at the restaurant with no agenda in mind. Given that these locations have shutdown, now, more than ever, people want to talk. And they really want to share stories. 

As a qualitative researcher who conducts online, in-person and telephone research, I have always felt that the richness of what you can get from people in-person is seldom duplicated in an online experience. However, two recent experiences from the past few weeks make me believe COVID-19 may have opened a short-term window where online participants are even more engaged in the discussion.

At the beginning of March, I started moderating two qualitative research projects that were designed as in-person focus groups and then midway, because of COVID-19 stay at home orders, both had to be converted to finishing fielding as online focus groups. I was surprised at how much people – with almost no prompting – wanted to talk and share personal opinions. One thing I try to do is never go over the period the focus group was called for. In these two cases, a number of the online groups ran 10-15 minutes longer because the participants volunteered that they had additional things they wanted to share about the topics we were exploring.

In this new COVID-19 world, market researchers should work to connect with people's desire to talk to people and to share stories.