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Audience research in the time of COVID-19

At BBC Media Action, audiences are the centrepiece of everyday work. This key BBC value is also vital for creating effective communication for development. To understand their audiences and assess the impact, their work begins and ends with research – and this remains true even in a time of crisis.

Sonia Whitehead, Head of Research at BBC Media Action and ESOMAR Foundation board member shared some insights on the work done by her team during the Covid-19 outbreak. In the following piece, we will get an idea of the tremendous value that research brings to charities and not-for-profits from a media and communication standpoint. We will understand the international work done by her team with similarities and differences between countries and learn what her research teams are doing in getting to the heart of a problem.

Research helps BBC Media Action to understand our audiences’ perceptions and concerns relating to the disease, as well as what information they need to make decisions and keep their families safe. This in turn enables our production teams to produce trusted, clear and actionable media and communication content that reaches people – including vulnerable communities – at scale, stands out in a sea of competing information (not all of which is true or helpful), and ultimately saves lives.

But how can research teams continue their vital work when they’re working at a distance from production colleagues, when the pace of production is so fast, and when face-to-face field work is out of the question?

Adapting our pre-testing methods

It can be difficult to keep pace with the need for rapid programme development when it comes to producing COVID-19 communications content. But it’s not good enough to say ‘we don’t have time to test’. You might get a piece of content on air or online more quickly – but the impact may be lost if the tone isn’t culturally appropriate, language about physical distancing too confusing, or your call to action is not clear enough for audiences.

So our message is simple: wherever possible, ‘pre-test, pre-test, pre-test’.

There are ways of gaining quick feedback under lockdown. Whilst working from home, our research team in Myanmar conducted some pre-testing of one of the new BBC Media Action COVID-19 public service announcements (PSA) with their friends and families. They found that respondents could recall the key information points from the PSA – about washing your hands and covering your face when coughing – and felt it was particularly engaging because of the traditional music and lively delivery, making it unique from more serious PSAs they had seen on other media platforms. They recommended that the production team continue with this positive, encouraging tone to engage audiences.

A scene from one of the COVID-19 public service announcements in Myanmar

Inspired by this example, our research team in Indonesia were testing content with friends and family via telephone and social media, as well as getting back in touch with a group of young people who recently took part in qualitative research about climate change. They’re setting up closed Facebook groups through which they can pre-test content, such as short new radio dramas tackling COVID-19 misinformation and rumours, to receive rapid feedback. It’s a similar story in Afghanistan, where we’re using social media to recruit volunteers for online focus group discussions. They have used different ways to pre-test, such as contacting respondents and playing content via mobile.

Utilising local networks and contacts

With field work limited by local restrictions on movement, we’re relying on our wide-reaching networks and contacts nurtured over the years to help us access respondents and continue our vital research – to ensure programming reflects people’s changing needs.

For example, in Zambia, we’re working closely with our national network of community journalists – developed through years of work strengthening community radio in the country – to help us understand the needs and concerns of hard-to-reach audiences. We’re looking to set up simple, safe and physically distant mobile surveys for them to run in their communities to help us understand how perceptions of, and concerns about, the pandemic differ across rural and urban areas.

Similarly, in Bangladesh, where access to Cox’s Bazar refugee camp is now restricted, our researchers are making regular phone calls to our network of Rohingya volunteers to continue taking the pulse of the community. We’re sharing the insights gained – including persistent, widely circulating COVID-19 rumours and how to counter them – through our longstanding What Matters?’ bulletin in partnership with Translators Without Borders.

And in Cambodia, where our researchers had been in the midst of a panel evaluation for our popular youth project Klahan9 (Brave 9), we’re pivoting the focus of our research to include perceptions on COVID-19. The team is also exploring how to draw upon our network of Klahan9 youth ambassadors to tell us more about how they and their communities are experiencing the pandemic.

The BBC Media Action Data Portal – an open source portal containing a wealth of our existing audience research

Revisiting our existing data and building partnerships

To respect our audiences, it’s important that we use our existing insights relevant to COVID-19 and not conduct research for the sake of it.

Many of our teams around the world have been looking carefully at our wealth of existing audience research (much of which is open source and available on our website and Data Portal), re-analysing the data to draw out new insights around media access and usage among vulnerable audiences such as older people or people with disabilities. We’re also pulling out useful data from previous projects around health and hygiene – for instance, barriers to, and enablers of, good water, sanitation and hygiene practices in NepalKenya and Ethiopia.

Externally, we are building relationships with organisations across key sectors (including market research, academic and humanitarian) which are producing surveys and collecting useful insights on COVID-19 – such as ACAPsInnovations for Poverty ActionKantar and the International Survey on Coronavirus, for information relevant to our projects.

