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Mobilizing Market Research: Part 1 of a 9 Part Series

This truly is a comprehensive review of the current state of the industry, the views of many industry thought leaders on what the future holds, and of current best practices in utilizing mobile technologies for research-based initiatives. I think you'll be impressed.


Editors Note: Earlier this year myself and several others involved with mobile research were approached to be interviewed by Carrie Robbins, a brilliant Grad Student doing her thesis on Mobilizing Market Research: The state-of-the-art, future evolution and implications of mobile data collection methods in the field of market research. I was so impressed with the results of her work that the GreenBook and I agreed to publish her paper. Since the GreenBook is also a Co-Sponsor of the Market Research in the Mobile World Conference, it seems fitting that for the next 9 weeks as we run up to that event we’ll be posting a new section of Carrie’s report here. Registrants of the event will get access to a complete version that will be available via download. Carrie will also be attending MRMW11 and participating on one of our expert panels at the event!

This truly is a comprehensive review of the current state of the industry, the views of many industry thought leaders on what the future holds, and of current best practices being used. It should serve as a great resource for anyone interested in or actively engaged in utilizing mobile technologies for research-based initiatives. I think you’ll be as impressed as I was upon reading it. Enjoy!

By Carrie Robbins

Traditional market research methodologies, such as mall intercepts, mailed or online questionnaires, and telephone surveys have been modernized. Mobile devices now aid mall intercepts, questionnaires can be sent directly to participants’ cell phones, and mobile ‘ethnographies’ are developing, which allow researchers to collect user generated content (UGC) such as images and videos directly from participants’ mobile phones as they go about their daily lives.

There is considerable interest in mobile research methods in the field of market research. The literature and expert interviews cited in this white paper as well as upcoming conferences intended to join practitioners, academics and industry leaders to discuss the topic[1] attest to this increasing awareness of mobile. 

This white paper uncovers the state of mobile data collection methods and where they are headed, and describes the implications to the field of market research due to this shift towards mobile. Whether the interest in mobile technology indicates a revolution or merely an evolution[2] in market research methodology, there is much being written on the topic as firms consider whether and to what extent they will pursue new methods of data collection. This paper will guide such decisions and help market research firms select mobile solutions based on their unique market research needs. While I have found ample written evidence of a shift towards mobile methods, a collective overview of the many disparate reports and opinion pieces is necessary. This paper represents such an overview, offering a unique contribution to the field of market research.


Market research firms seem increasingly interested in pursuing mobile methods. The 2010 Globalpark industry survey predicts self-completion using mobile devices to be the fastest growing methodology in 2011, which is the first time since 2004 that the study has not predicted the web to be the fastest growing methodology (Macer & Wilson, 2011). The recently published 2011 GRIT[3] report supports this, predicting an increase in the use of mobile methods over the next year. 54% of those surveyed reported they would conduct mobile surveys, 31% would conduct mobile qualitative research and 29% would conduct mobile ethnographic research over the next year (Murphy, 2011: 26). In a predictive market exercise, mobile surveys ranked 2nd after social media analytics among emerging methods that will gain the most market share over the next year (Murphy, 2011: 28). These figures are quite promising for the future of mobile.

The benefits of mobile research are reported to be convenience for participants, improved participation rates, getting closer to the ‘moment of truth,’ reaching more of the population, obtaining faster turnaround time, capturing geolocation data, increasing accuracy of data collected, reducing costs, and allowing for more personal ways of reaching participants (Macer & Wilson, 2009b). Interestingly, the most popular benefits of mobile research have to do with increasing the quality of research and are based on the respondents’ point of view, rather than focusing on the needs of the market research firms. A respondents’ positive experience during a research project is now the main concern.

The Benefits of Mobile Research

(Macer & Wilson, 2009b: 16)

Fortunate timing as the mobile industry reaches maturity in the U.S. leads to the increased viability of mobile methods. The use of mobile phones in the U.S. continues to rise. Currently, over 90% of mobile phones are Internet ready (Decipher, 2011). In 2010 “smartphones reached 1 in 4 mobile Americans and 3G penetration crossed the 50 percent threshold, signaling the maturation of the mobile industry”  (comScore, 2011: 25). This trend allows for mobile research methods, which take advantage of this technology, to flourish. While the mobile Internet is a great way to engage with a younger audience, Forrester Research predicts that the mobile user profile will broaden and the audience will expand in the near future (Husson, 2009). At the same time, a noteworthy decline in landline use also points to mobile as the best way to reach participants (Barber, 2009)

Mobile methods are fast and efficient for the researcher. Data is entered in a digital format, allowing for easy integration with a range of electronic systems and various computer-aided analytical programs. In terms of mobile devices used to aid researchers in the field, such as tablets like the iPad, the portable nature of such devices is a definite convenience for researchers.

