Everyone’s got a mobile phone, right? Doesn’t mean they want to take surveys on them. Reg Baker tempers some of the hype surrounding the use of cellphones in market research.
The mobile hype ends here
Mobile is one of the most interesting and compelling disruptions to come our way and its role in the future of market research has become one of the hottest topics of 2011. As a proportion of all research spend, mobile doesn’t account for much yet; but we don’t lack for those who believe that mobile offers opportunities that will transform how we do research.
At the heart of the argument is the indisputable fact of widespread global adoption of mobile phones, coupled with the belief that there are (or will be) new methodologies to leverage the ubiquity and the power of mobile for more compelling insights.
But as Ray Poynter of The Future Place reminds us: “Mobile has been the next big thing for 15 years.” Some say mobile’s time has come, but I see three major problems to be confronted before mobile research can gain a meaningful foothold.
Talk is cheap, but data plans aren’t
First, we need to recognise that in the global context mobile means voice. SMS is widespread and some researchers are using it, but most believe that the full power of mobile research is dependent on the mobile web. Yet of the estimated 4.6 billion mobile phones worldwide less than 10% are used to access the web. Even in the US where smartphone use is increasing rapidly Nielsen estimates that only about a third of the population aged 13 and above is reachable via the mobile web. Even significant numbers of smartphone owners do not use their phones to go online.
“We need to recognise that in the global context mobile means voice. Of the estimated 4.6 billion mobile phones worldwide less than 10% are used to access the web”
We can probably expect use of the mobile web to grow in the US and in Europe over the next few years. Not so elsewhere. In emerging markets the costs of mobile data plans as a share of wallet are significantly higher and the typical plan puts severe limits on web browsing and downloading. In Latin American, for example, Nokia Siemens estimates that the total monthly cost of ownership of a web-enabled phone is $62.79 or about 10% of monthly per capita income. For the mobile web to grow as mobile enthusiasts expect it to the cost of going online is going to have to come down.
Less than expected
Mobile also requires that we fundamentally rethink how research is done. The explosion of online research over the last decade has created an appetite among clients for longer, more complex and higher functionality surveys. This will have to change with mobile. Surveys and interactions with respondents will need to be shorter, simpler and to the point. The platform is more suited to simple feedback than to the complex in-depth data collections clients have come to prefer. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is still change that needs to be managed.
Mobile may make it more difficult to do the kinds of things we have always done but there is also the promise of being able to do things that we’ve not done before. A common example is in-the-moment research that interacts with a consumer at the point of purchase and is expected to yield much more accurate data than the prospective or retrospective approaches of traditional research. There is also speculation about how GPS might be leveraged for research but a host of technical, methodological and even ethical issues are yet to be settled.
Set to divert?
Finally, it’s not at all clear that people will respond to mobile surveys in greater numbers than other methods, especially after the novelty has worn off. Some argue that mobile research is more engaging because people are already highly involved with their mobile devices and research is just another app. That’s certainly true for some but hardly all mobile users. And there is little evidence that focused engagement with email, texting, gaming, etc. will spill over to surveys.
Others point to mobile as one more way for people to participate in surveys, arguing that the more channels we offer the more people we can engage with. This is appealing, but just as multimode was talked about a lot in the transition from phone to web, cost and complexity may prevent agencies from wide adoption.
All these interesting possibilities may indeed come to pass, but an equally likely outcome is that mobile will rely on panels in much the same way that online does. And so mobile will inherit all of the unsolved challenges of online – including ongoing concerns about data quality.
It’s not clear at this point whether mobile research will be a basket of compelling but niche applications or a dominant methodology that captures a third or more of research spend. The immediate task is not to deploy it on a large scale, but to frankly confront its weaknesses as well as its strengths and figure out how to do it well. It’s not about to revolutionise market research just yet, but it’s an interesting tool to have in the kit.
- For an alternative point of view, read Jay Pluhar’s comment piece