The global pandemic has been a catalyst for change in nearly all industry sectors. It has perhaps provided the biggest boost to the research technology and online panel business since its first appearance in Asia about 20 years ago.
There have been two main driving factors behind this. The first, and the most obvious, is that during the pandemic and the lockdowns, far more fieldwork has had to go online.
The second driving factor has been the ‘digital transformation’ of corporations. More searching and buying has been conducted online, with greater use of e-commerce, online ordering, and electronic payments; this has made consumers’ purchase paths and buying patterns more transparent. This wealth of data has helped to embed a culture of ‘data-based’ decision-making within corporations.
Dini Islami, Managing Director of BVA BDRC Asia, conducted a survey in Indonesia with GMO Research and found that the lockdowns had prompted many consumers to adopt electronic payment products to facilitate more online transactions. This has helped to transform a predominantly cash-based consumer economy into something more sophisticated, and this will spur on growth in home-based e-commerce businesses, helping the overall Indonesian economy to recover.
Takashi Ito, Chief Global Officer of GMO Research, comments that digitised corporations are undertaking more research as part of their PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) approach to business – an iterative four-step management method to continually enhance products. They have seen a growth in IT and technology clients coming directly to GMO, for example, for product testing research.
James Burge, Managing Director of Dynata (APAC) concurs, stating that “data-driven marketing is becoming embedded in organisations with the acceleration in online activity and with it the supply of data”.
Since healthcare has been the ‘hot topic’ throughout the pandemic, panel companies have developed more specialised panels. In 2020, Borderless Access rolled out BA Health. Ruchika Gupta, CEO of Borderless Access, comments: “the insights and research space within healthcare has gradually shifted towards digital methodologies… the launch of BA Health unifies our full range of digital capabilities to cater to the healthcare industry and service our clients more efficiently”. Borderless Access has grown its healthcare research team as part of its plan to bolster its healthcare insights and analytics capabilities.
However, 2020 saw the largest decline in GDP and company revenues in living memory, and inevitably this has put pressure on corporate marketing budgets. Indeed, the Asia Research Stakeholder Survey conducted in 2020 showed that a net 41% of clients in Asia expected a lower budget for research in 2021 compared to 2020, and cuts were already happening in 2020. James Burge observed that trackers had been maintained during the crisis and ad hoc surveys were more impacted at the height of the pandemic in 2020. But James comments that the recovery is under way and we will see new opportunities arise, such as brands updating their segmentation models in changing and disrupted markets.
James also observes growth in online research in the Asian emerging markets that have traditionally used in-person surveys, and where cost differentials in online and offline fieldwork are not so great. Dynata has invested more in their emerging markets panels, for example, to increase representation of lower socioeconomic classification segments – sometimes a challenge in emerging markets.
Ludo Milet, Managing Director of Toluna APAC, comments that Asia has been the first region to recover from the crisis, and Toluna APAC are seeing strong growth in their business in China. Ludo also points out that Chinese corporations are getting more sophisticated, acting more like global brands and undertaking more research.
The other transformation of the industry has been the adoption of DIY research. Takashi Ito from GMO Research says that corporations are still dependent on the research agency for more complex surveys that require more “human input” into design elements, etc, but for surveys using simple structured questionnaires the corporations are increasingly going direct to panel companies with “light DIY solutions”. Ludo Milet comments: “Toluna developed real-time consumer intelligence platforms which include a range of end-to-end DIY solutions with easy scripting, both templated and fully customised dashboards, and advanced analytics and reporting functionality. Since its release in late 2020, we have recorded 48% growth in active users globally, with a significant increase in demand from current and new clients.” Their acquisition of the full-service agency Harris Interactive back in 2014 meant they were well prepared in questionnaire design capabilities to meet the higher DIY need today.
Online qualitative research was around for many years before the pandemic, but it struggled to gain traction. Today it has become more of a ‘norm’, although questions remain about the level of respondent engagement within online focus groups, e.g. via video conferencing. The answer has been the use of more one-on-one qualitative, digital ethnographic, and hybrid qualitative/quantitative techniques. In 2020, GMO Research introduced their cloud solution service ´MO Insights´ into their online survey platform, enabling users to complete online qualitative surveys involving consumer interviews. Dynata acquired Crowd Lab, and one of their solutions was to enhance qualitative feedback from quantitative surveys by incorporating short video/audio responses and capturing in-the-moment consumer opinions.
The decline in offline research has boosted demand for online insights communities. Scott Lee, Managing Partner at InSites Consulting Asia, comments: “Our digital community business has been very robust through the pandemic. In general, clients with structural digital communities in place before COVID-19 have benefitted from staying in touch with their customers. The importance of ongoing digital engagement and learning from customers has indeed only accelerated as well. Digital transformation has ‘time-machined’ forward 5 years.”
Scott continues: “Pop-up qualitative communities and online qualitative groups/depths have also proved popular as clients have not always been able to conduct traditional face-to-face focus groups. In many cases clients have realised digital methodologies offer comparable if not better insights to ‘FGDs’. For example, more time, more segments, more reach geographically, and more questions.”
With the huge growth in e-commerce, we see a corresponding growth in online data. As corporations rely more on e-commerce, passive metering of consumers’ online behaviour has been in higher demand to aid brands’ investment in online media buying. With consumers’ widespread adoption of tracing apps during the pandemic, they have in some ways become more accepting of being tracked.
However, consumers are also becoming more aware of how their data is being used and commercialised. Concerns about how consumers’ online behaviour is being monitored have boosted the use of virtual private network (VPN) software that encrypts users’ web traffic and masks their IP addresses. These VPN service providers have been heavily advertised throughout the pandemic in response to the very obvious use of customers’ online behavioural data, e.g. for targeted offers. While consumers might appreciate these targeted offers, there are increasing concerns about how ‘Big Tech’ is controlling our lives – everything from what they observe about us, to what they communicate to us, to what they choose to censor on partisan political or so-called ‘social justice’ issues.
Going forward, there will be a battle between privacy vs the transparency that corporations and governments are seeking in order to gain better understanding and ‘control’ of the consumer.