OPINION8 August 2011

The mobile hype ends here


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.

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.

Reg Baker is chief operating officer at Market Strategies International. He blogs here. Follow him on Twitter @thesurveygeek

  • For an alternative point of view, read Jay Pluhar’s comment piece


13 years ago

Absolutely spot on Reg, in this age of hype it is great to hear the voice of logic and reason. I have trying to wind-up the access panels to respond to some of the problems mentioned in your piece namely 'ongoing concerns about data quality' relating to access panels of whatever variety but they never take the bait - why is that?

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13 years ago

I think the key point to take from this is mobile will never take over other types of research. Perhaps in 25 years when all computers are "mobile". For now it's a great tool to use and mix within current project that can benefit from the "in the moment" feedback or the addition of video, picture, audio, barcode and GPS capture. If the above is of no benefit to you or your client then don't use mobile. The good news is many people are using mobile for just this and it is a growing trend. Some will sit back and analysis and critique the method until it hits critical mass while others will pave the path for us. We currently have 3 methods for mobile; SMS, Web and Application. All have uses, some perhaps not showing the demand as others. SMS is great for polling, quick surveys not diaries ongoing in depth panels or ethnography work. Web allows more options but is forever tide to the umbilical cord of a data connection and brings up the point Reg talks about on data plans and data usage. Never mind many other setbacks with this method. Then we have mobile applications, the instrument that has allowed the likes of Apple, Google and others to make millions and millions of dollars in profit. It is the tool that drives the demand for Smartphones and IMO is the future for research. Does not need a data connection, uses low data and can also transmit data via Wi-Fi if needed. Natively installed on the device itself and thus providing a seamless interactive platform for your survey. Opens up 100 of options beyond your simple question type. Yes as of today this population is not the majority, but in short order it will be. In fact in the US it's not surpassed feature phones. At the end of the day if your clients question and riddle that they have paid you to solve can be answered using mobile then use it. If you can answer your question using other methods then use them. if a mix is key then use both. The argument of "is mobile hype" or "does mobile have a place in MR" is over and long gone. The truth hurts I know, but the sooner you accept it the better you will be off.

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13 years ago

Following Esims - the computer industry itself is debating whether in a few years computers will even exist per se as separate components or only integrated within all manner of "smart" devices, but as costs come down and usage goes up, mobile will clearly become an important channel for soliciting consumer feedback. More thoughts on this topic at www.markettools.com/blog/who-wants-complete-surveys-their-mobiles. Mike Thompson - glad to hear that you're asking your sample vendors about quality. Have you come across TrueSample e.g. by ZoomPanel?

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13 years ago

Friends. As always, any new channel is not a panacea. Mobile is already part of the insight toolkit, and to ignore and disregard it is perilous in my opinion. Intelligent data gathering and analysis driven insight is most certainly possible via mobile data collection (SMS/WAP/APP/WEB/VOICE, whatever) - and SKOPOS data shows that a large majority (c80%) of those m-gaged (using mobile web/apps, so beyond simple voice/sms) will take mobile-based surveys. But I agree mobile is only one option, and not the only option. But increasingly it is a good one. More on this at the upcoming MRS Mobile Insights Conference on Oct 27th.

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