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FEATURE1 February 2011

Portable potential

We live in the age of the mobile device. But has research kept up? Robert Bain looks at the market for mobile research, and considers its future potential.

There are few better symbols of how we live today than the mobile phone. In many parts of Europe mobiles outnumber people, while in developing countries more and more people are using them, as the technology leapfrogs fixed-line connections. These devices are ubiquitous, and they’re not just phones: they can be cameras, music players, social networking tools, fashion accessories and games machines. We carry them with us everywhere we go – setting the alarm clock to wake us up in the morning, and checking Facebook before going to bed. For researchers, it looks like an irresistible opportunity to get close to people. And yet somehow they are managing to resist it.

“I still feel we’re pushing it rather than feeling much pull from the clientside”

Diana Mitkov

Preliminary results from the latest Globalpark Market Research Software Survey suggest that self-completion mobile surveys (excluding SMS and mixed mode) accounted for just over one per cent of total quantitative research revenues in 2010. That’s about the same as it was in 2009, and still tiny in comparison with levels of mobile phone and internet usage. ComScore estimates that 100 million people aged 13 and over in the US, and 22 million in the UK, access the internet each month from their mobile phones. By 2013, Gartner predicts, there will be more internet-enabled phones in use around the world than PCs.

So what’s holding research back? There’s certainly no shortage of ways to use mobiles for research. You can ask questions and collect answers by text message. You can run a web-based survey through a browser, or create a dedicated research app. You can use smartphones to gather photos and videos for ethnographic research, even scanning product barcodes and recording location data. Or you can even do a good old-fashioned CATI survey.

One of the problems is that when we talk about ‘mobile phones’ we’re really referring to hundreds of different devices from dozens of manufacturers – which makes mobile daunting as a research method. While high-end devices from the likes of Apple and HTC get much of the attention, the market remains dominated by what those in the industry call ‘feature phones’ – the ones that do more than just call and text but don’t have the advanced capabilities of a smartphone.

Companies are still cautious about spending on mobile research methods, says Harris Interactive’s head of business and industrial Diana Mitkov. She told Research: “I don’t see many clients coming to us and saying, ‘What about mobile, have you got any capability, what can you do there?’ It’s still very much with the research agencies to develop those innovative approaches and sell it to them. I still feel we’re pushing it rather than feeling much pull from the clientside.”

Clients whose businesses involve mobiles are, naturally, among the first to adopt it as a tool for their research. Millward Brown has conducted over 100 projects on mobile advertising, and Globalpark has worked with media owners including Tomorrow Focus to investigate mobile ad effectiveness and evaluate publishers’ own apps.

But Greg Ward of Fly Research, which specialises in mobile, says most clients still need a reason to make the move. “It’s not quite as obvious as the move from CATI to web was,” he said. “When you look at web against its predecessor research technologies, it was faster, cheaper and arguably in certain respects better.” But these advantages are less clear-cut for mobile. Granted, it can be a lot faster, but that only matters sometimes. As for cheaper and better, it very much depends on the circumstances.

“People see mobile as being in competition with CAWI. I don’t think it ever will be… Mobiles will always be good at getting a certain type of information out of somebody”

Simon Buckley

The here and now
One area where the sums definitely add up for going mobile is ethnographic research. Just as social media and online communities have provided a way of doing qualitative and observational research at lower cost, mobiles offer a new way to track people’s behaviour without sending someone out to spend a day with them. EverydayLives and Revelation both have iPhone apps for research participants to record their activities and upload photos, while text diaries are central to Mesh Planning’s work collecting feedback on ad campaigns and exposure to brands.

As marketers seek a closer understanding of consumer decisions, Greg Ward believes, growth in mobile research will be fuelled by the type of techniques that catch people in the moment – at an event, for example, or immediately after they make a purchase. Simon Kendrick of Essential Research, which recently conducted a major study on mobile behaviour, believes that making use of the portable, always-on nature of mobile phones will appeal to respondents as well as clients. “The key selling points that mobile providers need to make to potential users are also pertinent to research,” he said. “Mobile research shouldn’t directly compete with computer-based online research, it has to play to its strengths.”

