Jo Bowman

Every year, for the past five or six years, we’ve heard that this is the year in which mobile market research will truly take off. And each year, that mobile-enabled industry transformation has failed to materialise. But now, with smartphone penetration topping 50% in advanced markets, and with a phone in the hands of a reported 85% of people around the world, perhaps mobile research’s time has finally come. For an industry built on the promise of seeking permission and anonymising results, this means not only big opportunity but also some tricky questions about balancing what’s possible with what’s appropriate behaviour.

ESOMAR, together with CASRO, has, over the years, provided guidelines regarding research on mobiles. Just a few years old, they may already seem out of date with their concerns about using up mobile users’ subscription minutes or encouraging drivers to chat while at the wheel. They were written when a mobile phone was primarily still used as a phone – for talking or texting. Of course, the mobile handset is far more than that now. Rather than another way for interviewers to phone people for a conversation, its added potential is in the information that’s either collected passively by the device or is generated by respondents themselves – taking pictures, entering text, recording their own voices. With mobile applications that can now monitor users’ heart rates, locations, body temperatures and web browsing habits, there arise some complicated questions about what is desirable and what is ethical.

ESOMAR is working with the Mobile Marketing Research Association (MMRA) on a guideline for the new, smartphone-enabled research landscape. Siamack Salari, founder of ethnography agency EverydayLives, is a member of the working group. “Mobile is already changing everything,” he says. “The sheer quantity of data that’s going to be captured is amazing.” Qualitative researchers interested in people’s attitudes and behaviour, and functions like video, pictures and text are already proving incredibly powerful tools for gaining rich data and reducing costs. A mobile application which makes requests of respondents can do almost everything a three- or four-day study involving a researcher with a camera in someone’s home (followed by days of editing) can do.

“You can embed tasks like ‘Show us your snacks,’ or ‘Next time you go shopping, show us the things you bought impulsively,’” Salari says. “People then talk and will explain what they’ve done . . . and you can ask respondents to recruit friends and family to comment on them and their postings. Friends can say things like ‘I’ve never seen you do that before, when do you do that?’”

Gloria Park Bartolone, Senior Vice President of Global Fieldwork Operations with Maritz Research, says the rate of growth in mobile research is vastly outstripping that seen for online. “I would expect in ten years from now, what we’ll be seeing with mobile we wouldn’t recognise now.”

In the US, more than three in ten adults do not have a landline anymore; the younger people are, the more likely that is to be the case. Maritz is finding that the intimacy of the mobile makes people less likely to turn down invitations to participate. And when people are sent an e-mail invitation giving them a choice of ways to respond, growing numbers are opting for the mobile. “We thought there might be a small percentage opting to take a survey on a smartphone,” Park Bartolone explains. “In 2010 it was less than 5% – screens were so small and, let’s face it, a survey isn’t usually something people are itching to do. But now we’ve seen almost 21% growth between Q1 2011 and Q1 2012 taking a survey on a mobile device.”

In emerging markets, mobiles are providing access to people who haven’t been reachable via landlines before. With ITU data showing that internet penetration is still only 13% for Africa, mobiles, with 53% penetration, are the missing link. Mobile minutes are also being used as a currency incentive for participation.

And, as smartphone penetration rises, researchers can tell where a person is when they provide information. For ad tracking, recall at the end of a campaign no longer has to be the key; advertisers can see as a campaign rolls out which executions are being seen or heard, and which are working.

“Mobile tracking has come of age with the development and commercial availability of on-device applications such as the Arbitron Mobile Meter™,” says Andreas Piani, an expert in the industry working with Arbitron Mobile. “This technology allows for complex, real-time collection of usage and technical data, and its automatic linking to other important indicators such as location. Also, additional data collection tools, such as on-phone surveys, can be used to increase the depth of analysis and provide a holistic picture of consumers’ usage behaviour of advanced mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet PCs. It also means that this technology can be leveraged in other kinds of research to provide a richer, more comprehensive picture of consumer behaviour and attitudes.”

In general, there are challenges with the new research technologies, notably in relation to having varying privacy laws by country and legal issues surrounding, for example, data collection and data storage.

