FEATURE8 August 2012

The next big small thing in fieldwork


Global adoption of smartphones and tablets opens up new ways for conducting fieldwork. But making research fit for mobile is far from straightforward.


Mobile device usage has reached unprecedented levels in many countries around the world, with some emerging markets even surpassing developed markets in adoption rates. This could change the face of fieldwork, but the possibilities and limitations of mobile must first be understood for it to achieve its potential.

What makes smartphones and tablets so exciting as research tools is the way in which they have integrated themselves in consumers’ lives and the range of data inputs they allow. AJ Johnson, director of innovation technology at BrainJuicer, explains: “The phone has grown beyond a simple communication tool to become an extension of our brain and personality. It not only enables people to respond
to simple research questions but also to send us photos, videos, their location and a plethora of passive data that tells us more about them as consumers than they perhaps know about themselves.”

Given what’s possible on a smartphone, finding ways to just replicate the traditional survey experience smacks of a lack of ambition. Companies like SC Johnson, Sony, BSkyB and Best Buy are looking to mobile research to bring to life real consumer moments.

Field notes
Of all the fieldwork methods possible on a mobile device, autoethnography seems to take the fullest advantage of the phone’s capabilities. Autoethnography projects usually require respondents to record their behaviour in real time using photos, videos, voice and text inputs. Siamack Salari was one of the first to build an app for this type of project. He calls it EthOS, the Ethnographic Observation System.

Salari explains how you can use video footage to help FMCG brands better understand the consumer’s path to purchase and how to influence it. He calls it one of the most exciting opportunities in marketing today. “People often think that the strength of mobile is that it can be quicker, cheaper and faster than other fieldwork methods. But it is so much more than that,” says Salari. “Mobile ethnography is offering brands insight and data at the point at which a behaviour happens. It’s not simply recollections or clicks on browsers; it offers consumers and brands accessible intimacy and high-quality visible insights that can be used for various purposes afterwards.”

Indeed, the mobile phone itself is now part of the shopper journey – as both a product research tool and a way to make price comparisons at the point of purchase. Brands can embed themselves in the shopping experience and build long-term loyalty by helping meet these and other shopper needs. Examples include using mobile apps to offer price matching via barcodes or QR codes, using mobile CRM for loyalty schemes and making use of GPS technologies to tailor location-based offers.

The consumer goods giant Unilever is one firm that has embraced the use of mobile. Its communications buying manager Richard Brooke says a combination of mobile surveys and ethnographic studies has enabled its brands to “successfully combine the out-of-home channel with mobile technology to create a rich and deeper engagement with our consumers”.

“Lasting engagement comes only from delivering to them throughout the journey and within each specific context,” says Brooke.

How brand have tested mobile as a research method

SC Johnson conducted a quant study with statistical modelling, followed by mobile ethnography to understand decision-making in the air care product category. The result was deep mining, differentiated intelligence and penetrating insights that led to actionable opportunities.

Sony employed real-time mobile research to reveal the power of word-of-mouth in purchase decisions. It tasked participants with keeping mobile diaries for a fortnight, and this was supplemented with online quant surveys before and after the research period.

BSkyB used a mobile methodology to let participants report on their brand exposure by text message. Whenever participants came into contact with anything to do with a brand, they sent a text message assigning it a positive or negative rating, and a purchase intent rating.

Best Buy carried out a pilot test using iPads to survey customers as they left stores. The surveys asked the customers about the products they were looking for, why they didn’t make a purchase, what they planned to do next and where they might make a purchase in the future.

Invest for success
Research firms are already starting to invest for the mobile future. In May e-Rewards – the owner of online data collection firm Research Now – acquired iPinion, an enterprise-grade, mobile-specific survey research platform.

Miles Worne, chief strategy officer and EMEA managing director at e-Rewards, called the acquisition “our first major response to the mobile mega-trend”.

“We realised that we needed market-leading technology and development capability if we were to make the most of the mobile opportunity, by providing a robust, ever-improving and engaging service to customers and panellists alike,” Worne said.

“Lots of companies are now looking to utilise mobile as part of their research plans, particularly for shopper insights at the point of purchase, and ad measurement. The technology is continuing to evolve and opening up new opportunities, and the pace of change will probably be rapid, especially in areas such as near-field communications.”