Cross-country collaboration

Despite restrictions around freedom of movement, researchers at our London headquarters and across our network of country offices are working more closely than ever before – sharing expertise, exchanging COVID-19 research tips and tricks, and comparing cultural insights through regular calls and online forums. And we’re supporting our country offices virtually from London to better analyse their digital performance and monitor online chatter about the pandemic – using tools such as Crowdtangle’s COVID-19 tracking to help production teams fine-tune their outputs.

Encouragingly, there are early signs that our work is paying off. Some of the COVID-19 PSAs produced by our Myanmar team, for instance, are achieving record levels of online engagement. The Ministry of Health has even asked to make this PSA (watched nearly 3 million times and shared by 46,000+ people) official, for broadcast through national TV partners.

The situation is always changing. But we will continue to innovate and review research methodologies to ensure we’re providing essential insights to production colleagues, and best serving our audiences.


About the Author: Sonia Whitehead, Head of Research at BBC Media Action and ESOMAR Foundation board member.

(Originally posted in BBC Media Action Blog)

The science of imagination: how System 3 offers a new way for NGOs to change minds and raise money

I’d like you to start this article by imagining a different world. Imagine the planet, and the society, you’d like to be living in – is it different to the one we inhabit right now? How does it make you feel to picture that new world?

What your mind is doing right now, as it creates the outline of a possible world, is the key to a major scientific breakthrough. A new development in behavioural science is starting to shape how market research will be done in the coming years. This emerging field brings together how people imagine the future, how they empathize with others and how they plan out their choices. All of these processes take place using brain functions separate from the “System 1 and 2” model that is often used to describe immediate decision-making: it has therefore been labelled System 3.

We live in a world where the attitudes and beliefs of the public are in greater focus, and at greater question, than ever before. Five years ago many of us (including me) assumed the arc of human politics and society was bending towards greater compassion, inclusion, equality and understanding. Now we are not so sure.

In some ways, this moment brings new urgency to the role of NGOs in the public conversation. Climate change presents an immediate and obvious priority; many dimensions of inequality have come into sharp clarity in this political environment; an increase in conflict-driven migration has created new tensions in Europe and North America; and the environmental, welfare and development campaigns that have animated global charity work for decades continue to matter just as much.

A personal example: I support a small charity that helps immigration detainees in the UK. AVID provides resources and advice to volunteers who visit asylum applicants and other migrants during the long periods of detention while a decision is made on whether they can stay in the UK. In the last ten years, AVID has faced the tough challenge of unsympathetic public opinion and media narratives. Between the Brexit referendum and recent UK election results, it could feel as if charities like this are fighting a hopeless battle.

If you work in an NGO that campaigns to influence public views, a new tool to change minds might be very useful around now. And if your job is to raise money, you might also be seeking something to strengthen your case. Fortunately, a new area of behavioural science may offer exactly what you need.

Many readers will know of the behavioural science work that has become prominent in recent years. Summarised in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge, the behavioural economics world tells us about human “irrationality”, cognitive biases, and how to influence decisions in-the-moment. Researchers have responded by incorporating implicit testing into their research approaches to understand respondents’ unconscious thinking. New nudges have been designed: anchoring techniques to increase donations and opt-out defaults to change behaviour.

These approaches are good for influencing what people do, but they barely affect what people think or how they feel. Lasting impact requires changing minds, not just behaviour. In the last ten years a new body of scientific research has emerged to fill this gap.

Psychologists have explored prospection, the capability of humans to imagine and plan the future. They have investigated mental simulation, which allows us to think about the alternative outcomes our choices might bring about, and the different worlds we could possibly live in. Neuroscientists have discovered the default mode network, a set of systems in the brain that are activated when our minds are not focused on immediate tasks – for instance when we are daydreaming; or watching TV and absorbing ourselves in the world on-screen. And these processes have been linked to empathy: when we think about how life is for other people, we use the same brain regions that we use for planning our own future.

These research activities are even influencing the latest thinking in artificial intelligence and machine learning: some AI experts are starting to give computers the power of mental stimulation, to help them make better, more human decisions.

Why does this work matter? Because imagination governs how people see, shape, and choose, their future lives. The decisions we make today are motivated by the world we want to live in tomorrow.

On a small scale, this means the products we buy when we visit the supermarket to buy next weekend’s lunch. On a larger scale it translates the choices we each make, into a world that we will all share in the coming decades. The values that we live by are a manifestation of the future we want to be part of. Change how people imagine that future, and you can influence their values today.

Leaders who brought about great changes in society have often started with a call to the imagination. “I have a dream…” said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all people will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities…it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela’s words during his 1964 trial described an ideal that, at the time, could exist for black South Africans only in the imagination. Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech in Connecticut in 1913 called on the listener to put themselves in the place of – to imagine – the women and men engaged in the political, legal and physical battle for women’s votes in the UK.

