Conducting Online Surveys in the Time of a Pandemic: The Dos and Don’ts

While most people at home are doing their best to hide away from COVID-19, researchers are making the most of this time at home to think up ways to demystify the effects of this lethal virus. One such team of young researchers at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) put their heads together (virtually) and decided to study the slowdown in all businesses in Bangladesh, including online businesses, that is being caused by Covid-19. They are particularly interested in examining the resilience of those online businesses that are owned and operated by women.

In a time of crisis, such as now, many people may not understand the urgency of conducting such research. The team at BIGD had anticipated these possibilities. They knew that what seems like unnecessary poking at present, would actually bear something fruitful in the future: gauging out the exact strength of the impact of COVID-19 on the online businesses, informing policy to actually make life easier for the participants and other online women-owned businesses in general.

The lockdown and mandated social distancing meant physical surveys are a no-go. Since the research would be dealing with online businesses, specifically those based on Facebook, an online survey seemed to be the ideal, or maybe the only, choice. The researchers designed the survey to be as short and easy as possible so that it did not add unduly stress on the participants.

With a target sample of 100 participants, the team rounded up a list of more than 200 women-owned Bangladeshi businesses on Facebook, keeping in mind that many potential respondents may refuse to participate because they do not trust online faceless interviewers or have other more important things to worry about. The team found out very early that simply inboxing the survey form with a generic descriptive message from BIGD’s official Facebook ID to a couple of hundred online pages would not get any response (and would not be allowed by Facebook regulations). They had to devise an alternate, more interactive, one-on-one strategy where the researcher would start by properly introducing themselves using Facebook messenger and then ease into a friendly conversation before going into the survey details.

A few ethical considerations had to be made in conducting this research during a global pandemic. Like so, it was clearly stated in the survey that a respondent had the options (a) to give consent, (b) to leave the survey at any point, and (c) to choose not to respond to questions asking for sensitive information.

Many of the contacted pages were wary about a researcher approaching them online with a link. Worried about their cyber security, they were reluctant to open the link to the survey form via Facebook and instead requested to have the link sent to them through email. Some pages agreed to fill up the form but later ignored the follow-up messages. Then there were other pages which did not wish to disclose the identity of their owners. Most respondents did not answer questions about their sales or revenue figures. At this stage, our researchers worked to build trust with the participants. Using snowballing tactics, some of the page owners helped convince other page owners to take part in the survey. Mutual friends between owners and the researchers also helped to connect the owners to the researchers. This being done, the researchers reassured respondents of maintaining strict confidentiality, knowing that these respondents were in a vulnerable spot and respecting their needs was of utmost importance.

The researchers were also aware that these women entrepreneurs faced many demands on their time: trying to keep their businesses afloat, dealing with the pandemic, and taking care of household responsibilities. Frequent follow-ups were required, where the researchers maintained their P’s and Q’s and were prompt to respond to all sorts of queries. The researchers had to bear in mind that the mental health and well-being of the respondents came before the need to maintain research deadlines. Hence even in the planning stage, researchers kept aside a long time frame for the survey duration to allow for any delays.

Despite the hurdles, the researchers believe that the trust that has been built between the researchers and respondents has actually helped to lay the groundwork for future follow-up surveys and interviews which will make for more in-depth research content.

This was a great learning experience for our team of young researchers. Being able to think innovatively, making spontaneous decisions and getting respondents to open up—these are skills which will take these researchers a long way.

Iffat Zahan and Maria Matin are Research Associates in the Research, Policy and Governance (RPG) team at BIGD, BRAC University. 

Photo : “Man browses his mobile phone while waiting in Dhaka.” – ADB Photo | Abir Abdullah under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license