Empathy in the market research industry during times of crisis

“When the world is shifting due to disruption of innovation, we over-invest in methods to understand. In times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to listen, learn, and understand.”

We talk a lot at Infotools about the human side of research. One of the topics we’ve explored in depth is curiosity. Vital to good market research, curiosity is an important natural trait to nurture as we try to find the stories in the data. Right now, there’s another part of our humanity we should all employ to the fullest: empathy. While this may seem natural to some, it is surprising how a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can make some forget the most basic fundamentals of being human.

In speaking with a colleague in the U.K., before more people were social distancing, he said one of the most disturbing things he’d seen was people refusing to sit by anyone of Asian descent on the buses and foregoing food from Chinese or Italian restaurants. While this goes beyond lack of empathy and smacks of just plain racism, we’ve also all seen newscasts of people fighting in the stores over basic supplies; willing to bulldoze others to get that last package of toilet paper. 

Where is the empathy? Yes, good things are happening too. People are forming community networks to help those in need, seniors, and the vulnerable. Neighbors are helping neighbors. Longer-term support plans are being formulated. In these uncertain times, it seems timely to talk a little more about empathy, which has become more and more important in the market research industry. Arguably, it is now more important than ever before.

Empathetic consumer research

Experts in the industry have long been calling for market research that is less focused on brand, more focused on people. Questions focused on “what do you like about my brand?” will garner less valuable insights than “What do you need right now?” Understanding a person’s sentiment, feelings, needs, and personal situation can tell us a lot more about their potential behavior than knowing which brand logos they recognize. 

Some companies are tracking human emotions at a granular level, using AI and other technologies, to give companies a peek into their audiences' individual mindset. The premise here is that the more you can uncover when it comes to people’s feelings, the more empathetic you can be, the better action you can take, and the better the message, product, service you can deliver. As people employ value or belief-based shopping habits more and more, this depth of understanding directly impacts the bottom line. Brands and companies must support the causes and sensibilities that are important to their target audiences. 

Tracking sentiment during a crisis

As Insights Association CEO Melanie Courtright wrote in an article about market research and the COVID-19 pandemic, we should continue uncovering insights right now. While human emotions are swinging wildly during this unpredictable and unprecedented global situation, she writes that we should “keep asking, keep observing, keep learning.” By continuing our work, we can understand if anxiety is beginning to ease as time goes on. “When the world is shifting due to disruption of innovation, we over-invest in methods to understand. In times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to listen, learn, and understand.”

An empathic approach to our consumers is the only one to take during times like these. People’s habits are shifting as lifestyles are disrupted drastically through regulatory and personal attempts to curb the outbreak. We can look at these changes, but always with a thick layer of emotional sensibility, understanding and even sympathy. A deep understanding of human feelings can help us navigate, and now that is even more important, both for our own humanity and for brands themselves. A misstep right now, with emotions at an all-time high, can break trust and goodwill quickly and irrevocably. 

So, when we are thinking about what we can do now and how we will move forward in the future, let’s take a thoughtful step back. Tapping into our natural empathy, showing compassion, and understanding others can help us all build a positive future, even in the face of great adversity.

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