Making the most of mobile research requires a pragmatic approach

Tom Woodnutt, director of innovation, Hall and Partners, explains how the speed and depth of mobile research can legitimately become part of the brand experience.

Rather frustratingly, it looks like the research industry is stubbornly staring at the opportunity of mobile research through an outdated prism of the past.

If researchers spent more time focusing on how to make mobile research engaging and less worrying about its scientific purity, then clients would benefit more from it. There is huge potential in mobile technology because of its ability to provide in the moment data and more convenient feedback on the participant’s terms. However, in order to get the most from mobile, the research industry should embrace the idea of being part of the brand experience and leave certain traditional psudeo-scientific principles behind.

A recent conference on the potential of mobile research concluded that more studies were necessary in order to validate the medium before it could be considered viable. It focused on issues like screen size limitations and problems associated with comparing online computer-based surveys with mobile ones. But it didn¹t even bother looking at mobile applications on the basis that smartphone penetration is too small to be considered representative.

Such obsessive cautiousness comes at the expense of looking for ways to make mobile research more engaging for participants and therefore more useful to clients.

At times mobile research needs to be designed like a brand touchpoint because boringly neutral independent surveys can reduce the creative experience into a ruthless marketing one. For example, when evaluating a recent mobile app for Cadbury we created a branded mobile app which people could opt-in to.

Although this branding flies in the face of conventional research theory, the results are still useful and don¹t risk damaging the brand image.

Similarly, point of sale mobile feedback on shopping experiences can deepen the brand relationship when branded, and still yield useful, meaningful results. Just because a survey is branded and coming from the voice of the client, does not prevent people from being honestly critical.

The benefit from letting go of strict scientific principles also applies to mobile SMS and WAP based surveys. Last year, we tracked people¹s responses to different brand touch-points of a new product launch for Cadbury. The data was gathered as people experienced real-world moments, which meant we caught details that could have been lost using traditional, retrospective online surveys.

This showed us how certain brand touch-points combine to have more or less of an impact. A purist researcher might say participants were primed to look out for certain brands and so were unnaturally predisposed to notice them. They might also reject the idea of comparing mobile surveys with online surveys because of the influence of different data collection methods. However, a pragmatist would say that mobile is another useful data channel to get a fresher consumer perspective.

While there are those that claim mobile apps should not yet be used in research because smartphone penetration is too low, but such a narrow view means missing out on all the useful insights that smartphone customers can give you. They may not be nationally representative yet, but there¹s still a whole range of projects that their insights can help with. And in the world of software and technology development, you have to start somewhere, and to wait until smartphones are universal would be to miss a huge opportunity.

The same applies to mobile qualitative research, which can involve feedback via voicemail and mobile video. Traditional research would emulate ethnographic theory and only use video for unobtrusive, observational studies that seek to avoid influencing the subject being recorded. However, a couple of years ago we went against this convention when trying to capture the experience of the Innocent Village Fete. We recruited people and gave them a brief to act like the researcher and film their experiences via mobile video as if they were a local newspaper reporter. This proved to be much less intrusive than having an excessively corporate market researcher present at the festival which could have sullied the informal, non-corporate cleanliness of the affair. Our approach yielded fascinating results because people were motivated to share their experiences with us.

The future of mobile research is no doubt intriguing as more people get even smarter smartphones, location specific data gets integrated into analysis and people can opt-in to research at their own convenience rather than when we tell them to. Augmented reality apps also have great potential to make the research experience more engaging and therefore useful.

Im not suggesting we dispense with scientific principles simply to progress the burgeoning discipline of mobile research. But there is a huge opportunity to gather and understand people¹s experiences better, if our efforts are focused more on engagement rather than science. Research, at times, must start to accept that it can be part of the brand experience.

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