Mobile research: new platform, new thinking, new opportunities

Although mobile research is sometimes considered the new kid on the research block, it has actually been available to researchers for a decade. In fact, the first SMS mobile survey was conducted by Ipsos twelve years ago. Despite this, development of the methodology has been very slow across the industry and even today mobile surveys account for less than 1.5 percent of global industry revenue. However, mobile research is ready to become a key tool in researchers’ (and thus marketers’) toolkits, with the industry predicting mobile surveys via SMS, mobile internet and mobile applications will be the biggest areas for potential growth this decade. So understanding the opportunities and developing the right techniques is the recipe for success.

Over the last few years we have seen a number of factors that together have put the foundations in place to successfully use the mobile phone to carry out research.

  • The expanding coverage of smartphones: Gaining access to research participants via their mobile phones is now easier than ever. Many countries (New Zealand included) have more phones than people and many use their mobile phones as their primary way to access the internet. In New Zealand, the proportion of households ditching their landlines and going mobile-only is steadily increasing, especially amongst the younger and more affluent households that so many businesses target. Researching people via their mobiles offers new opportunities in terms of place, occasion, time and media. For example, recently we conducted a successful project in New Zealand that involved recruited respondents texting us details of their daily drink purchases, and we gained far better information than a traditional questionnaire that asked “in the last month….”
  • Consumers are using their phone to do much more than make calls: Gartner has predicted that by 2013, mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web access device worldwide. In the second quarter of 2011 nearly 60 percent of mobile phones brought into New Zealand were smartphones, a 16 percent increase on the previous quarter. Since then we’ve had Christmas and the boom in cheap Android devices, and it’s safe to say that smartphones are on their way to fast becoming the dominant platform in the New Zealand mobile space–and will already be so amongst some target markets.
  • Feature-rich mobile phones are becoming more available and affordable: It’s becoming difficult to buy a phone without a camera, media player and GPS capabilities. Researchers can ask people to use their phones to submit photos and other media safe in the knowledge that almost all will be able to. And we can ask them to view pictures or videos online via their phones. Once upon a time we would send respondents disposable cameras to use for some types of qualitative research. Now we just ask them to PXT us.
  • Access to the mobile internet is becoming cheaper, faster and more reliable: Generous data plans and increasing availability of Wi-Fi remove respondents’ fears of for paying too much to pay for taking part in research and make it more affordable to reimburse them if desired.
  • The mobile app revolution has supercharged survey technology: A few years ago we surveyed a telco client’s customers by having the telco text certain customers a link to access via their PC browser. Respondent suspicion was very high. Today, respondents can be expected to download an app with little resistance, and these survey apps enable a richer and more dynamic research experience. Note that we’re not talking solely about ‘surveys’ now. There are a lot of other insights that can be gained through specially designed apps.
  • People still like participating in market research: Research is maligned in some spaces because it has been badly done. But we know that if you maximise the convenience and ease of participation, response rates will be high. What could be easier than a short survey on your smartphone?

We will see continued growth in research conducted using mobile phones. And we will see development fit into three key areas:

1. Mobile as a measurement tool

The research industry in general will ask fewer questions and do more listening, and the mobile phone will be an excellent tool to do this. Once permission is given by research participants, we are able to build up an electronic picture of exactly how, when and where they are using their mobile device and how they are living their lives. Radio diaries and TV panels only capture a sliver of peoples’ lives, but mobiles can reveal so much more.

2. Mobile as a survey tool

Surveys are practical on smartphones as long as we consider what is realistic. Surveys should be kept short and be used when the benefits of immediacy, mobility and convenience are realised. SMS, mobile web and mobile application surveys can and will all be used depending on the type of survey and the region of data collection. It need not all be about the app either; QR codes can take people to mobile surveys, and mobile-targeted survey invitations can be triggered through any customer interactions that are recorded on a capable CRM system, such as loyalty card usage or call centre interactions.

3. Mobile as a deeper insight tool

The modern mobile phone has an increasing number of ‘senses’ that can take pictures and videos, detect location, sound and movement and many more still to be developed. These features can be integrated into data collection to provide a much richer experience for the participant and deliver more insightful research. Mobile research experiences will also become social, allowing consumers to connect with other to share ideas and create.

As with all research methodologies, research via mobile phones has limitations but also a number of great strengths. It is convenient, always at the fingertips of the consumer, and is ideal to gain insight right at the point of experience. Location-based marketing has been quick to utilise smartphone technology, and so too can market research. The mobile also has the potential to be the perfect passive measurement tool recording mobile internet and application usage, phone calls and text messages, location, travel and commerce.

The success of mobile research will depend on how we play to these strengths and avoid the pitfalls. Mobile is not simply a successor to on-line or traditional survey methods; it should be seen as a complementary technique. Research will compete with many other activities carried out on mobile phones and it would be naïve to believe that research can capture the attention of a consumer for long periods of time. Mobile research will require re-thinking of traditional survey approaches requiring shorter, sharper and more engaging experiences.

So think about it. Those times when you’d love to be sitting on the shoulders of your customers, learning about their thoughts and actions right then and there. Now it can be done.

  •  Jonathan Dodd is the research director of Ipsos New Zealand (formerly Synovate)

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