Simon Buckley, a senior account director at Lightspeed Research, agrees. “People see mobile as being in competition with CAWI,” he told Research. “I don’t think it ever will be. Mobile phones will have a niche, they’ll always be good at getting a certain type of information out of somebody. I can see it being the flipside of the coin where you’re out in the street, you take a few pictures of the advertising you see around you, or you tell us about a purchase experience. Then you go home and give a bit more detail in an online survey, using a tool that’s designed a bit better for that.”

As to whether the audience reached on mobile is limited to the “young and funky”, Buckley says: “We’ve been surprised: it’s a resounding no. You get a really good spread of demographics that are willing to take this type of research.”

Research? There’s an app for that
One man who’s particularly optimistic about the outlook for mobile is Kantar’s Guy Rolfe – which is lucky for a man whose job title is mobile knowledge leader. Last year, according to Rolfe, was an “immense turning point”. Although he won’t reveal financial details he reckons the research and insight group saw a tenfold increase in revenue from mobile work – and there’s a particular innovation that drove that growth. “Last year was the year of mobile apps,” says Rolfe. “Probably 90% of the mobile work we did was through apps. There’s a huge appetite from consumers for apps – regardless of region or market.”

It’s worth remembering that the rise of the app – spearheaded by Apple and quickly embraced by other device makers – was not always an obvious development. Some have argued that Apple’s ‘walled garden’ approach, in which apps must be approved by the firm and can only be bought from its own store, is against the spirit of the free, messy and vibrant internet that we’ve come to know. But it turns out people love apps. The ease and elegance of those friendly little icons in neat rows has helped the mobile internet thrive, and has attracted non-techy users who might have been put off by fiddly URLs and half-loaded web pages.

So while mobile CATI hasn’t ever got over its fear factor and SMS didn’t really take off as a research method, apps show real promise, says Lightspeed’s Buckley. “When I heard about five years ago that phones coming out had apps, I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s mobile.’” And getting people to install apps for research (whether branded by a client company or by Lightspeed itself) is “not a problem at all – as long as you cover the cost for them”. Others to have developed their own apps include OnePoll and start-up Thumbspeak – which has struck a deal with Nielsen to help recruit members to its mobile behaviour tracking panel.

This widespread acceptance of apps has helped mobile research pick up pace over the last couple of years. But as a result of the rapid change, Guy Rolfe sees big challenges ahead for the research regulators. “People’s attitudes are changing fast – I mean really fast,” he says. “There’s a whole raft of things where Esomar and the MRS are so far behind what’s going on in the marketplace now and I do worry about that. I do feel that for mobile they’ve let it go too long now.” Both organisations have general online research guidelines and Esomar published a guideline for mobile voice and text surveys last year, but neither has specific advice for web or app-based mobile surveys.

Tangled webs
Another factor pushing mobile research forward is the breakdown of the distinction between the mobile web and the rest of the web, as high-end smartphones and devices like the iPad fill the gap. But this creates new problems: online surveys need to be ready to deal with all these people accessing email and the web from their mobile devices.

“If the panel owners don’t start to take that on board and somehow allow their panellists to do the survey at a time that’s convenient for them, regardless of device, then they’re going to have problems,” says Guy Rolfe. “Most panels will detect the type of device somebody is using when they log on to a survey and for the vast majority, if it’s not a PC or a laptop, then they’re usually kicked out. Some panels have started to address this, but really very few. Over the next couple of years every online panel is going to have to address that.”

Ejecting people from surveys for using the wrong sort of browser is not only an increasingly problematic practice in terms of reaching people, it is also, as tech commentator Tim Macer has pointed out, “not a neutral decision from the sampling perspective”.

Portable possibilities
There are clearly ample opportunities for mobile research to grow, although it doesn’t seem set to take over the world. Nonetheless it could yet take over the developing world, where mobile phone and internet penetration rates outstrip fixed lines – but only if agencies get busy establishing panels or other ways to reach research participants.

To establish itself in the research toolkit, mobile needs to be flexible enough to deal with a myriad of different devices and simple enough not to be a headache for either clients or respondents. If it is really going to flourish it also needs creativity and careful targeting. Researchers need to work out ways of reaching the times and places in consumers’ lives where mobile can really come into its own.


Making the most of mobiles

?Tracking the nation’s happiness
Researchers at the London School of Economics have launched an iPhone app to discover how people’s feelings are affected by their surroundings. The Mappiness app asks users a few times a day to say how they are feeling, what they are doing and where they are. It can also use GPS to pinpoint the user’s location. More than 32,000 participants are already on board, and you can keep track of the UK’s current happiness level using the ‘hedonimeter’ at mappiness.org.uk.

