OPINION22 May 2014

Upwardly mobile

As mobile devices continue to transform how we engage with the online (and offline) world, Richard Thornton of Cint asks whether the market research industry is ready to adapt.


Nielsen’s Digital Consumer Report, investigating the habits of consumers in the US, discovered that adults spent average of 34 hours per month using mobile apps and browsers on their smartphones as opposed to 27 hours accessing the internet via computer.

The report puts smartphone ownership in the US at 65%, quite a rise from 44% in 2011. In the UK, mobile devices have become so ubiquitous that 92.7% of Brits in our recent omnibus survey said that people are losing their manners because they have become so engrossed in their smartphones.

As mobile overtakes desktop as the preferred portal for accessing the internet, is the market research industry ready to embrace the challenge and reap the unique rewards presented by mobile technology? By examining the distinctions between the mobile web and mobile apps, looking at market research app development and mobile optimisation, highlighting the benefits of mobile research, and unpacking the challenges, we can create a comprehensive answer to this question.

A tale of three mobile worlds

When we talk about mobile technology, we’re really talking about three distinct realms – telecommunications, mobile apps, and the mobile web – and the balances between these functions are constantly shifting. At the beginning of March, Nielsen released the results of a cross-platform report analysing consumer habits in the US during Q4 2013. According to the report, 89% of smartphone users consumed mobile media via apps, rather than using mobile browsers. Only 11% were browsing the mobile web.

The dominance of mobile apps creates a fragmented user journey that is split between the data silos of separate apps acting as virtual gatekeepers to the larger mobile world. The democratic, open nature we have become accustomed to when exploring the internet on our computers has been narrowed considerably through the access points created by a few companies, now given immense power in the form of this user data, which they can collect seamlessly as users navigate through their doors, always logged in to their services.

Drawing data from its MobiLens and Mobile Metrix properties, comScore released a report on key trends in the US smartphone industry observed during January 2014. In the category of smartphone mobile media users, Google Sites reached 89.4% of the browsing and app audience, followed by Facebook at 86.6%. Facebook was the top app, reaching 77.6%, followed by three Google properties – Google Play at 52.4%, YouTube at 49.7%, and Google Search at 48.9%. Google and Facebook have become the lens through which many see the mobile world, which offers these companies rich troves of user information, but creates a problem for many trying to draw attention in such a divided space. As apps take over, how do market research companies ensure access and visibility for their online research panels?

Market research mobile apps

Clearly the appetite for apps is growing, and the app market is booming. Google announced in May 2013 that it had 1 million apps listed in Google Play, marking a 43% increase from the number it reported in October 2012. Based on these numbers and those from the Apple Store, Juniper Research has projected that the number of apps downloaded across the world will double during the next four years, going from 80 billion in 2013 to 160 billion in 2017, while Portio Research puts the number at more than 200 billion by 2017.

In response, many market research firms and survey developers are creating their own apps. After seeing its mobile traffic grow by 14 times in the course of three years, SurveyMonkey released its first mobile app in February this year to allow users to design, deploy, and measure surveys from their mobile devices. The provider of online survey tools hopes that this move will streamline processes for those already accessing services via their mobile devices, while also attracting a new audience among people who prefer apps over the mobile web.

There is also a wealth of native or white label app solutions on the market from most of the leading data collection companies and larger traditional research agencies today. Within market research there are now also mobile research platforms and agencies dedicated to mobile methodology, such as On Device, Lumi Mobile, OnePoint and several others.

Others are building apps within an app, something that is likely to become more common in the future as retailers and brands develop their feedback channels within existing customer apps, alongside leveraging apps as a customer relationship management tool to engage with consumers and drive up stickiness of the brand.

When developing apps to gather market insights, some companies flirt with elements of gamification. Certainly the mobile app world, as it draws a large proportion of usage and revenue from games, is filled with users familiar with and predisposed to participating in experiences with a game-like atmosphere. Many market research apps, such as Field Agent and Rewardable, are popping up that create fun, playful scenarios like scavenger hunts, offering rewards and challenges designed to entice users to participate in surveys more often. However, careful consideration must be placed on the question as to whether the gamification of surveys in this manner influences the integrity of the results. That will be a key challenge as market research explores the world of app design and firms like Research Through Gaming and forums like http://gamification-research.org/ will be central to helping clients and academics understand best practice in this area.