So how can you use this new science of imagination? There are three steps you can follow to take advantage of these new discoveries.

About the Author: 

Leigh Caldwell, Founding Partner, Irrational Agency

The science of imagination: 3 steps to follow

In the previous article, I discussed how the imagination of your supporters – also called the “System 3” part of their brain – is the key to changing minds and changing behaviour. If you understand how people perceive the world they live in – which may or may not correspond to reality! – you can influence them, and give yourself the chance to reshape that world.

Here are three steps you can follow to take advantage of these new discoveries.

First, measure how your supporters and your broader audience imagine the world. A new set of research tools are emerging to measure System 3– the brain’s capability for imagining, and the counterpart to the System 1 and 2 distinction explained in Kahneman’s book. By measuring System 3 thinking, you can find out how people think about the world of the future. This might take the form of an “imagination map” (see Figure 1) and is the baseline you are working with.

Figure 1: An example of an imagination map. This would be drawn by measuring an audience’s implicit attitudes towards refugees.

Second, design the world you want them to see. You can create a new imagination map that represents your vision of the future. This is probably different from the way your audience sees things now – that’s only natural, and it gives you a guide to what to do next.

Third, create interventions to redraw your audience’s imagination – to make it more like the world you want to create. Those interventions take one form above all others: stories. Your audience’s imagination is made up of the stories they tell themselves about the future. Your job is to create new stories that are compelling enough to become a part of their internal narrative. Connect the things they already care about to the things you want them to care about, through personal examples, life stories and ideas that they can’t resist; those stories will change their view of the world.

Stories by authors from Harriet Beecher Stowe to George Orwell to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have created new understanding in their readers. They led the reader to see the world as their fictional characters did; and on emerging from the world of the novel, to think about reality in a new way. The science of imagination sheds light on how they did that. It shows how a mental model of cause and effect shapes our interpretation of the world, and how stories create new beliefs about causality and change that interpretation.

This new body of scientific work offers a deeper form of understanding of your audiences, supporters and donors. The old style of behavioural economics was about changing people’s behaviour. This new field, sometimes called cognitive economics, is about changing how they think. It offers a powerful set of tools to influence the future via the public’s mind.

Remember that new world you imagined at the beginning of this article? You have the power to create that world. Share your vision, through stories and imagination, and you really can invent the future.

About the Author: 

Leigh Caldwell, Founding Partner, Irrational Agency

Research Now SSI Establishes Tax-Deductible Fund To Benefit Families of Davao Fire Victims

The ESOMAR Foundation Inaugurates the Giving With €10,000 Donation

Dallas, Texas, (February 15, 2018) – Research Now SSI, the global leader in digital market research data and marketing services, announces that it has established a tax-deductible fund to collect donations for the families of its 37 employees who perished in the Dec. 23, 2017 NCCC Mall fire in Davao, Philippines, where the company had a call center.  The company is pleased also to announce that the ESOMAR Foundation has made the first donation to the fund for €10,000.

The ESOMAR Foundation affiliated with ESOMAR, the global insights community founded 70 years ago to promote the value of market, opinion, and social research and data analytics — has among its stated goals the mission to “help families that face economic hardships as a result of their family member having worked in the field of market, social, and opinion research.”

Gary S. Laben, CEO of Research Now SSI, states, “The concern, strong sense of community and enormous generosity of ESOMAR offers great comfort in what has been a devastating time for the families of those who died and for Research Now SSI. I want to acknowledge the foundation’s having proactively reached out to us in a heartfelt gesture of professional solidarity to see how they could help alleviate suffering in the aftermath of this terrible event.”

John Kearon, President of the ESOMAR Foundation, says, “Together with ESOMAR President Niels Schillewaert and our entire ESOMAR team, we offer our deep condolences to the families affected by this tragedy, as well as to all of Research Now SSI around the world. Each and every member of our organization was eager to show our sympathies and support in a way that would directly benefit the families of those who perished.”

Research Now SSI previously launched a fundraising effort on Go Fund Me, which raised over $119,000 which is being distributed among the Davao families. Research Now established the latest, tax-deductible fund on the Allegro platform, which allows for U.S. tax-deductible 501(c)3 status and issues an annual statement. Laben notes, “We created this fund for our investors, the industry at large, and organizations such as the ESOMAR Foundation in response to their concern for the families and offers of help.” Donations can be made by going to Allegro’s website, https://allegrosolutions.org/ and entering the code Phil-RNSSI-Davao.001.

