Things Change, Things Stay the Same

Things change and things stay the same

So here we are, reflecting on the past three months where our lives have been turned upside down by COVID-19. So much has been written about this topic, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by it all. One of my favourites summaries is from Siamack Salari who started a global crowd sourced qualitative movement called Not Everyday Life.

The team at Upwords, has been reflecting on what we’ve learned from conversations we’ve had with people in our research studies, as well as reflections on our own lives. Here’s our list of COVID-19 impacts followed by what that means for leaders.

Revised routines:

Most people have had to vastly modify many daily habits and rituals. From little things like making their coffee at home instead of going out to buy it, to figuring out how to manage working from home with no child support. This time has made us reconsider so much that we used to take for granted. In some ways, conducting qualitative research during this time enabled us to dig even deeper into people’s habits and rituals because many of them were stopping to take note of what had changed. It has been like a real life ‘deprivation’ exercise, making many realize what’s really important in their lives.


Connections are critical:

In a time where our human connections were limited, many began to greatly value the connections they had and their means of connecting. They suddenly had more time with the people in their ‘bubbles’ and many were sharing moments of joy that they previously would have missed. People learned to use technology to connect and maintain or even strengthen relationships. Kids were Zooming with grandparents and ‘remote’ dinner parties became a thing… whether with a neighbour or friends far away. Many appear interested in keeping these new-found ways of connecting. On the flip-side, we also heard that virtual connections cannot completely replace the feeling of giving and getting hugs or just doing something more hands-on like playing sports together…or going shopping.


Communicating to cope:

When there is so much ‘listening’ going on through news and social media people get overwhelmed easily. Many just need to talk. They need to talk about their feelings, their fears, what’s different, confusing, interesting, etc. We found that conducting qualitative research about any topic (COVID related or not), we had to allocate more time than usual to the conversations. Many people had more time to talk and they were more interested in talking to us… about anything and everything.


Crisis of confidence:

People are spending more time seeking news and updates. There is a strong desire to be up to date and know what’s going on. At the same time many are experiencing information overload. The narratives are often bleak and there is so much unknown about the virus and how it affects and will continue to affect us, it can be confusing. Further, information sources are often conflicting as this article from  The Economist reveals.  To deal with this, some are becoming more selective about the news they follow, in efforts to help to reduce anxiety.


Context is crucial:

People’s thoughts, feelings, and actions have been turned around. We can’t assume we understand the reasons for people feeling the way they do. Now, more than ever, qualitative research is essential for helping brand and business leaders deeply understand what people are doing/thinking/feeling and – more importantly – the reasons or motivators driving them. It is quite powerful to hear a person talk about how they feel when they are baking their own bread for the first time. This provides the really important context behind the numbers that told us how many people were baking bread at home for the first time. We can’t predict the future, but brands certainly can listen and learn from underlying emotional and functional drivers, giving us insight into how people make decisions in times like these.


What it all means for marketing leaders:

  1. Brands that deeply understand the ‘jobs’ that they fulfil have a better chance of understanding the impacts that changed routines will have.
  2. Brands have had to find creative and meaningful ways to operate and engage with people, and many appreciate the extra efforts. People have come to expect that things might not run smoothly – for example shipping might take longer than usual and products might be out of stock. What was important was how brands connected to communicate when things weren’t running as expected.
  3. Brands that are having a voice at this time need to be exceptionally authentic or they risk simply becoming part of the ‘noise’ or worse coming across as disingenuous or opportunistic.
  4. Retailers will need to ensure their online experience are meeting a broader range of shoppers needs, previously only provided in store. Joe Jackman just wrote a great piece on this for Ad Age regarding the need for retailers to enrich the online experience.
  5. Leaders need to show empathy when dealing with their teams (this goes without saying… but we’re saying it!).

Some things have stayed the same

We have felt very fortunate to have been able to continue to have important conversations about all kinds of topics during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our clients have been brave and have shown incredible leadership, operating under circumstances that none of us has ever experienced before. While good gut instincts are important for leaders when there is no playbook, it’s also a time to turn to qualitative research.

Some clients are just starting to delve with us into the wonderful world of online qualitative tools, and we are happy to see some realizing that online qualitative research is NOT simply a replacement for focus groups. There is in fact a broad spectrum of online qualitative tools at our disposal to use depending on the situation and objectives. Other clients have been on this incredible journey with us since Upwords was founded in 2008 and recognize our expertise in this area.


The benefits of online qualitative research have always been:

Candid: You can have conversations that minimize group think and social acceptability bias; everyone has an equal voice

Comprehensive: You are able to include participants from a broader geographic research, making the research more inclusive to diverse groups of people

Convenient: You can engage with people when it is convenient for them and we can also engage in the moment, bringing to life the power of ‘show us’ rather than asking them to ‘remember back when’

Collaborative: Your entire stakeholder team can easily ‘observe’ virtually, with no travel required

While we look forward to being able to conduct research in-person again in the future, we greatly appreciate all of the technology advances and our platform partners who enable us to have deep, meaningful conversations, without the need to be physically present with people.