Returning to focus groups after COVID-19

What do we need to do as research facility operators in Washington State in order to instill confidence among research participants that in-person studies are safe to participate in?

A quantitative study on the public’s opinion of health and safety concerns regarding attending small meetings in today’s COVID-19 climate and how it relates to our continued in-person research study operations.

Research design, data collection, and report completed by:
Tyler Jackson, Research Analyst, Strategic Research Associates LLC
Joanne Vega, MBA, Research Director, Strategic Research Associates LLC

Methodology in Fielding

From May 16th through May 30th, the Strategic Research Associates Panel was leveraged for use in a phone survey that was aimed at capturing the opinions of past and potential in-person research group participants and their willingness to return to studies in the near future. We also chose to investigate what best practices in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19 they would want to see implemented in our research facilities to make them feel better about participating.

Our survey included five demographic questions to understand and validate the diverse demographics in our research panel. These demographic questions help us to understand which specific policies are important to specific subsegments of our population.

Respondents were asked up to nine questions on their general concerns on contracting COVID-19, their willingness to participate in in-person research groups, their opinions of our plans to ensure their health and safety, their personal policy preferences, and their desire to participate in in-person research groups at our facilities

Our demographic aim was to survey Washington State residents, split between Eastern and Western Washington, to help us understand the nuanced differences between the opinions on individuals in these different market areas and to ensure statistical reliability. We also used quotas to balance responses by gender and age within each region to the census for statistical reliability.

Data were collected from 370 respondents across the state of Washington between the ages of 18 and 91. Each interview took between 7 and 9 minutes to complete depending on the respondent's engagement with the open-ended narratives.

Due to the rules of statistical reliability and the size of subsamples we can achieve with each question, we can state the findings in this report are statistically valid to +/- 5.09% at 95% confidence.

Executive Summary and Key Findings

Our research goal with this study was to look at quantifying and decerning the publics' opinion on participating in in-person research studies at our research facilities and at clients' facilities.

  • What measures would they like to see done to instill confidence?
  • What safety measures are important?
  • What should we do right to minimize the concern of spread and infection when attending an in-person research study at a facility or hosted location?
Our respondents are willing to attend future research studies

An overwhelming portion of our respondents indicated they would be willing to participate in future studies with 362 respondents of the possible 370 indicating yes to the final question, “Do you feel like you will be willing to participate in in-person studies in the future held at either our Strategic Research offices or at a local hotel or event facility?”. There were no differences in opinion by race, age, or location; overall, the consensus between all demographics is that they felt comfortable participating in “in-person studies.”

Safety and sanitation measures are essential to have in place

Our panelists indicated they would feel better about attending in-person studies if we implemented the following:

  • We sanitized all high-touch surfaces
  • Use of hand sanitizer upon entry to the building
  • Have everyone's temperature taken
  • Have disposable face masks readily available for those that are coughing or sneezing
  • And ask all guests, participants, employees, and clients if they have had a fever over 100 degrees in the last three days.

Those living in Western Washington and those aged 55+ are statistically more likely also to feel better if “All are required to wear a face mask when inside the facility.”

Detailed findings; question by question review of responses to our study questions and subsegment analysis

Demographic Questions overview.

As explained in our earlier section, the goal was to balance three demographics for this study to census so the data would be reliable and unbiased. This balanced data will be used to extrapolate out and make statistically true assumptions for the rest of our research panel.

Given the research panel operated by Strategic Research is built on decades of RDD data collection and opt-in participation, we can also extrapolate these findings to the general population. With some of these assumptions, we must also consider that among the general population, awareness and confidence with our brand will be less and that the populations with no exposure to market research will likely to be less enthusiastic about participating in studies than those with experience within our research panel as we have not yet earned their trust.

In QS1 we had our agents fill in gender from observation. The results showed us that 175 of 370 (47.3%) respondents are male, and 195 of 370 (52.7%) are female.

The balance of our genders within our study is what we were aiming for and indicates that the results of the survey can be statistically extrapolated to the rest of our research panel.

In QS2 we asked what our respondents their age. Our goal was again to spread the responses around to mirror census for the population targeted. The results from this question show us that 95 respondents (25.7%) are between the ages of 18-35, 147 (39.7%) are between the ages of 35-54, and 128 (34.6%) are 55+ or older.

In this question, we saw a balance of age that was consistent with our database.

IN QS4 we asked our respondents, “What is your home ZIP code”. The results from QS4 were balanced so we could get a 50/50 split of Eastern Washington ZIP codes (99***) and Western Washington ZIP codes (98***). The results from QS4 were true to our goal. In the study, there were 188 (50.8%) that said they were from Eastern Washington ZIP codes, and 182 (49.2%) said they were from Western Washington ZIP codes.