About Research Now SSI Research Now SSI is the global leader in digital market research data for better insights and business decisions. The company provides world-class research data solutions that enable better results for more than 4,000 market research, consulting, media, healthcare, and corporate clients, and is recognized as the quality, scale, and customer satisfaction leader in the market research industry. For more information, please go to www.researchnow.com and www.surveysampling.com.


Editors, for more information, contact:

Kate Brunkhorst

Research Now SSI




Social Science Research and Field Work in Afghanistan

Many researchers around the world were shocked and appalled when Rafiq Ullah Kakar presented the case study on doing research in Afghanistan below. This article appeared in Research World in September 2012 further increasing the call from the industry to put a mechanism in place that could help the families of researchers facing these kinds of circumstances. In a sense this was the beginning of the ESOMAR Foundation.
Social Science Research and Field Work in Afghanistan
Danger, Courage and Creativity
By Rafiq Ullah Kakar

Afghanistan has faced continuous conflict, occupation and civil war since 1979. The aftermath has deeply affected the socio-political dynamics of the country. In this article we try to understand the meaning and nature of that everyday violence; investigate dangers in field work; highlight real-life examples of courage and creativity in the field, and explore how those can offer hope for a better future in this war-weary country.

Dangers in the Field

The security situation in Afghanistan is unstable and volatile. This causes many problems in the field. Access to participants and protecting researchers have been the main concerns of ORCA, the Opinion Research Center of Afghanistan. Gaining access to reliable and consistent data is difficult, due both to the complexity of the current political situation, and the reality of a mobile, displaced population. Nonetheless, researchers are trusted and well received by the community. Afghan hospitality ensures a guest is welcomed, and researchers are often local and known by  community elders and tribal leaders.

But recruiting researchers from within the community, and thereby building trust and reputation, take time and effort, expended in the face of constant threats of violence at the hands of the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

ORCA’s staff is well versed in these realities, and trained to counter any problems that might arise in the field. Still, in the last few years, the security situation has become worse, and ORCA’S field staff and monitoring supervisors have come under increasing threat. To date, a total of 91 armed attacks have taken place; these have resulted in 50 kidnappings, physical injury to 153 people, and the killing of 16 field staff. Additionally, there has been a rise in the number of physical harassments, warnings and beatings – they are now almost routine for the field team.


Table 2: Threats to ORCA Field Workers

The Sociopolitical Context in Afghanistan Today

The Taliban is still a viable political force in many parts of Afghanistan. During the mid 1990s, they institutionalised violence in the sociopolitical order. Afghans are somewhat familiar with violence, but never before had violence been used as a tool to abuse, punish and coerce ordinary citizens. The revival of the Taliban is a very dangerous prospect, not only for the future of research, but for the future of the country as well.

This article is about ORCA field workers who were lost due to Taliban attacks. As such, exploring the space that the Taliban occupies in the current sociopolitical context of Afghanistan is essential. According to the 2011 ORCA Nationwide Survey (N= 8,250), 47% of respondents reported that security issues like terrorism, suicide bombings and explosions are major problems in Afghanistan.

Table 3: The Most Important Problems in Afghanistan

Respondents varied in their perceptions of personal safety. More than half of the population feared for their personal safety, with 58% saying they often feared for their lives, and 27% saying they sometimes feared for their personal safety (or that of their families).

Table 4: Fear for Personal Safety

Courage and Bravery in the Field

Given the prevalence of violence in Afghanistan currently, fieldwork poses immense dangers. Following are two case studies:

Case Study 1, Kandahar Province

In 2010, armed insurgents from the Taliban killed Hosay Sahibzada, a brave 19-year-old ORCA interviewer from Kandahar. Ms. Sahibzada was known for her commitment to public opinion polling, and was one of the best interviewers ORCA had in Kandahar city. The Taliban had already warned her twice not to work for ORCA, but she continued with her work undeterred. On April 14,2010, the Taliban stopped the vehicle she was travelling in and killed her on the main road in the 2nd Nahia of Kandahar City. She died for a better future for Afghanistan.

Case Study 2, Baghlan Province

Hashmat Ullah received the ORCA “Best Field Supervisor of the Year” award on April 22, 2010.  He participated in a briefing session at ORCA HQ on Aug. 26, 2010, and left for his province the following day. He conducted a training session for his interviewers and launched field work on Aug. 28th. On the same afternoon, he was killed by the Taliban. They had warned him to stop doing research (the Taliban perceive doing research as spying for the Americans). Hundreds of people, including ORCA representatives, attended his funeral. He was buried at the age of 32, in front of his home, on Aug. 29, 2010.


Rafiq Ullah Kakar is co-founder of ORCA in Afghanistan

The Opinion Research Center of Afghanistan (ORCA) was established in 2007. It strives to establish a culture of research in a country that has gone through prolonged conflict, factional fighting and trauma.