Mobile devices allow researchers to gather qualitative information, which simulates ethnography, in that the practitioner collects data from the participant while in his or her natural habitat rather than bringing the participant into an artificial environment to conduct research. The mobile ‘ethnography’ allows the researcher to view and understand how products and services are integrated into consumer’s daily lives and homes, without the presence of a researcher, which can influence results (Reitsma, 2009a; Stork, 2010; Schwitzer, et al. 2011).

Location or event-based surveying and self-administered ethnographic studies appear to be the most original mobile methods (Reitsma, 2009a). Mobile methods allow the researcher to collect data from a participant over the course of consecutive ‘slivers of time’ and then analyze that information to understand how consumer behavior changes or remains consistent over time. This type of data is known as ecological momentary assessment (EMA) in the field of healthcare, substance abuse studies, organizational research, and other fields (Beal and Weiss, 2003; Collins et al., 2003; Maddock, 2009). In the past this type of research may have been done in person through observation, in constructed environments, or with mall intercepts and similar methods, but the ability to capture such data while intruding less into participants’ lives and over a longer period of time increases the relevance of mobile methods. For a more extensive overview of these methods, see Appendix C (Editor’s Note: to be published at the end of the series).

Incorporating mobile methodologies can help differentiate a market research firm in a field where 94% of firms offer online services, but few have gone mobile (Confirmit, 2010). Firms should seriously consider incorporating mobile capabilities into their portfolios if they want to get ahead of emerging trends in the industry and differentiate themselves from the competition.

However, the benefits of mobile data collection are by no means unilateral. A Globalpark report found that among the challenges mobile research presents, market research firms were most discouraged by its small format which limits questions, followed by issues with access to samples, a lack of support for different devices, the complex cost structures of networks, a lack of support in software, safety, difficulty delivering SMS messages, and confidentiality (Macer & Wilson, 2009b).

The Challenges of Mobile Research

(Macer & Wilson, 2009b: 17)

Although there is still much to learn about the ins and outs of mobile research, market research firms would seem to be well advised to consider incorporating mobile methods into their toolboxes sooner rather than later. In the near future penetration levels will rise and the process behind mobile methods will become increasingly seamless and standardized. 

[1] Mobile Research Conference 2011 in London, UK April 18-19, 2011; Confirmit Community Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada May 9-11, 2011; and the 2nd International conference on Market Research in the Mobile World 2011 in Atlanta Georgia July 19-20, 2011

[3] GreenBook Research Industry Trends

This is Part 1 of a 9 part series. The next section will be posted the week of May 23rd and will explore the views of 10 industry leaders on the mobile research space.

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11 responses to “Mobilizing Market Research: Part 1 of a 9 Part Series

  1. Get to the good stuff! We all know mobile is a huge opportunity for research, but how best to do it is the current void. 🙂


    impatient researcher

    1. Thanks for the enthusiasm Ben; there is plenty of good stuff to get to for sure, including the nitty gritty on how to implement mobile into your toolbox. The report is very long so we had to break it up into parts to be appropriate for the blog. Plus, the tie in with the Market Research in the Mobile World Conference was just too good to resist! 🙂

  2. This is good stuff. Is there any way you can provide a link to the full article/report? Since it is broken into 9 installments, I fear I will lose the thread or miss out on some of the installments.

    1. That would be cheating! 🙂 The full report will be released in July Lauren, just let me know if you lose track of the posts and I’ll make sure you get a copy.

  3. We would love to assist with any new data you would like to collect. We now have over 200,000 smartphone users in the US with our app ready to answer questions. check out our latest survey results, “have you fallen asleep with your smartphone on your chest, in your hand or in your bed?”… also we are doing interesting projects each week. Just collected 10,000 responses for an MR firm in 2 days asking about the latest movie releases, collected 10,000 response for a energy drink to find 1000 people that tried a new competitive drink, asked people to take a photo of what they are watching now on TV, got 100 photos of TV’s in under 30 minutes… fun stuff.

    1. Thanks Dean, Thumbspeak is certainly one of the leaders in pushing the boundaries of how this channel can be utilized and it’s exciting to hear about the cool stuff you are doing. I can’t wait to hear even more at MRMW11!

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