QS5 our last demographic question our agents asked the respondents, “How many in-person focus groups, legal focus groups, and mock trials have you ever participated in, in total? Just the in-person studies, not the online qualboards, online focus groups, or online panel surveys”.

This question was asked to see if there is going to be any statistical differences in the primary data screening questions between those that have been in a focus group environment and those that have not.

We feel it is important to us to cross-reference on this demographic because those that have never been in an in-person focus group environment don't know the typical procedure that takes place. If a focus group recruitment calls for first time participants, we would be able to use this study to see if any different approaches are warranted to ensure high participation from individuals who are less familiar with focus groups.  

The results show us that 81 (21.9%) of our respondents have not participated in an in-person research group ever, and 289 (78.1%) have participated in at least one focus group ever.

The total break down can be seen below:

Primary data

These questions will help us understand the concerns of our panel, procedures they would like to see implemented at our in-person studies to stifle the potential spread of COVID-19, and their willingness to participate in in-person studies hosted by Strategic Research.

In Q1 we asked our respondents, “Would you say you are VERY CONCERNED, SOMEWHAT CONCERNED, SOMEWHAT NOT CONCERNED, NOT CONCERNED AT ALL, or NEITHER?”. We made sure to reverse the order of the options read for 50% of the respondents to avoid first response bias.

Overall, the most popular response was “somewhat concerned” with 154 (41.6%) of our respondents choosing that option. The results also showed us that 75 (20.3%) of our respondents were “not concerned at all,” and “very concerned” was the third most popular option chosen with 70 (18.9%) of our respondents choosing it.

When looking at the aggregated average of the responses, we see that our respondents' “average” concern was a little bit above “neither.”

Digging deeper, the data communicated to us that those ages 55+ were the most concerned with being exposed to COVID-19, as they are statistically more likely to choose “very concerned” and “somewhat concerned” as compared to the 18-34 and the 35-54 age groups.

When the options to this question were quantified, with VERY CONCERNED=5, SOMEWHAT CONCERNED=4, NEITHER= 3, SOMEWHAT NOT CONCERNED=2, AND NOT CONCERNED AT ALL=1,  the results show us that females have statistically higher concern average compared to men with an average concern rating of 3.45 vs. 3.02.

Q2 asked, “At Strategic Research, we plan to resume in-person focus groups once our State Department of Health recommends it is safe for groups of 50 or less congregate. Once we can meet again, do you think you will be willing to participate in focus groups? Yes, No, or Maybe?”.

309 of a possible 370 (83.5%) said “yes” to the question asked, while 7 (1.9%) and 54 (14.6%) said “maybe” and “no”. Statistically, those ages 18-34 are more likely to respond “yes” than compared to all other age groups while ages 55+ were more likely to answer “no” than those ages 18-34.

Q4 The respondents were asked, “When focus groups resume, we have a few plans we are considering implementing to help ensure the health and safety of our employees, clients, and participants. For each of these “plans,” I'd like to know how these make you feel. Do they make you feel better about attending focus groups, worse, or does it have no effect?” and given the following options:

  • We require all who enter our facility to use CDC recommended hand sanitizer upon entry, prior to signing in to participate or joining a study
  • We only offer sealed pre-packaged foods for snacks, no cookie or veggie trays, salads, sandwich bars, etc.
  • Only use disposable materials in discussions, pens, and notepads used are destroyed and not cleaned and recycled
  • Sanitize all high-touch surfaces after each touch
  • Sanitize all high-touch surfaces daily
  • All are required to remain 6-feet away from each other during a focus group, while in the discussion
  • All are required to remain 6-feet away from each other while waiting prior to a group and signing in
  • All are required to wear a face mask while inside the facility
  • Disposable face masks are available on-site for individuals to use if they wish to use them
  • Those that are observed coughing or sneezing at any time are required to wear a face mask for the duration of the study, disposable masks will be provided by the facility
  • All guests, clients, and employees will have their temperature checked upon arrival using an on-site thermometer, any with a temperature will be sent away
  • All guests, clients, and employees will be asked if they have experienced a temperature of over 100 degrees in the past 3 days, and if so sent away

The most popular response was “sanitize all high touch surfaces daily” there were 323 (87.3%) of the respondents who indicated that it was “better”; Females are statistically more likely to indicate better on this selection with 181 92.8% of females indicating “better” compared to 142 (81.1%) males.