The benefits of mobile

At the beginning of 2014, YouGov recognised the potential mobile technology presents for the market research industry, particularly in reaching the developing world, and made the strategic move to acquire Decision Fuel, a market research company focused on the Asian region that has a robust proprietary platform for conducting research via mobile technology. Conducting research via mobile devices offers numerous benefits.

  • Reach: Researchers can reach those who may not have been connected previously, especially in emerging markets in Africa or India where many skip the internet and go directly to the mobile web. Mobile survey technology also widens the research window, creating more opportunities to reach people while they are away from their computers and engaging in other activities.
  • Targeting: Researchers can recruit users by device as well as operator, offering further possibilities for targeting specific audiences – especially younger people and consumers in emerging markets.
  • Timing: Surveys can be completed at the moment of exposure to the element being researched, or right after, when experiences are fresher in their minds and unclouded by memory – offering the opportunity to discover instant, honest reactions. Response times can be controlled by sending text messages with surveys at precise moments.
  • Additional data: While participating in these surveys, extra information can be gathered such as time stamps, GPS location data, integration with Google Maps, and supplemental imagery.
  • Also noteworthy, in compiling the cross-platform discussed earlier, Nielsen for the first time shifted from results gleaned through a survey to measurements taken via electronic mobile metering.

Keeping up with mobile technology

Market research as a whole seems to be lagging behind when it comes to taking advantage of the opportunities offered by mobile technology. According to the results of the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes survey, an average of 87% of people in 21 countries owned a mobile device. However, only 27% of the participants in the GRIT 2013 study reported they were using mobile for quantitative research, and only 19% for qualitative, with only a modest year-on-year growth of 4% and 2% respectively.

Market researchers are falling behind in comparison not only with the rise of mobile, but also with the efforts being made in other industries. An infographic about mobile marketing from the New Jersey Institute of Technology shows 47% of companies currently have mobile versions of their websites, 30% plan to create them in the upcoming year, 45% have a mobile app, and 31% will release one in the next year.

The challenges of mobile surveys

In a comprehensive white paper examining mobile survey participation across its client base, Decipher assesses the state of mobile research. The paper found that while mobile participation is on the rise, a “vast majority” of the company’s clients do not optimise their studies for mobile devices. According to Decipher’s data, smartphone users abandoned surveys in Q4 2013 at a rate of 1.5 to 2 times that of desktop respondents. However, the report cites studies that show this can be mitigated by optimising surveys for mobile devices.

Key recommendations for tailoring surveys for mobile respondents included:

  • Designs should focus on a smaller screen size with shorter text, larger font, less content on the screen, and bigger buttons easy for touching.
  • Grids should be broken down into touch-friendly options to avoid zooming or excessive scrolling.
  • Stats emphasise that designers should keep in mind that typing is more difficult.
  • Longer download times and designs that aren’t optimised for mobile increase completion time, which elevates the chance for dropouts.
  • As they’re likely accessing the survey on the go or surrounded by distractions, users will have a shorter attention span and will be less likely to stick with longer surveys.
  • Lastly, the study concluded that optimising surveys for mobile helps to create more consistency between results gleaned from mobile and desktop respondents.

So while strides are being made, there is clearly a long way to go for the market research industry to fully embrace the potential of mobile technology, in all its promising and perplexing guises.

Richard Thornton is global sales and operations director at Cint.


10 years ago

Richard, interesting piece. One of the key challenges mobile places on MR, and often a block to adoption, is survey length. Mobile surveys need to be short and sweet - how many quant. surveys take over 15 mins for respondents to complete? There are ways to address this, fortunately - it's one of the issues I look at in a book on mobile I'm currently completing, availalble soon, that builds on the series on Mobile MR published on the Green book blog in March 2014. If we get mobile right as an industry, we can potentially break out of the spiral of ever lower response rates, and not being able to reach more difficult target groups.

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10 years ago

Great article. I've been conducting mobile market research in emerging markets and found many of your recommendations to hold true, however one large gap is that researches need to be aware of the importance of reaching emerging markets on the devices (mostly feature phones) that are more representative of the general population. The default browser on Nokia's mobile feature phones has proven an excellent method to achieve this.

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