Focus Group Moderator and Brand Strategy Consultant in Los Angeles California | Storybrand Consulting

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How clear masks revealed areas for improvement in qual
Tom Neveril shares how shopping for clear face masks revealed areas for improvement within qualitative research methods.

Editor's note: Tom Neveril is president, Storybrand Consulting, Los Angeles.

As the news about Q2 spending and subsequent budget cuts rolls in, nearly everyone on the supplier side of the market research industry is asking themselves, how can we better adapt to life with COVID-19?

I looked at recent industry reports for direction. I read that buyers say their priority is getting truly insightful, actionable recommendations presented in a way that is engaging and motivating. If supplier approaches don’t ultimately lead to organizational actions, the buyer has little interest in hearing about them.

So how do suppliers provide even smarter recommendations, when COVID-19 has practically eliminated in-person qualitative from our tool box? Should we just “seamlessly transition” to virtual qualitative, as suggested in the many ads, articles and posts we see every day in marketing media?

Virtual vs. in-person qualitative

After giving this some consideration, I think suppliers discredit themselves if they pitch virtual qual as an apples to apples replacement for in-person methods.  

In-person remains the best method for a deeply revealing conversation, because the respondent(s) and moderator can see, hear and experience each other, in the same room. And when we’re physically together, we have a far greater capacity for empathy. Our mirror neurons mimic not just behaviors but the sensations and feelings as well.

Conversely, virtual qualitative can bring researchers into participant places or explore behaviors that are simply too private for in-person market research. It also offers many other advantages including speed and simultaneous global reach.

All considered, they are different tools with different strengths. And so recently I’ve been brainstorming ways to restore in-person qualitative in the age of COVID-19.

Assessing risk

Now I realize you might be thinking that no amount of PPE will lower the risk to an acceptable level for market research. But the reality is most people are already taking far greater risks daily in retailers and work sites across the country. Millions of essential workers everywhere are breathing the same air as other masked people who have never been screened for symptoms or tested.

And the roughly 6,100 hospitals in the U.S. continue to trust PPE and other defensive measures while treating active COVID-19 infections. Therefore, it’s arguable that market researchers can take defensive steps to responsibly conduct in-person fieldwork with respondents who’ve been screened for illness.

And this is likely why many state and local governments have allowed market research facilities.

So given these considerations, I decided to investigate clear masks. In my mind, there’s little point to conducting in-person research if moderators and respondents cannot see each other’s faces.

Looking into clear masks and seeing much more

In the first week of July, I reached out to the COO and co-founder of a company called ClearMask, and we arranged a Zoom call. On that call, I learned that one of the founders is deaf and started the company a couple years ago after a serious miscommunication with her physician, who was wearing a standard mask.

A few days later, I posted a fairly glowing review of the ClearMask on LinkedIn. I noted that they’re probably a lifesaver for people with hearing and language difficulties. The post has attracted several thousand views and dozens of positive comments, with many suggestions for other appropriate scenarios like classrooms.

After buying a box and wearing the ClearMask, I have had people tell me things like, “Your mask is so cool.” Of course, I ask, “Why do you think so?” One essential worker summed it up saying, “I miss seeing people’s faces.”

So clear masks are definitely one way we can adapt to life with COVID-19, and I intend to use them in market research. But the experience of investigating them has been the catalyst to a host of other realizations about how I can get better at qualitative research, regardless of this pandemic.

Screening and inclusivity

How many of us routinely consider the fact that 15% of the U.S. population, age 18+, report at least some difficulty with their hearing? Unfortunately, in over 20 years of moderating, I’ve never intentionally recruited people with these issues or modified my approach to accommodate them. This is clearly an important audience to consider.

Nonverbal communication

With our faces mostly covered, many of us are thinking about nonverbal communication skills. I took it a step further and reread, “What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People,” by Joe Navarro. It’s filled with fascinating tips that are more important than ever before.

For example, what’s the most truthful part of the human body? The eyes are the windows to the soul, right? Actually, the FBI thinks our feet are the most truthful. So if you’re in a conversation with someone whose feet consistently point toward the exit, it’s likely that they’re uncomfortable.

Facility spaces

As we realize that our entire bodies are critical instruments to communicating, what should we do in market research facilities? Too often I still use rooms with massive tables. I’ve used the increasingly common “living room set up” many times but haven’t prioritized it as much as I should have. It’s also helpful for those observant colleagues behind the glass.

Recording and streaming technology

Another more obvious idea is to push for the best possible video recording technology available. I’ve recently been investigating 360-degree, HD cameras and microphones. So much meaning is found in micro-expressions, gestures and breathing. Too often I’ve written reports without the assistance of high-quality recordings.

It’s appalling that some facilities still offer a stationary overhead camera with standard definition (sometimes for hundreds of dollars per hour). Their continued use is certainly a blemish on the market research industry and perhaps a contributor to the growing DIY trend.


The industry’s innovative move toward AI-driven analysis is still no substitute for thinking. While machine-based transcription is a terrific tool for easily finding and cataloging sections of conversation, it’s highly unreliable for text accuracy and most importantly, meaning. Subtext and sarcasm, for example, are a huge part of communication, particularly with teens.

Planning for the future

Ultimately, I believe that we can solve at least some of the challenges created by this disease – but first we must put aside our reasonable fears about the crisis for a while and think. And if we’re really smart, we can pivot and plan for the days when the pandemic subsides. My business, and perhaps others out there, needs to keep getting better at finding the truth. The marketers we serve and the communities we work with deserve it.