The second most selected “better” choice was “We require all who enter our facility to use CDC recommended hand sanitizer upon entry, prior to signing in to participate or joining a study,” with 302 (81.6%) of respondents indicating it was better.

And rounding out the top 3 was the selection,” All guests, clients, and employees will have their temperature checked upon arrival using an on-site thermometer, any with a temperature will be sent away,” with 301 respondents (81.4%) choosing this response. Those 55+ are more likely to consider this “better” than those ages 18-34.

Now when looking at the “plans” that respondents indicated would be “worse” the data indicates that, “All are required to wear a face mask while inside the facility” was the most selected choice for “worse” with 65 respondents picking it for “worse”, also those ages 18-54 were more likely to say “worse” on this selection than those 55+.

Q5 the question was asked,” Are there any policies among those we just discussed that you would personally recommend we move forward with ensuring are in place? Which ones?” with multiple selections allowed.

The options of “require hand sanitizer,” with 195 responses (52.7%), “require facemasks for everyone” with 192 responses (51.9%), and “Sanitize high touch surfaces daily” round out the top 3.

The options “take people's temperature upon arrival,” “none,” and “ask people if they have had a temperature in the past 3-days” rounded out the bottom 3 with 58 (15.7%), 49 (13.2%), and 25 (6.8%) respectively.

Policies that are aimed at stopping the direct spread of the disease, hand sanitizer, sanitizing surfaces, wearing face masks, and keeping a 6-foot social distance all were above 40% in the survey.

For Q7, respondents were asked, “Do you feel like you will be willing to participate in in-person focus groups in the future held at either our Strategic Research offices or at a local hotel or event facility?”.

This question had an overwhelming response of “YES” with 362 of a possible 370 (97.8%). The consensus was evident through all demographics that were screened in this survey.

This question differs form the Q2 because in this question, we are specifying that the research is going to take place under Strategic Research Associates supervision, and it appears after our discussion about safety practices within the survey instrument.

Question Q9 the question was then asked,” When do you think your opinion on participating will change?”. This question was only asked of the respondents that answered “no” in Q7. The respondents were not read any options and could vocalize multiple opinions.

Since there were only 8 (2.2%) respondents that were asked this question, statistical assumptions cannot be extrapolated to the rest of our research panel. The results do show that three respondents said “when a vaccine becomes available,” and all the rest had a unique response.

Results Summary

The survey results have painted a clear picture of the opinions of our panel and their concerns about participating in studies while our population is still navigating COVID-19. They also give us guidance on how participants would support us in proceeding with our business operations and ensure the safety of everyone participating in in-person research studies.

Our respondents also communicated to us that, in an almost full consensus, they would be willing to participate in in-person research studies.

One important development in this survey can be seen in Q1, where we quantified our panels' concern of contracting COVID-19: those aged 55+ and women are statistically more concerned about the virus than those ages 18-34. When speaking to the total population, the averages fall below the somewhat concerned threshold communicating to us that our average panelist has the virus on their mind but most likely won't let that concern interrupt their day to day life.

We should remember that our female segments and especially those over 55 are more concerned about contracting the disease. When communicating with them about studies in the future we should be sure that they understand the safety policies in place, and are reinsured that everything is being done to ensure their health is not at risk when participating in a study.

In the results, we found there were very few discrepancies among our regional opinions. This consensus among regions in our panel communicates to us that both of our Washington State locations (Spokane in Eastern Washington and Federal Way in Western Washington) can be extended the same assumptions from this survey. The only notable discrepancy we observed was in Western Washington where respondents were more likely to prefer we move forward with requiring everyone to wear face masks or face coverings while in a study.

Other than this face mask discrepancy, our respondents hold similar opinions on how they feel about the virus, how they feel about which precautions should be taken, and how comfortable they are in taking part in in-person research groups at our facilities.

To ensure a safe environment, the majority of our panel agreed that we should move forward with requiring hand sanitizer, requiring face coverings for those observed coughing, recommending face coverings for all attending, and sanitizing all high touch surfaces daily. The eagerness of our research panel to support attending future in-person research studies reassures us that moving forward with face to face research is still a possibility in the months to come.

While the onus is on us (Strategic Research) to communicate to participants about safety measures and ensure participants understand what roles we all take in community health during the recruiting and retention process for research study events, concerns over safety do not appear to be a significant limiting factor in the success of future in-person research projects.

While COVID-19 has created a challenging “new normal” for many of us in the market research field, we welcome these challenges as the conversations we will have in the near future with our participants both in studies online and in-person will help us improve the quality of services, products, and satisfaction for our clients' causes, products, and use cases.

Have a question or comment regarding these findings? Send us a note.