These are among the challenges that the joint working group has been seeking to address in the guideline. A draft of the guideline was up for discussion at the MMRA’s annual meeting in the US this summer, and revisions incorporating those comments have been folded into the draft sent for broader consultation in September so the final text can be launched at ESOMAR’s 3D conference in November in Amsterdam.

Mark Michelson, executive director of the MMRA, says that any regulation of mobile market research seems to be covered by privacy laws rather than anything specifically on soliciting opinion, but that much attention is now focused on passive data collection through cookies, spyware and the like. “There are quite a few technology cowboys out there,” he says.

“The challenge is that many of the companies coming in with technological capabilities that clients want are not market researchers, and they don’t understand privacy and other industry issues in the same way,” says Park Bartolone. “We run the risk of organisations like this doing harm. It really behoves us to do our part by informing the clients and consumers. What we have to keep in mind is that customers must have the choice in what they want to share and what they don’t. We could be raising a generation who are either less aware of their rights to privacy, or they don’t care about it. People will tweet comments about anything, and the fact that what you say can be re-tweeted so quickly . . . we have some challenges around what we believe should be shared.”

With the guideline, ESOMAR and the MMRA are hoping to embrace companies doing research via mobile that haven’t previously considered themselves part of the market research industry. The goal is that, by ensuring that consumers and their privacy are protected by as many companies as possible, regulators will see no need to step in, and consumers will keep participating.

“Market researchers rely on people giving them information voluntarily,” says Adam Phillips, Managing Director of Real Research and chair of ESOMAR’s Professional Standards and Legal Affairs committees. “If we believe in a professional way to treat them with respect and transparency about what we’re doing, and they don’t get any negative effects from participating like being hounded to buy mobile equipment or double glazing, then people co-operate, and then we get better data.”

The question of how respondents are kept informed and give informed consent to their data being used is complicated by the fact that, with so many different mobile screens and operating systems in use, being both thorough and readable is a challenge.

“People do realise there’s a trade-off, but one of the issues is a lack of informed debate,” says Phillips. “Most people are very concerned about who’s holding their personal data.” The problem is that they want to do things online and on their mobiles – shopping, booking flights, reading the news and using apps – which they can’t do unless they tick the boxes to say they agree to all the terms and conditions of use, which include the use of their data. “They think, ‘Well, I want to use the website,’ so they click through. People find themselves in a paradoxical situation where they don’t have information to make informed decisions.” Market researchers, Phillips says, need to be transparent about what they’re doing when collecting and using consumer data, “but in a way that doesn’t bamboozle people.”

With respondents potentially taking pictures of groups of people – think of a picture at a child’s birthday party to show the food being eaten – the matter of getting permission from everyone to be in a snapshot becomes complicated in a way that in focus groups, when respondents know they’re being watched from behind the mirror, is not. Mobile reminders sent to research participants to ask permission of people they’re with are possible, though, and faces can be pixelated. Salari points out that research contributors should have control not just over what’s collected, but how it’s used. Having your dinner table photographed for a shopping-trends study is one thing; having it used in a presentation about why obesity levels are so high is quite another.

The guideline will take two forms: a longer format that gives thorough guidance for the industry on how to use mobile in a way that guards researchers’ reputation; and a short version aimed more at consumers, which will set out a kind of bill of rights or five commandments that researchers will uphold.

Piani notes that, beyond the mobile-specific advice for researchers, many of the basic principles of ethical market research remain relevant. “Do not mix data collection for research and commercial purposes, always ensure that the subject of your investigation has opted in to all phases of the project, aggregate and anonymise user data unless the project aims make this unfeasible. These, and others, are still central to professionally conducted mobile research,” he says.

“This not something that will stand forever,” says Park Bartolone. “We have to draw a line in the sand, and that will become a starting point – we’ll have to constantly adapt to this changing environment.”

Mark Michelson, Siamack Salari, Gloria Park Bartolone, Andreas Piani and Adam Phillips are all members of the guideline working group which also includes Betsy Leichliter of Leichliter Associates, LLC and Reg Baker, senior consultant at Market Strategies International and consultant to ESOMAR’s Professional Standards Committee. The group is also assisted by James Randall of Ipsos MORI Digital, Guy Rolfe of Kantar Operations, Tim Snaith of OnePoint Surveys and AJ Johnson of BrainJuicer.