The lost quarter? How COVID-19 is impacting media research
David Pidgeon looks at how the 'backbone of industry decision making' has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic - and what could change in the long-term
On so many levels does COVID-19 now impact our lives. And once the worst of it is over, whenever that may be, its legacy will be long-lasting.
Beyond the human tragedies, we need to understand how it will impact media and advertising, and here we look at how the pandemic could limit the efforts of media researchers to supply the industry with the trusted trading currencies, audience insights and data that underpin investment decisions, business strategy and advertising campaigns.
The first consideration, however, is the impact on jobs.
Face-to-face interviewing – which was the backbone of media research for many years - is on pause because of the COVID-19 crisis, but arguably it was already on the way out. Could it bounce back?
“Possibly not,” says Richard Marks, founder of Research the Media. “The trend in this form of data collection has been significantly downwards over the last decade and more, driven by falling response rates, difficulties in recruiting interviewers and the attractive cost of alternatives, particularly online research.”
Marks says face-to-face interviewing has retrenched around two key areas: the media currencies and social research. Both require very high quality samples as billions of pounds are traded on media currencies, whilst the government’s spending is allocated based on accurately surveying the needs of the society it serves.
“I suspect that face-to-face for social research may eventually bounce back, but as for media research, this could prove the end for in-home recruitment,” he says.
IPSOS, by far the largest contractor, failed to supply a statement on the matter, but last month Jane Frost, boss of The Market Research Society, wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, warning of the “immediate and potentially catastrophic impact” of COVID-19 on the industry.
The thrust of the problem is that the market research sector is entirely dependent on the slower return of business confidence, with projects taking up to three months to re-commission.
Certainly, it seems the crisis will impact the larger market research businesses with larger clients, while the feeling amongst experts Mediatel News spoke with is that the boutique agencies and indies – both more reliant on hand to mouth contract wins – are less likely to suffer.
Closer to home, the Joint Industry Currencies (JICs) – Barb, Rajar, PAMCo, Route et al – have been reluctant to fully embrace alternatives to face-to-face because it is regarded as the best and most accurate way to reach a balanced sample.
However, Marks says a number of other countries have moved to alternatives, whilst some UK currencies have already trialled hybrid approaches including face-to-face recruitment augmented with online for hard-to-reach groups.
“The move away from face-to-face has not been because the alternatives are better - or even as good - but due to falling media owner revenues causing funding issues for the currencies,” he says.
“The likely impact on advertising revenue of this crisis will make the money available to fund currencies even harder to find. The argument for alternative means of data collection may become overwhelming.”
Currently, Rajar, which uses face-to-face to recruit its sample, and PAMCo, which uses interviews, have paused fieldwork and will process the data they have collected thus far.
Similarly, Barb can no longer conduct face-to-face interviews and its technicians can no longer visit panel homes, while Establishment Survey and panel recruitment interviews have also ceased.
UKOM, which announced the development of a new 10,000 strong panel before Christmas, included a minimum of 2,000 people recruited face-to-face with the rest online and by phone, so will also feel some impact.
However, along with Route and ABC, all the currencies and major measurement bodies appear relatively protected in the short-term. As one boss put it: “There’s enough petrol in the tank to see us through until the Autumn.”
That is because there is so much reliable historical data running through all of the currencies - so with the correct modelling, the continuation of automatic data acquisition and input from online or phone, a reliable picture can still be maintained – but only up to a point.
“Eventually the data would age and become redundant,” says PAMCo boss Simon Redican. “But you could survive on historical data for some time. We’ve got data in the bank.”
Redican says that by September it would probably be time to re-issue or remodel, but until then the currencies should be relied on.
“We, like other JICs, are confident enough to see this through.”
Meanwhile, Justin Sampson, CEO of Barb, says that while technicians are unable to visit homes, he expects daily audience data delivery to continue as normal, with “little impact” for users.
“That said, data may become slightly more variable over time,” he says.
“Our research agencies are working on initiatives to maintain the reporting sample at as high a level as possible so we can mitigate the risk of data variability.”
Elsewhere, ABC has made available an alternative method of reporting relating to the exclusion of issues from publications’ average circulations – sort of like an ‘extenuating circumstances’ note on the ABC certificate.
Reassuringly, Belinda Beeftink, research director at the IPA, representing agencies, said all of the JICs have sound contingency plans in place so there is no disruption in the flow of data.
“However, in time this might mean modelling from existing data,” she says.
For example, Rajar says it is working on "a variety of options" with its technical group - which includes agency and advertiser input via the IPA and ISBA.
"We will be producing estimated audience figures using the best solution available to us under these extraordinary circumstances and the ad market will still be able to function," says CEO Jerry Hill. "The ISBA, the IPA and our radio broadcasters are all committed to this."
To that end, Rajar's Q1 data will be published as planned on May 13, while Q2 - which is impacted by an absence of field interviewers - will rely on a "contingency service" and estimated audience data will be published in August, in line with the pre-COVID-19 plans.
The lost quarter
What this surfaces, as another research boss told Mediatel News, is the concern that by “affording” to miss a quarter, eyebrows might be raised by those who already think the media currencies are too expensive.
“If it becomes an accepted standard that you could lose a quarter, then cost-cutters could use that against them,” they say.
Similarly, other researches wonder if coronavirus will be an excuse for some big studies to go online - yet another way to reduce costs, but under the guise of social responsibility.
Others, meanwhile, are concerned that the wonderfully named “data spivs” or “techno data bandits” might try and fill the void - something everyone Mediatel News spoke with is keen to keep out of the picture. Now is not the time to cut corners or be seduced by such charmers, was the consensus.
That said, the industry must look to viable alternatives.
“Telephone is an option but response rates are even lower than for face-to-face, even if a reliable representative sample frame of phone numbers can be complied,” says Marks.
“Online access panels are the obvious route and one already followed en masse by most other types of research. However most other forms of research do not require the pinpoint accuracy that media currency research does.”
For example, if Colgate wants to know whether their new toothpaste should have a blue or red packet, it doesn’t much matter whether 70% opt for blue or 65%, so long as there is a clear preference.
However, if The Voice gets 4 million rather than 4.5 million viewers that is 9% less ad revenue for ITV.
The crisis will therefore accelerate the urgency behind the search for quality alternatives to face-to-face interviewing, but there are no concrete solutions on the table.
However, some researchers wonder if passive measurement could become more prevalent, while others look increasingly to new communications tech.
"Online is good to get a read on stuff, phone helps probe a bit deeper for the why," says Denise Turner, director of insight at Newsworks.
"Some are using online focus group technology, and I think it's worth going through the research back catalogue with a COVID lens."
A recalibrated society
When this crisis comes to an end, will things ever return to normal?
“People might be even more suspicious of interviewers knocking on their doors, or be so starved of social contact that they are just glad of the contact,” says Marks.
“But it's madness to make any predictions about the long-term future of the market research business at this early stage. We are still processing the implications and trying to work out how to navigate the crisis, but perhaps society as a whole may emerge with a heightened sense of community.”
Marks says it is that sense of public spirit that has always been the lifeblood of the research industry; the idea that respondents give their time to provide information that makes society - and yes, the TV they watch - better for everyone.