Having finished university in the summer of 2020, I got my first market research job in Autumn 2020, beginning my career in the middle of the COVID pandemic. Barely in the office, my career as a qualitative researcher started with online meetings, Zoom depths, and PowerPoint stimulus. Fast forward to my first week at RED C, which was coincidentally the first time my new team were about to embark on face-to-face research since the COVID pandemic. It was exciting for everyone; my colleagues were looking forward to getting back to a method that used to be at the heart of their role as researchers, but for me, I was uncovering a previously unknown side of the industry.

It was fascinating seeing participants in a room together and clients in the backroom discussing the insights in real-time. It felt so real! I found it to be a really visceral experience, and the opinions of the group felt particularly memorable. I discovered that in person focus groups are fun, lively, and engaging for everyone.

Face-to-face groups are not the norm for us – we still do most of our groups online – but they are becoming more common, and their current novelty contributes to our excitement. I have heard my colleagues’ pre-pandemic stories of carting huge bags of stimulus up and down the country, the stress of cancelled trains etc. and I don’t envy this. I do find it energising and thrilling conducting in-person research when we do it now.

I recently had the opportunity to go to Milan to observe research groups, which was an entirely new experience – from having a simultaneous translator in the room with me, to spending time with the moderator beforehand and gleaning little gems of cultural insights through casual conversation. It was incredibly valuable to experience the cultural differences firsthand, talk to the clients from the Italian office, and be completely immersed in the focus groups.  I lived and breathed the product for three days straight!

I was envious of the extent of the pre-pandemic travelling involved in market research when I started, but I can also understand how it takes its toll.  I relish the current mix of our qualitative research methods: striking a balance, determined by what’s best for the project, between face to face and online.  It allows us to experience the best of both worlds: the excitement, memorability and engagement generated by face-to-face research, combined with the focus, flexibility, and efficiency of online.