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Are We Smart Enough For Mobile Market Research?

I keep hearing MR is restricted to smartphones and that’s why mobile has not gone mainstream in research. Before getting into the issue of this being Myth or Fact, it is important to first define what a smartphone is. The term smartphone is arguably the most misused mobile terminology today. This is largely because no clear definition exists and the goal posts set for a smart phone keep shifting. I have tried to segregate the more visible evolution of the definition of the smartphone below for a better understanding :

  • Up to 2005 : any phone with a color screen was considered “smart”
  • 2005 – 2007 : it was anything with a camera
  • 2007+ : it was any phone which could access GPRS, and more recently it’s been 3G enabled and business phones.

With the Blackberry’s success in the enterprise segment its smartphone definition was initially drawn from its secure push mail system. So are all phones used for business smart? Android based phones and also the established players like Nokia, LG, SE, Samsung, etc offering full feature phones across price points blur the lines of smart phones even further. All these definitions are very fluid and do not really describe or define where the “dumb” phone ends and the” smart” phone begins. So what does a real smartphone look like? The answer is more to do with what we want to use it for or “is it smart enough” for what we want it for (in our case MR).

Definition available at

“A smartphone is a mobile phone that offers more advanced computing ability and connectivity than a basic ‘feature phone’. While some feature phones are able to run simple applications based on generic platforms such as Java ME or BREW, a smartphone allows the user to install and run much more advanced applications based on a specific platform. Smartphones run complete operating system software providing a platform for application developers.

Growth in demand for advanced mobile devices boasting powerful processors, abundant memory, larger screens and open operating systems has outpaced the rest of the mobile phone market for several years. According to a study by ComScore, in 2010, over 45.5 million people in the United States owned smartphones and it is the fastest growing segment of the mobile phone market, which comprised of 234 million subscribers in the United States. “

From a MR stand point, these smartphone numbers are also highly questionable and restrictive. So what should a smart phone look like from a Market Researcher’s perspective? The answer is more to do with what we want to use it for or “is it smart enough” for what we want it for. For research to get the best out of mobiles, the “smart enough” approach is a much better way to look at it.

If we want to reach our target audience, we should go out and reach them irrespective of the phone they use. The debate about penetration of mobile phones has all but died out. Now it’s about how to target these consumers. Where targeted consumers own homogenous OS phones; e.g. a study amongst young working women in tier 1 metros (say NYC) and all almost all this target uses Blackberries/iPhones the task gets relatively simple. However for general population studies the range of handsets that need to be covered could be across phone types, screen resolutions and multiple OS environments.

Designing mobile studies and surveys will have to keep all this diversity of phones in mind while formulating execution plans. A simple smart vs dumb definition won’t work. Certain universal protocols like WAP or SMS can be considered but will lose out given their limitations. Given the improved mobile technology and value added services offering rich mobile content and services that consumers have access to today, to be appealing mobile MR needs to have very high production values from an aesthetic, relevance, appeal  and engagement perspective.

Coming back to the smart enough definition, we have seen for some studies which use Videos or Photos to be sent to or received from respondents [i.e. used in Mobile Blogging and TVC Ad & Print Ad testing / evaluations]. Both the above mobile MR applications tools must be dynamic and allow the moderator / researcher to change questions, videos or photos on the fly via a Web-based control interface. These changes done on the control interface get reflected in real time in the applications on the respondents’ phone. For these solutions to work of course we need the phones to be smart enough – in this case to be able to show videos and photos. While video play function is slowly growing to be a standard in most phones, the camera function has already become a standard. In today’s handset environment coupled with the development capabilities available, mobile market research solutions cover all handsets & OSs in the market. This puts to rest the assumption that researchers need to restrict themselves to a set of phones / smartphones to successfully run mobile MR studies.

If one compares the requirements of market research to the gaming or mobile marketing industries, I am happy to share our requirements are quite basic! This ideally means our adoption should be much better than the gaming or the mobile marketing industries. Unfortunately I haven’t seen evidence of that – but let’s leave that for another blog post!

Navin Williams

[email protected]

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9 responses to “Are We Smart Enough For Mobile Market Research?

  1. Hello Navin.
    Fantastic analysis. Could you also open up on the kind of applications that were used before and from now on as collecting models ? That would be interesting to follow the evolution of both smartphones and applications.

  2. Excellent article. However, I see you focus primarily on the technical capabilities of the device. I don’t think that’s a deterrent for MR on mobile. The issue is availability and affordability of mechanics to deliver MR via mobile. Unless you can think of an app, MR will have to primarily rely on the mobile web. In most markets in this region, accounts are prepaid and mobile web access is expensive. The consumer will have to do so some learning as well. Further, what would motivate him to respond to a survey or blog or chat using a mobile?

    1. Hi Milind! The focus of the “Smart Enough” blog post was simply to share a view of handsets from an MR perspective. Every fortnight I hopefully will cover a wider spectrum of issues in mobile MR. You have raised a number of pertinent questions which are all worth a couple of blogs J! In the mean time I’ll try and give a quick view on the specific issues you raised.
      It is safe to say the availability and affordability of mechanics to deliver MR via mobile exists in abundance. The Mobile web has been around for over 10 years now and in its current form is still a bit restrictive. Apps at the current moment are a better option and they are getting more and more accessible. For eg. in China we are hitting 800mil mobile users of which 384mil (as on April 2010) are mobile internet users (up from 298mil+ 18 months ago). GPRS access is coming in-built as a standard across all packages both pre-paid and post paid. The 150Mb GPRS package (Shanghai) is at RMB 20 (roughly USD 3); while the entry package costs RMB 5 (< 1 USD) for 30Mb at the moment and expected to drop further. You will recall back in India in ’96 when mobiles entered the market the rates were Rupees 16 per minute (1/3rd of a US$), now they are the lowest in the world at 2 cents a minute (the lowest in the world). Consumers are learning faster than we can imagine. I was at a tier 3 city last week (they has cycle rickshaws there – which made me smile and think of home. Will post a pic hopefully on one of my blogs), and the GPRS adoption was staggering. In Rural China 2 out of 3 Internet users got online by mobile phone last year. Motivation – that’s applicable across any medium. Why should a respondent participate in a F2F, CATI, Online? If they find it relevant and rewarding, they will participate and that goes for mobile MR as well. In China currently though we have no such issues as the enthusiasm and self motivation driven by the whole experience being new and unique seems to be rewarding in itself. However mobile MR will have to address the issues of incentives and motivation just as other MR channels have to going forward.

  3. Good stuff Navin. I’ll probably drop by sometime soon to touch and feel the apps you are developing. Alternatively, you can register me in your list of respondents – i’m sure a survey for laowai in china must come up sometime 😉

  4. Valid point Navin…however, as you know, mobile application in MR is what I have been also driving as a passion for over 5 years now. And, two conclusions that i have come to, which is what i also talked about in my recent paper at ESOMAR, are:
    1. we keep comparing mobile phone with other methods of data collection…such as mobile VERSUS online, or mobile VERSUS face to face, etc…it is not a VERSUS, it is an AND…ie mobile AND online, mobile AND face to face, etc.; and
    2. mobile research does not mean collecting active data through a mobile phone alone…it offers much more than that…which is what the power of a mobile phone is (collecting data passively.

    So, while your focus on smart phone is valid, and it would definitely take care of some of the shortcomings today, but it still carries these two (aforementioned) limitations within. And, hence, my reservation.

    Best regards,

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