Recruiting for In-Person Research in a Sort-of-Post COVID World

Ethnographiesin-person researchretail market researchQualitative

Recruiting for In-Person Research in a Sort-of-Post COVID World

While the jury is still out as to whether COVID is on its way out, luxury retail brands are over it already. They want to know if the world is finally ready to get out of their sweatpants. And, if they are ready for something as revolutionary as, you know, wearing shoes and getting back into an office environment. If so, which brands speak loudest to them?

The Olinger Group recently completed a research project for one of the top designer brands in the world. (We could tell you which but then we’d have to kill you.) While it all ended on a positive note – it was a real nail-biter there for a while. Before COVID, it would have taken us a week to find participants for the kind of study we wished to perform. This time, it took us four! We found this gobsmacking, and we expect other companies deciding to do in-person research projects again will discover the same thing. Consider this blog more of a friendly warning than a “we told you so.”

While it looks like America is ready to get all dolled up again, it’s not as easy as it should be to get people to participate in ethnographic research. In-home and in-person research, shop-alongs, and other types of observational research are still scary to some. As a result, we found ourselves very close to going without respondents for this high-profile project.

So, what was the hold up? Frankly, the companies we normally depend on were asleep in front of Zoom. It’s like they forgot that recruiting requires people skills, personal interaction, and being willing and available to answer questions. The masks may be coming off, but people still have concerns and, quite frankly, aren’t willing to risk their health without some extra handholding.

Basically, we learned two things: 

1. You must be really good at networking (we’ll talk more about that in a future blog).


2. Qualitative research recruiters that still go the extra mile to keep personal connections with their respondents are going to be able to recruit better than those that have fully automated the recruiting process. These are typically the smaller companies that still know who’s in their database and do not take them for granted.

Why go small, you ask? The truth is, many companies that normally do in-person research had to shut down during the pandemic and, those that managed to say open, let their databases go stagnant. The solution? For us, it meant going back to the basics – the smaller shops who recruit the “old-school way” by phone, by referrals, and through connections. Shops who have always been more invested in their databases. Firms that bring the human element back to recruiting.

Quite simply, we realized that, while the big shops specialize in database management, the smaller ones specialize in making human connections. And that’s what’s needed right now. 

So now that we’re back in the real world (or almost), we offer you these three tips for doing in-person research: 

  1. Interview your suppliers — find out how well they maintain their database and respondent network 
  1. It’s also worth noting that recruiting feasibility in your quote isn’t a guarantee. Ask for how many respondents the recruiter has in their database that fit the study’s criteria and how they plan to supplement if there isn’t enough. You’d be surprised at the answers we got 
  1. Allow yourself more time for snowball referrals and networking 
  1. Make sure the company you hire is committed to making phone calls and reaching out. Emails and online recruiting aren’t going to cut it. They must be willing to answer questions and make people feel comfortable participating in in-person research 

Ultimately, for us, it became an “all hands on deck” situation. We went through all the stages of denial before we realized it was up to us. We needed to tap our networks and find shops that take a personal interest in their people. We committed to each other that, next go-round, we’re going to bake in more time, do more networking, and hunt down local focus group facilities & qualitative recruiters who don’t take the human connection for granted. 

For a while, market research firms like ours have just gone along with a larger recruiting company, figuring they must be better at what they do. Turns out, this just isn’t so. Doing research with one of these big machines vs. a smaller shop is the difference between going to a Chili’s vs. a homecooked meal. 

We’ll take mom’s meatloaf, thank you.

Categories: Ethnographies, in-person research, retail market research, Qualitative /

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