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Virtual engagement - friend or foe?

Virtual engagement - friend or foe?

A blog by Bryony Iles, Research Manager at Explain Research.

It was inevitable that in the face of lockdown and social distancing brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses would start to turn towards digital transformation. This was certainly the case for us at Explain, and for many of our clients too, including those in the utilities sector which is considered a key worker industry. That said, we may have underestimated the power of virtual engagement, and the benefits which may continue to endure after everything returns to “normal”.

When lockdown hit, our priority at Explain was to continue delivering insightful and impactful research for our clients, and to maintain our partnership working approach to support them however we could. Aligned to this, we developed our solutions toolkit, which covers all bases and budgets, ranging from digital qualitative methods like our online communities, online focus groups and mobile ethnography, to quantitative approaches including bespoke digital tools, and more traditional CATI or online surveys.

Since lockdown, online focus groups using video conferencing, as well as our online communities, have become key engagement methods in our arsenal. Breaking down geographical barriers and reaching people in the comfort of their own homes have proven to be among the range of benefits of virtual engagement. With confidence using digital higher now than ever, including amongst respondents aged 55 or over who may have previously avoided research of this nature, online focus groups could continue to be a solution to feature in research programmes after lockdown and beyond.

Helen Priestley, Stakeholder Manager at Northern Powergrid says of working with Explain, “We have worked with Explain for a number of years, most recently on our RIIO-ED2 research programme. Through Covid-19 and the period of lockdown, the Explain team have been proactive in providing solutions to ensure our research and engagement has continued, providing innovative solutions to meet our needs, such as virtual focus groups with customers.”

For Explain, our client delivery has always remained front of mind. For us, nothing will compare to a physical face-to-face meeting or results de-brief with our clients, as these are the occasions we can really add value to your engagement programme and strategy development. That said, lockdown forced us to try something different, Zoom replaced face-to-face, but that hasn’t prevented us from continuing to build relationships with our clients and support achievement of their goals. Recently, we ran one of our regular best practice sharing sessions to bring clients together – but this time, it was virtual. After some great feedback from attendees, we’re beginning to think we might have cracked it!

Lucy Denham, Customer Research Manager at Northumbrian Water Group says, “Explain’s online community best practice sharing session was one of the best virtual events I’ve attended since lockdown. The team were really well prepared, friendly and engaging throughout. The event was a great balance of information sharing and Q&A. I would recommend attending one of Explain’s workshops to anyone in the insight community. I’ve worked with Explain for over five years and have been very impressed with their response to lockdown. As clients we have continued to receive the personalised and responsive service Explain have always offered – something we’ve really appreciated during this difficult time.”

Alongside all of this, the Covid-19 global pandemic and economic uncertainty has created unprecedented disruption to our work habits, personal and professional lives. During this time of change, an engagement strategy with employees is necessary to help them to better navigate the situation and to keep us connected. As a team, we’ve embraced technology with daily catch ups and fortnightly team huddles. Communication is key, and through the powers of video conferencing, we make sure we still see everyone’s faces. A regular online survey with staff helps us to check in and support their mental health and wellbeing where we can.

Though we may have been sceptical at first, our experience to date suggests that the end of lockdown is unlikely to herald the end of virtual engagement.  

Our expert team are in a position to deliver on your research and engagement goals. We have created a solutions toolkit to support you in understanding the options and opportunities available to you as social distancing continues. For more information, download our solutions toolkit and  and contact the team directly at holly.shiel-redfern@explainresearch.co.uk or 0191 2615261 to chat about your needs.