Watching how we live
Ethnographic research agency EverydayLives has an app for iPhones and Blackberries that allows users to record audio and video clips, take photos and make notes. It also has a 2D barcode scanner, giving manufacturers the opportunity to place codes on their products that users can scan and be directed straight to a survey. The current version of the app costs £6.99 and is designed to be used by researchers, but a free version for respondents is on its way.

Accessing a new workforce
TxtEagle, founded by US entrepreneur Nathan Eagle, has harnessed text messaging to allow people in developing countries to perform ‘microtasks’ – including surveys – in exchange for payment. Eagle told Research: “We are trading small amounts of work time for mobile airtime or money… Our client gets highly accurate research and our community members earn airtime – offsetting an expense that, on average, constitutes 10% of their annual income.” The potential is huge: TxtEagle already has access to more than two billion people through partnerships with over 200 mobile operators.

Listening in to the radio
Ipsos has been exploring how mobile phones can be used to measure radio audiences. Participants install an app that uses their phone’s microphone to detect and recognise the broadcasts they hear as they go about their day – a solution that neatly gets around the problem of persuading participants to carry a dedicated measurement device. The system is currently being tested with a panel of listeners in London, and the agency says early results are “very encouraging”.

Making sense of social networks
Harris Interactive is using GPS data from mobile phones to track respondents’ whereabouts as part of a new offering that combines social media and other data with survey results. GPS can be used to observe behavioural patterns, look at how people use the mobile web when they’re out and about, and send relevant surveys to participants based on their location. The Research Lifestreaming service has already tracked more than 20 million Facebook posts from 20,000 participants in the US, and Harris is recruiting participants in the UK.

Keeping consumers in touch with brands
Qustodian is a start-up that puts people in touch with brands via their mobile phones. Members choose what sorts of companies they’d like to hear from, then download an app or use their mobile browser to check for the latest news and offers – and earn cash for doing so. They can also take part in surveys, which can be tied to a particular brand or offer. Launched in Spain last year, Qustodian already has more than 50,000 members and has worked with brands including Pepsi, Adidas and Ford. It is currently talking to potential partners in the UK.


Mobiles vs landlines

?The decline of landlines in favour of mobiles means that CATI researchers need to come to terms with incorporating mobile phones into their sample frames. In the US, 27% of homes were mobile-only in the first half of 2010 – a figure that has doubled in the last three years. On top of that, a further 16% of homes have a landline but say they barely use it.

“If survey researchers don’t start including mobiles, US research association Aapor says, they ‘risk unrepresentative results when studying the full population’”

The latest EU data, based on fieldwork conducted in late 2009, shows 25% of European homes are mobile-only – although there are big variations between countries (only 1% of Swedish households do without a landline while in the Czech Republic it’s nearly three quarters).

If survey researchers don’t start including mobiles, US research association Aapor says, they “risk unrepresentative results when studying the full population”. Compared with combined landline and mobile samples, landline-only voting intention polls in the US favoured Republican candidates over Democrats in three cases out of four examined by the Pew Research Center last year.

But surveying people by mobile phone isn’t cheap. The numbers cost more to buy, higher incentives are needed and, most importantly, it takes interviewers longer to reach and survey people – partly because it’s still illegal to autodial mobile numbers in the US.

As a result, cost per completion in a random-digit dial cellphone survey is usually at least twice as much as for a landline survey, according to Aapor. Dual-frame surveys can end up being even more expensive if they seek to sample ‘cell-onlys’ alongside landlines – because anyone reached by cellphone who also has a landline is ineligible.

2 Comments

6 years ago

Thank you Robert, for highlighting mobile phones as a great way for conduction market research. The skepticism of using mobile phones to collect data would be reduced when both researchers and clients get a chance to see a mobile survey in action, and experience its advantages. Mobile web survey is something that we are doing and are trying to spread the word on its advantages and application in the research world. Please feel free to visit us at www.raydarresearch.com.

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6 years ago

Nice summary on what is going on. Mobile is a great - perhaps the only way to get cost effective point of experience or point of consideration feedback. We have the major benefit being the familiarity with the device already owned by the respondee. We collect data and opinion via voice, SMS, mobile url to the same survey - see www.opiniator.com

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