Here at MTM, we love international qual research, for so many reasons: we get to immerse ourselves in cultures and see first hand how behavioural shifts are manifesting in different parts of the world; we get to explore how ideas can have a very nuanced impact in different countries based off local cultural context, unique customs, and even climates. It’s a privilege, and one of the best parts of the job – especially when you add the ‘perks’ of trying out local cuisines and having unique access to people’s lives. 

The lockdowns and travel restrictions have however curtailed our previous way of doing things, but we’ve not seen any let-up in desires for running international research. In fact, we’re seeing more interest in understanding shifting global behaviours than ever – particularly for the large tech, media and entertainment brands.

This demand has meant we’ve needed to adapt quickly, and rely on technology more than ever before. While this transition has not been without hiccups – and we still miss the benefits of in-person research – two factors have allowed us to transition to running global qual research under the pandemic effectively.

Mass technology adoption

The widespread global adoption of connective technology has eased the transition from in-person to online research. While technology was starting to facilitate international research already, the pandemic has accelerated the process. So much so that we now have a suite of tools in place that allow us to engage and understand people creatively and immersively wherever they are in the world. 

More than anything, we’ve come to rely on Zoom for international focus groups and depth interviews. Practically speaking it’s cost effective, has integrated simultaneous translation, a ‘back room’ for observers, and participants have become adept at using it. We’ve also been able to effectively connect services like ‘Mural Board’ or Miro for fun stimulus interaction. 

Closer collaborative relationships with our local partners 

Technology has also allowed us to be more in touch with our local market partners and reactive to what’s going on around the world. With regular contact through Slack channels and Zoom we’re in constant discussion, and much more up to speed with local cultural shifts. Even on projects with time and budget constraints we have been able to offer rich contextual understanding of how the current climate is impacting people’s behaviours across a wide range of topics. 

These two factors have allowed us to completely transform our approach, and we’ve seen a range of benefits stemming from this shift to online approaches.

1. International research can now be fast and agile

Historically, international multi-market research required more time (and money) for the team to race across the world to observe different markets. Nowadays we could feasibly run Australian focus group in the morning, run a depth interview in the UK at lunchtime, and view sessions in France in the early evening. This has cut significant time and cost from our studies. 

2. More regionally representative research 

International research was usually limited to centralised hubs and specific cities. Those who have done the London – Paris – Lille circuit will know what I mean. Online approaches have broken down these barriers to facilitate more widespread and representative research. In one group session you could have people from a remote village in the Alps, a small southern seaside town, or people from Paris.

3. More team buy-in and engagement

While there’s great advantages in having everyone in a backroom watching a session together, we know it wasn’t always feasible for stakeholders to attend. Online research means people can drop-in on sessions much more easily and observe some of the research. Failing that, it is much quicker today to send a recording or a few clips of a session if anything’s been missed.

4. Different and unique discussions 

Yes, being in-person gives you much greater depth of perspective, but as people are spending more time at home they’re becoming increasingly comfortable with video calls. We have seen that participants often feel safer and more open to talk about sensitive topics given the relative anonymity. This has led to us uncovering a surprising amount of unique insights through this medium. Indeed, the use of tablets and laptops also allow for flexibility of movement around the home which gives us access to a surprising amount of depth, and we’ve sometimes found ourselves including other family members into the discussions in a very seamless way – particularly valuable when discussing use of technology in the home. This could result from the lack of social interaction many are experiencing, and talking to anyone that will listen… but we’ll take it. 

While many of us (me, especially me!) can’t wait to get back into in-person fieldwork, we can’t deny that the benefits of these new approaches are transformative. We certainly expect more of a blended approach between online and in-person research when we get back to normal (will that ever be a thing!?). International qual research will be all the better for it.