Mobile research under threat as consumers ‘go dark’

The rise of sophisticated market research techniques using geo-location and beacon technology on mobile phones may be a dream for marketers, but misuse and fear over Big Brother-style tracking is leading an increasing number of consumers to ‘go dark’ and switch off entirely.

Apps such as Xprivacy, Ghostery and AVG PrivacyFix, which let consumers block tracking from companies they don’t trust and control permissions for data use, are becoming more prevalent.

While the extent of the ‘go dark’ market and its potential to skew research data is as yet unknown, it is a growing concern for marketers.

“The market is really excited about the fact that it now knows where consumers are but it’s important to remember that this is just one piece of the jigsaw,” warns Martin Hayward, vice-president of global digital strategy at Aimia, which owns the Nectar loyalty brand. “This information on its own could be dangerous in the wrong hands and there is evidence that a small number of consumers are already getting fed up, which is a concern since it’s still early days.” 

Trust and privacy are becoming major causes of concern and consumers are losing confidence that businesses will use their data for legitimate purposes, says Jane Frost, chief executive at the Market Research Society (MRS).

“The rise of the worrying ‘go dark’ phenomenon is seeing [consumers] overtly blur their data or withdraw it completely, making data analytics very challenging,” says Frost. “This trend has arisen due to a lack of trust – and in the research sector trust is the currency we trade on.”

Building trust and working with consumers to determine when, how frequently and in what context they want to be contacted is a high priority at Aimia.

Businesses must embed policies such as Fair Data into their operations or they can expect to see less accurate understanding of         their customer       bases

Jane Frost, Market Research Society

“We are in a fantastic phase of technology-led development where theoretically it is possible to interact with people before they leave home, when they arrive at the car park, when they enter the store, all the way around the store and on their way out – but, of course, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean you should do it,” says Hayward.

“People aren’t going to welcome their phone buzzing every 30 seconds and we don’t want to force ourselves into their world when they don’t want it. We need to have their permission to contact them and to give them benefits in return.”

Hayward acknowledges that if businesses fail to listen to consumers’ concerns and don’t get their act together people will simply filter out this type of communication as they do with some other direct marketing techniques.

“Email was supposed to be the great one-to-one communications medium but spam took over and email became less efficient – we have to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen with location-based activity,” he says.

As a result, Hayward believes preference centres, which enable consumers to set the rules about when they want to be contacted, will become increasingly important.

“Our intention is to take consumers with us,” he adds. “There will always be times when people are happy to receive offers and requests for their point of view; we just need to ensure we get the right message to the right people at the right time.

“Creating dialogue around customer data, knowing when they’re happy for it to be used and giving them the ability to turn it on and off will be the difference between those who succeed and those who fail.”

While Aimia strives to work with consumers to create a mutually beneficial relationship, MRS’s Frost believes that some businesses’ approach to data privacy and security is not keeping pace with technology, resulting in regulatory holes and ethical grey areas.

“Businesses must look to embed policies such as Fair Data [an accreditation issued by MRS to show that companies handle data properly] into their operations or else they can expect to see a less accurate understanding of their customer bases and more litigation,” she says.

This is particularly important because if a growing number of consumers opt out of sharing their personal information, it could end up skewing the data that is collected, which will affect the validity and reliability of the research.

“If businesses don’t take the issue of storing and using customer data in an ethical and responsible way seriously, ‘go dark’ will become even more prominent as consumers take back their data,” she warns.

Employing geo-targeted mobile messaging allows us to be relevant to our target consumer at the time they are considering making a purchase             decision

Phil Pick, Stella Artois

Affinity-based incentive schemes are one way marketers can keep consumers switched on.

Habbo, the online community for children and teenagers, offers members Habbo Hotel Points – the community’s currency – in return for taking part in research projects. Although useless outside the portal, the points are valuable to those within it.

To get members involved, Habbo built a series of panels with technology firm Cint, which it regularly calls on to participate in surveys. By offering people currency to spend within the community it has been able to achieve a response rate of 30 per cent, twice the industry standard.

Heineken has also benefitted from using panels to gather market research using mobile.

To check whether its beers are being served correctly in pubs the brewer asked people to take part in what it terms ‘perfect serve audits’. Using the network of retail analytics firm Roamler, Heineken asked consumers to purchase a pint of beer, review how it is served and take a picture with their smartphone before sending it to the brand so that it can find out whether its products are being presented appropriately.

