MRX concerns in the digital era; did our COVID pivots cause us to make inclusion sacrifices?

Author: Joanne Vega, MBA

Here we find ourselves; survivors of the economic collapse of the MR industry due to COVID shutdowns, eliminations of in-person studies, and a complete shift of research to online for the greater part of two years. Now we find ourselves looking into the future. What have we learned?

Was the research we conducted during our constrained times effective, accurate, and valuable?

In Washington State, we are starting to see the return of in-person studies now that mask and indoor capacity mandates have been lifted. Some areas of the US only experienced short shutdowns, but regions that were hit hard, like New York, and Seattle have only just started to regain some sense of normalcy.

Many have experienced new challenges, and we have learned new techniques in dealing with remote teams and groups digitally as we navigate a fractured workplace and environment.

This divergence in community and fracture of the US marketplace has us considering its true effects on market research populations as well. Many of our pandemic era studies moved to 100% online, which caused our internal teams to quickly learn how to be technical support, teaching individuals who have never joined a meeting before how to do it.

Traditionally, with studies conducted in person, we did not need to track or collect a respondent’s access to technology and technical literacy. Which populations have access to computers, webcams, and high-speed internet? Should we be requiring these items to participate? How has this requirement changed who is participating in studies?

A continued challenge we are facing in our research is finding respondents for qualitative and quantitative studies who are truly representative of the market’s consumers. Older participants will often opt out of online studies due to a lack of comfort with technology, plus these individuals are often also those who are overly cautious about their personal data. Across demographics, those that are private with their personal data and either afraid to share or among the groups who are highly concerned are hesitant or even refuse to join studies that require webcam usage to join.

While many researchers will tout how amazing and valuable it is to get a slice of life from their participants as they are able to join from their homes where it is convenient, this invasion of privacy is certainly a detractor to some market segments.

A group of people walking and talking on a train deck.

How technology requirements are inserting bias in our research work

I have specific concerns about how limiting online data collection approaches are to those who are literate or affluent. Online data collection requires a connection to the internet; trade workers, farmworkers, and those who do not regularly use the internet for their work are unlikely to have reliable enough access to high-speed internet to join lengthy studies, and also are unlikely to be highly engaged in email or SMS marketing to engage in surveys.

These populations, through their lack of resources, are removing themselves (or are being removed through methodology choices) from the research participant universe. What are the effects of not including these in our research studies? I’ve witnessed the outcomes of social issues studies focus more and more on the needs of the upper-middle class and affluent than they have in the past, which can be concerning as we examine the impacts of the outcomes of our research studies.

How do we mitigate the effects of technology selection bias in our research?

One tenant of approaching work, management, and even research with a focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is to think of meeting people where they are. In short, I view meeting people where they are as an approach that involves asking questions, asking those you are interviewing to share more than you are giving, and asking them to come as they are. Dirty, busy, via telephone, computer, or even text message. Participate, join, and share using a method that you are familiar with.

Some may say that ethnographic research attempts to reach participants at their level, but even in these types of studies often the actions we ask participants to complete to be part of a study can still have them “lifting” themselves to a level of personal misrepresentation.

Meeting participants where they are can extend to something as simple as not requiring everyone to use Zoom! What if we asked the participants what web meeting technology they preferred? We can conduct studies via Facebook Messenger calls, Whatsapp, Teams, Discord, telephone, and more. There are hundreds of options available.

Let’s challenge ourselves! When you are designing your research studies are you meeting your participants where they are?

Want to think about this more? Check out this discussion from Boston College Center for Work and Family about COVID-19 Impact of Diversity and Inclusion:

Diveristy, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in the Journal of Consumer Research: A Curation and Research Agenda.
Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 48, Issue 5, February 2022, Pages 920–933,