Similarly, in the US, Bovitz recently announced its acquisition of Resolve Market Research, a global research consultancy specialising in mobile. Elaine Coleman, the founder of Resolve, who is now managing director of media and emerging technologies at Bovitz, said: “Mobile is changing everything. The best part of using smartphones or tablets as tools for research is that context becomes paramount. A researcher can assess activity as it unfolds in the wild.”

Other data collection firms such as Toluna and Lightspeed Research are focusing on developing expertise in-house. Both companies have released apps for users to take part in surveys as and when they want.

Janice Caston, an associate vice president of Toluna, says: “The proliferation of smartphones has made it easier to recruit panellists and have them complete surveys related to their interests as and when they want to – be it by mobile browser or through a dedicated app. We’ve seen a much more instantaneous response to our surveys. For example, we helped to analyse the effectiveness of Super Bowl ads during the event itself with little interference to the sporting extravaganza” (see Case Study, p18 ).

Simon Buckley, vice president at Lightspeed Research, says: “By taking control of mobile fieldwork with our own app, we have a service which is ideal for a transient, on-the-go population – particularly in emerging markets. For instance, if you are carrying out research in India, you would only get online PC-based respondents in the main urban centres so adding mobile means you can reach the huge rural population. With the app, respondents return surveys very quickly – in hours or sometimes minutes not days compared to
PC surveys.”

Short and sweet
Despite the broadly enthusiastic push towards mobile, the technology does have challenges and limitations that researchers need to be aware of – and which need to be overcome, if possible. For instance, mobile is really only suited for shorter surveys of less than 15 minutes and there are other considerations too such as roaming charges and upholding privacy standards, which require good panel management, planning and processes.

“We need to think carefully about how we collect data so that we don’t end up with vast amounts of potentially misleading information as opposed to insights which are actionable”

Another challenge lies in the wealth of data that it’s possible to collect via mobile. Rebecca Cook, consultant at strategic brand consultancy The Value Engineers, says: “We need to think carefully about how we collect data so that we don’t end up with vast amounts of (potentially misleading) information as opposed to insights which are actionable. These tools should not just become the latest fad which deliver mounds of data and information but don’t really get to insights.”

Michal Przadka, digital development director at Millward Brown, agrees. “As the mobile infrastructure evolves there are more and more data collection points and the data collection itself gets relatively simple,” he says. “This leads to a question about who actually owns this information and has the right to manipulate it. These are difficult questions but it’s crucial to tackle them if we want to move forward as an industry.”

Tough cookies
Questions of data access and ownership are particularly pertinent given the laws now in force governing the use of internet cookies within the European Union. Mobile researchers must remember that cookies are as common on smartphone devices as on computers, so sites must obtain “informed consent” from visitors before saving cookies on the device. Most research companies are addressing these terms using strict privacy policies to ensure users are aware of how their data will be used and that they have the rights to opt out of data collection at any time. A survey by the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) found that approximately 75% of branded research apps made privacy policies accessible in the app itself or via a web link from the app.

FPF director and co-chairman Jules Polonetsky said: “Most companies providing policies have taken an essential step to document their practices and are providing legal accountability for their actions.”

Age restrictions
Others express concern that mobile research excludes certain demographics from participating, that it is only useful for engaging technology-savvy consumers and confuses older panellists who rarely use a mobile device beyond making phone calls and sending the odd text message. Yet Spring Research reports using the technology to research older respondents with impressive results.

John Griffiths, creative director at the agency, explained that while it was time-consuming building relationships with these respondents, using the mobile “we get far higher and richer participation rates because respondents can discuss directly with researchers what they are learning”.

The long view
Of course, once the industry has worked its way through this set of challenges, another lot is bound to present itself. Smartphones are getting smarter. From telephone calls to text messages, to pictures, websites and apps, the next evolution is for the mobile to become a payment device, with near-field communication (NFC) technology enabling phones to function like credit cards. Researchers with the right privacy protocols will be able to extract data and gather insight on purchases made using NFC, while ultimately helping brands interact with these consumers on a more intimate level.

