Mobile Musings: What is Mobile Research?

Since early 2012 I’ve been actively involved in the emerging methodology known as ‘mobile research.’ As a result, I often find myself in interesting conversations with market researchers who are also getting up to speed with this new fieldwork technique. I hope you find of interest these frequent questions I’m asked (and how I reply).


What is mobile research?

This question is not as simple as it appears. Some consider any survey or study activity conducted on a phone or tablet as ‘mobile research.’ Regardless of the information exchange occurring via browser-based survey, email, or SMS exchange; as long as it’s happening via mobile device, this is ‘mobile research.’ In fact, I’ve talked to people who consider a telephone/IDI survey as mobile research, if the respondent was on their mobile phone during it.
 A more stringent definition involves apps designed to enable the native GPS and multi-media capabilities built into smartphones and tablets. The respondent usually has more ‘involvement’ with the study in using these capabilities, compared to responding to directed questions offered in a conventional survey.

Are mobile studies representative?

Another common, and intriguing, question; if I’m being asked ‘are these studies representative of the general population?’ I reply: no, they are not. However, this is what makes mobile research not only intriguing, but a  strength for progressive MR professionals. Specifically, the demographic metrics of smartphone ownership should be of interest for this reason alone. Keep in mind: the percent of the USA population, who have joined online panels, is 1-2%, depending on your source. An enormous amount of MR fieldwork is powered by this tiny slice of the population.
I think it is safe to assume that considerably more than 1-2% of the USA population is in possession of a smartphone. Moreover, the demographics of these owners, from teens on up, working professionals, cell-only households, etc. makes this potential audience of keen interest to consumer brand firms. Certain pockets of these demographics are challenging to reach via traditional advertising mediums of TV, radio and print. However, these same age and demo cohorts are often in possession of a smartphone. And one only nee ds to look around to see how actively involved they are with them.

What about data quality?

Given the reliance of self-report feedback through conventional methods (online surveys, phone/mail surveys), the potential of smartphone-based research should be of keen interest. There is an added layer of validation via mobile-research, with shopping behavior in particular, that is capturing the interest of consumer brand firms and manufactures. Consider the difference between asking ‘are you shopping for a new car?’ in a conventional survey, vs. receiving photographic verification and open end commentary, in audio format, from a car shopper while they are at the dealership (and all the dealerships they are visiting that week or month).
Moreover, mobile research can provide in-store shopper feedback, and purchase verification, of laundry detergent, shampoo, grocery items and other fast moving consumer goods via bar code scanning and receipt photos. The appeal of store promotions, instant coupons, etc. can be measured in-store, to gauge brand loyalty and propensity for on the spot brand switching, etc.

Do I need an app for mobile research?

If one simply requires the respondent to have browser access, then the answer is no. Examples of this may includeclosed audiences, for example at a meeting or conference. Or, the survey may be offered as a convenience, for example as a follow-up to a customer service inquiry, where the survey device doesn’t matter. However, many ‘online surveys’ do not rend er properly on a mobile device, and the importance of this, often overlooked, can quickly lead to respondent frustration and drop offs.
Sophisticated mobile research, involving geo-validation, barcode and multi-media validation, does require an app designed for this kind of activity. Although these apps are designed to conduct similar tasks, there is a surprising amount of variability in the user experience and technical proficiency (i.e. care given to the battery drain problem). As always, it’s good to shop around, and I encourage interested parties to try several apps via the app stores, and experience these as a respondent might.
I hope you find this mini primer in mobile research helpful, and keep an eye out for further newsletter articles
devote to this topic.


Scott Weinberg,

Immediate-Past President of the Upper Midwest / MN MRA Chapter

Originally posted in the MN-MRA Winter 2013 Newsletter

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