Tim Macer

Mobile research seems have been trapped in a prolonged state of adolescence for seven or eight years now. Despite youthful promise and an ability to charm clients, its short attention span, voracious appetite for project budgets and rather temperamental nature have left its parents wondering when this problem child might grow up and start contributing to the rent.

More recently, there are signs that mobile is maturing into a method that researchers can feel justified in using, able to deliver high quality results across a much broader range of research applications. To understand how and why mobile now seems to be coming of age, I spoke to four innovators in the field, asking them how they see mobile evolving into a high-quality and dependable research method.

A major shift
Guy Rolfe is global mobile practice leader at Kantar. He is now observing significant change in the world of mobile research. “If we go back just four years,” he says, “we were really struggling to deploy web browser surveys on a mobile, because they did not render very well and people were worried about their data consumption. We had a lot of success with mobile apps back then – the level of engagement to download an app and participate in the task was really high.”

Now, he says, the emphasis needs to be on browser surveys. “The balance of power has shifted. Today, screens are larger, processing is faster, the cost barrier for consumers has been removed with cheaper data, WiFi access is easier and consumers are more comfortable browsing the web on their mobile. If anything, it’s the opposite now, with people using the internet on their mobile devices more than on their PC.

“While we’ve got a huge number of suppliers that can provide app-based market research technologies, there is an associated perception of additional cost. You also have to build up a panel of people who have got your app so you’ve got the reach. In these economic conditions, it’s an investment people are reluctant to make, so they are looking for alternatives. But there is no escaping there are certain capabilities that are only possible via an app.”

In developing countries, he says, the emergence of river samples has given mobile the boost it needed – again using browsers. “In emerging markets, apps did not really fly, because of the type of phones people had. Even if you designed an app for a feature phone, there were a lot of wary people in Africa, for example, because apps had previously been associated with criminal activities and scams. Inevitably, this will evolve and change.”

Rolfe expresses unease over the speed of adoption of river sampling, especially in developing countries. “I think this is a valuable complement, but I fear if we don’t learn from the past, we could find ourselves in another data quality debate like with online research. With online, it took us about ten years to get there, but with mobile I believe we could get to that point a lot quicker.”

Another driver for apps is the collection of behavioural data on mobile devices, which he is anticipating will have a major impact on research. “Surveys” he says, “should become even shorter or fewer, and your questions can be more targeted around actual behaviour observed. I am really excited about how we can leverage behavioural data, but it requires a rethink on how it has been done up to now – and how to create a fairer value exchange for participants.”

Rolfe no longer sees research-specific technology as a barrier to adoption in mobile: “The challenges today are around education and building the confidence of both clients and researchers in how to adopt these technologies in ways that are proven and scalable.”

If you’re an ESOMAR member you can read the full article in MyESOMAR in the digital copy of Research World. If you are not a member of ESOMAR you can join and receive a free copy of Research World 6 times a year or alternatively you can sign up for a subscription of the magazine in our publications store.