A recent trial of NFC by Kinetic and JCDecaux found that it works best when point-of-sale collateral has a strong call to action and offers dynamic content to open conversations with consumers.

Nick Mawditt, global director of marketing and insight for Kinetic, said: “The experience of interactivity elicits overwhelming positivity around the brand, driving both the conversion and the retention of customers.”

James Connolly, managing director at mobile ad agency Fetch Media, says moves like this will be the way forward as “brands look to talk directly to relevant audiences based on what they are doing behaviourally as they surf the mobile web and use geo-location tools on smart connected devices. Research will be key to successful brand planning and insight generation”.

But how big can we expect mobile to get? Not everyone is convinced that we are on the cusp of a full-scale mobile revolution. Gregg Peterson, senior vice president of operations at Market Strategies International, agrees that the device has “extraordinary potential” as a research tool but he believes it will remain a niche option for a long while to come (see Predictions, p10-11 ).

For a bit of fun, we polled the members of the Research-live.com Debate Hub on LinkedIn for their view on what mobile’s share of research revenue will be in five years’ time. 38% put it at one-fifth or less, 46% said 21-40% and 16% said 41-60%.

The benefits of fieldwork via mobile

  • Provides a 100% picture of browsing and purchasing activity on mobiles
  • Able to identify where people are using their phone and push them a relevant survey
  • Respondents return surveys very quickly compared to surveys taken on a desktop computer
  • Respondents complete surveys 24/7 rather than at set times
  • Ideal for a transient population
  • Ideal for emerging markets where there is little landline penetration. Surveys could be designed for mobile first, PC second in many markets where mobile penetration is in excess of 100%
  • Consumers tend to respond to messages and emails received via mobile, whereas they might ignore PC-based emails. So mobile could deliver a higher response rate
  • 76% of respondents in one study said they preferred the experience of app-based surveys

Sources: Lightspeed Research, Research Now, Luma Intelligence


12 years ago

Great article. I think that the opportunity for mobile is huge as pointed out, but I think we need to totally rethink how research is conducted on mobile to yield real insight. It's not just a case of finding a new channel to push surveys, but a whole new way to unearth insight. It's not even about just pushing surveys that are short either. I believe we can get the same level of data/insight out of a 25 minute survey when it's chunked and served up in small bursts of activity that intuitively taps into the way people use their phones already. It's the total integration of qual and quant approaches too, not either/or. If we think about everything from the point of the user, not the researcher we can make the most out of what mobile offers.

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12 years ago

This is a very interesting and comprehensive article but it focused on the new and sexy and completely ignores the fact that mobile is currently active in the vast day-to-day online panel and survey taking experience today and as an industry overall, we are not prepared. Currently, most suppliers are not optimising panel recruitment and surveys by device, including smartphones and tablets. Instead, they are constructing this process for the most part with only computers and laptops in mind. As a result, we are losing lots of consumes who would otherwise join and participate. We have seen, in the custom panels we manage at EasyInsites, that upwards of 25% in some panels are attempting to participate via their smartphones. Our research and other research on access panels has shown somewhere between 5-10%. If this participation via smartphones does not work or is less than optimal, then we will lose their input and this can lead to biased results. We know that those who use smartphones more often than average are younger segments, often the most important segment of all for research purposes. We also know that tablet users tend to be earlier adopters of technology and more affluent, again very important segments to include in our research. EasyInsites presented a paper with Cint at the recent CASRO Tech conference in New York and have now been selected to present another paper at the ESOMAR 3D conference in Amsterdam this Fall. If anyone is interested in seeing what we found in our research on research, you can download the CASRO paper at www.EasyInsites.com or feel free to contact me for further information.

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12 years ago

Great article, this topic is really heating up. We are seeing firsthand how the industry is growing. The possibilities are huge since 3 quarters of the worlds population already own a mobile device. Amazing to see how companies get location based survey information especially from rural areas in developing countries. Mobile devices are basically making this possible fro the first time. Analyzing and sharing the data is also becoming easier and more reliable since the data is already in digital form. If you are interested in the sort of applications this kind of work is possible, please visit http://www.poimapper.com/ to learn more.

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