Consumer research and security: Lessons learned from COVID-19

Adapting to a ‘New Normal’

With seismic shifts in working life and consumer behaviour, businesses need to be more agile, well-informed and cyber-secure than ever

Written by: Dani Redd


The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the daily lives of millions of people, altering working patterns, lifestyle choices and consumer habits. 

A study jointly undertaken by Harvard Business School and New York University surveyed the digital communications habits of more than three million users, discovering how the workday has changed during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Contrary to the worries expressed by employers that productivity would dip, the working day increased by an average of 8.2 percent (48.5 minutes), alongside a short term increase in email activity and a 12.9 percent increase in the number of meetings per week. Furthermore, people were logging into work at unusual hours, undoubtedly due to the necessity of balancing work with unprecedented childcare responsibilities. 

Leisure time has also changed, in turn making lasting changes to people’s behaviour. 

“Due to an increase in time spent at home, consumers are more focused on home-based activities and are directing their interests and their finances towards their home environment,” explains Frederic Charles Petit, CEO of market research organisation Toluna. 

“There has been a climb in spending across multiple areas, including fitness and personal health, home entertainment services and online shopping.” 

Businesses are therefore facing challenges on all fronts. Not only do they have to ensure the wellbeing and productivity of their workforce, they must also ensure that their virtual systems are safe and secure. Furthermore, they also need to maintain close contact with their consumers and suppliers, monitoring their requirements and limitations during the pandemic.

In short, there is one question that every business is asking – how do we navigate this ‘new normal’?

EME Outlook spoke to two protagonists in their respective fields – Petit, Toluna’s CEO, and Anjos Nijk, Managing Director at the European Network for Cyber Security – in search of answers. 

Lessons in cybersecurity
Anjos Nijk is the Managing Director at the European Network for Cyber Security (ENCS), a non-profit member organisation founded in 2012 as part of a visionary plan to improve cybersecurity within the energy sector. With a background in global telecoms and biometrics security technology, he was offered a position within the core team. While many businesses have only recently begun to consider cybersecurity in a truly serious regard, it’s been part of his job description for years. But that doesn’t mean that the pandemic hasn’t been free of challenges.

“A direct impact has been that the vast majority of grid operator workforces throughout Europe were mandated to work from home. With more grid operator functions performed remotely, clearly the risks of cyber incidents increase,” the MD explains.

“However, the trend of remote working already existed and security solutions exist, only the need to implement those measures faster has increased.”

Nijk is aware that his organisation has a vital role to play in the pandemic.

“The most important message coming from COVID-19 is the hard reality that we could have never coped if we would have lost our energy supply. This underscores our consistent message that we must speed up our efforts in capacity building and getting prepared as a society,” he says.
ECNS is doing all that it can to safeguard the energy sector during the COVID-19 crisis. One of the most important tasks is to implement measures to secure home-working environments and remote access policies. Incident response scenarios, operational security roles and managing information security are vital parts of this process.

“Realistic cross-border exercises, making use of state-of-the-art attack scenarios and real office and OT environments is urgently needed. Most importantly, the issue of nation states’ classified information prohibiting the sharing of crucial intelligence required to mitigate the attack needs to be resolved,” he explains.

Nijk believes such preparedness needs to extend beyond the energy sector. All organisations need to ensure their online security.

“Now we have increased exposure to cyber threats, the most important thing is to maintain a strong security hygiene. This means use of strong passwords, access control for devices and components (like camera on your laptop), secure communication (protection of Wi-Fi networks, VPN), encryption of data (computer storage and communication), executing software updates and making back-ups,” he advises. 

He also cautions businesses to be aware of phishing emails, and only to open links and attachments from trustworthy sources.

Ultimately, to Nijk, the pandemic has wrought drastic changes to an already rapidly transforming security landscape, highlighting the necessity for novel and innovative approaches.

“Standardisation, certification and compliance will not be effective to deal with the speed and impact of changes and developments. Only with collaboration and information sharing, we will be able to organise the level of expertise and agility required to deal with this challenge,” he explains. 

The importance of research and communication
Frederic Charles Petit, the CEO of market research organisation Toluna, reiterates the importance of connection and collaboration in such uncertain times.

“COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of fostering trust, empathy and compassion throughout the business itself (by taking care of employees), and throughout customer communication and client service,” he says.

While ENCS has been working with clients to create secure online environments for clients, Toluna has been working with organisations to deliver insights on rapidly changing consumer behaviours. During these uncertain times, accessing accurate, comprehensive data in real-time has never been more important.

“COVID-19 accelerated already changing consumer sentiment. Brand and message perceptions shift on an almost daily basis. Buying behaviours have completely been altered by availability and perceived health risk. Transparency into this evolving consumer perception and behaviour is imperative,” Petit says.

It’s important to realise that even the smallest changes in behaviour can have major ramifications on businesses. Take the hard-hit travel industry, for example. Consumers will now be asking completely different questions of their tour operators than they were a few months ago, such as ‘does this holiday include a comprehensive refund policy should travel regulations suddenly change?’ and ‘can you guarantee social distancing on the beach or in the hotel?’ Operators will need to anticipate and answer these questions to maintain their customer base.

Across all industries, real-time data insights can be used to help instil trust, acquire and keep customers. Another way to maintain trust, according to Petit, is for organisations to reach out and stay connected with its client base, guiding and reassuring them through this time of uncertainty. 

According to the CEO, businesses must ask themselves several important questions: “How can we communicate our key message without looking opportunistic, at a time when customers are living through fearful times? Should we retract from the market and not communicate at all, or intelligently communicate value and a clear message?”

It is, he says, important to pursue the latter. Organisations that choose to stay connected with audiences and clients are the ones who will emerge stronger on the other side. 

Acclimatising to the ‘new normal’
Both Petit and Nijk say that COVID-19 has caused them to learn some important lessons. 

“For me, the main lesson is that security is a moving target – the playing field can change drastically in a split second,” Nijk says. “This means that concepts like certification and compliancy can be considered to be way too rigid to cope with contemporary developments.”

Meanwhile, Petit echoes his sentiments.

“The crisis has redefined normal business operations permanently, from how employees work to how brands serve customers.  This new model is underscored by the need to be nimble – not just with employees but when consumer sentiment has shifted, businesses need to react immediately,” Toluna’s CEO comments.

For both these executives, there is a necessity for businesses to become flexible and responsive; to trial new approaches, rather than relying on traditional methods. Retailers, for example, will have to reimagine their stores to fit social distancing regulations, while improving and enhancing their online experience. Both cybersecurity and market research are integral to this; the former enabling the safety of online environments, while the latter can help understand shifts in consumer behaviour. In fact, many industries have their part to play in facilitating a collective adaptation to the ‘new normal’.

It is apparent that this process of adaptation is not linear, but continual; not fixed, but ever-changing. The businesses that will emerge the other side are those able to anticipate and react to such changes.

“We need the right expertise to create practical solutions that focus on approaches and indicators based on continuous analysis and improvement cycles with a holistic scope,” Nijk concludes.

Being prepared for any eventuality has never been more important.