Meanwhile Stella Artois has been using mobile to send messages to consumers about its Cidre product on days of key marketing activity.

Marketing manager Phil Pick says: “Relevant stores are geo-fenced to ensure messages are delivered only to those in close proximity of purchase.”

Using previous research the company targets messages at historic beer, wine and cider shoppers, enabling it to drive awareness of in-store offers and trials of new variants.

“Employing geo-targeted mobile messaging allows us to be relevant to our target consumer at precisely the time they are considering making a purchase decision,” Pick adds. “We are therefore able to achieve minimum wastage for our advertising message and drive consumers who are most likely to engage towards purchase and product trials.”

The timing of these interactions is critical though, according to Aimia’s Hayward, who believes it will come down to personal preference.

“It depends on the individual,” he says. “We have to try to understand a lot more about the different needs, situations and shopping modes customers are in, because sometimes they will be happy to interact but other times it’s the last thing they want.

“The question for us is how to work that out, because knowing where somebody is can be interesting information but it’s not the whole story. We need to know where they are, how much time they have and what they’re thinking of buying. There is a lot of contextualising to be done to make sure we get it right.”

While there will always be consumers who object to being targeted via their mobile, it is the job of marketers to ensure that any long-term damage is limited by maintaining trust and treating personal data in an appropriate and ethical manner. 

The ‘go dark’ consumer sector may be small at the moment, but it will increase if marketers do not take their position of trust seriously.

Top three challenges

1. Agree permissions

Consumers are often happy to connect with brands and provide their point of view but marketers have to learn when and how it is most appropriate to do so.

“The challenge is to figure out how consumers want to be interacted with using this technology,” says Martin Hayward, vice-president of global digital strategy at loyalty company Aimia. ”At the moment the technology is leading the debate but we have to get to a position where the customer leads it otherwise we will end up annoying people.” 

2. Build trust

To keep consumers switched on businesses must establish relationships built on trust by being transparent about data use.

“Businesses welcome the vast array of data sources such as geo-location and tracking, as they benefit from broader information that enables more targeted campaigns,” says Jane Frost, chief executive of the Market Research Society. “Such data, often collected from mobile phones, allows companies to analyse trends and habits for growth opportunities. To continue having access to such data will be dependent on retaining the trust of the public.”

3. Get the incentives right

Offering consumers an incentive for taking part in research is one way of keeping them switched on, but to be effective the reward must be relevant to the brand. In retail, offering points that can be redeemed against products in-store, for example, will help to keep consumers engaged. For an online community such as Habbo, offering currency to spend within the portal can increase response rate.

Sponsored viewpoint: Michael Fodor

Managing director EMEA, Radius

Radius Global Market Research logo

Mobile is best suited to research where businesses want to measure activity that is proximate to making a purchase or interacting with staff in order to gauge customer satisfaction. As time lapses, people forget and their responses become less fresh. If you can deliver a survey in store or immediately after a consumer leaves, the interaction will be top-of-mind and in theory you will get better data.

But the period of time you can get people to take part in market research on a mobile is limited. It has improved as screen sizes have got larger but there’s still only so much you can do. It’s not uncommon for people to complete a 30-minute survey online – although the longer it takes the less co-operation you get – but with mobile I wouldn’t ask more than 15 questions. A proper quantitative research survey shouldn’t last for more than 12 minutes on mobile.

The qualitative side, where businesses use a phone’s GPS or camera, is developing. This can be the kind of research where you don’t ask questions. Instead, participants have to download software that uses GPS to monitor them in order to see if they walk past, say, a certain fixture in your store or a billboard. 

We’re not quite there as an industry with that technology, though. I would say it is one step beyond experimental. Businesses are selling it, but there are still some drawbacks. GPS isn’t always accurate and the applications are difficult to find. But people are playing around with it and there’s a lot of venture capitalist money supporting its development.

As a result I don’t think the ‘go dark’ market is too big of an issue at this stage, but it will be once the technology catches up. It’s the way market research always develops – the industry looks for new ways to find consumers and consumers find new ways not to be found, so we move on again.

Globally, the biggest issue with using mobile in market research is geography, as the incentive differs widely depending on where the research is taking place. Africa is the fastest-growing market research geographically and not only are mobile phones the only way to do data collection,
the way to incentivise people is by offering mobile phone credit because it is a pay-as-you-go market.

Mobile is going to get bigger and more important. It’s a high-end growth part of the business. But as researchers we have to work out how to deal with consumers who are ever-more fickle about how they participate.