The Challenges of Mobile Market Research

Each day we’re counting down our Top 12 blog posts of 2014. Coming in at #9 is this book excerpt originally published August 12.

Handbook of Mobile Market Research book cover

The following is an excerpt from The Handbook of Mobile Market Research: Tools and Techniques for Market Researchers by Ray Poynter, Navin Williams, and Sue York. Published under license from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Given that the arrival of mobile market research has been predicted and evangelized for several years, and given the importance of mobile phones to modern life, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken until now for mobile market research to take off.

This section looks at some of the factors that have delayed the adoption of mobile market research and some that may present challenges in the future.

Shorter Surveys

There is a widespread belief that surveys on mobile phones need to be shorter than those being conducted via CATI, face-to-face, or PC. This is felt to be because:

  • People using their mobile devices are potentially going about their daily lives; an interruption of 20, 30, or 40 minutes is too long.
  • The devices, phones in particular, are not suitable for extended exercises like a long survey, although the amount of time people can spend game playing with mobile devices might suggest otherwise.
  • People’s phone signal and/or connection may not last for the full length of a long questionnaire, when using the mobile web for surveys.

However, it is worth remembering that when online surveys first appeared in the mid-1990s, it was widely assumed that online surveys needed to be shorter than 10 minutes. Since that time, participants have been trained or incentivized to do much longer surveys online, or at least a few of them have. Most researchers who have conducted research- on-research with longer surveys have found few differences between mobile and PC surveys. See the Research-on-Research chapter for more information.

Because most people believe that mobile questionnaires need to be short, many research buyers have been reluctant to move their major studies, which currently employ long questionnaires, to mobile. A number of strategies for tackling these issues, such as breaking surveys into modules (e.g. chunking) are being explored, and these are also covered later in the book.

The Cost Efficiency of PC-Based Online Surveys

Online surveys, in which participants use a PC, have become highly optimized in terms of speed and cost, and tend to have an advantage over mobile surveys. At the moment, mobile studies typically cost the same as or more than those designed for completion on a PC, and the total time from design to data delivery tends to be similar (the design, sample selection, and checking of mobile surveys often take longer, but the fieldwork can be quicker).

Because mobile research tends to be a little more expensive and because, until recently, the sampling was a little more limited, it has often been relegated to situations where it was believed to provide ‘better’ data, such as that from ‘in the moment’ or ethnographic studies.

However, with the improvement in standardized platforms for mobile, and increased range of sampling offers, the price/efficiency barrier is being eroded.

Limitations of the Devices

Most of the concerns about the limitations of mobile devices relate to phones, not to tablets. Phones, before smartphones, were seen to have a large number of weaknesses, particularly in terms of completing surveys. However, even with the latest smartphones, the screens are small and it has taken a while for the organizations offering mobile market research to deal with most of the concerns, for example by creating smartphone friendly versions of the full range of their question types.

Variability of Mobile Devices

Mobile phones are much more variable in their characteristics than the sorts of PCs that online surveys are typically designed for. In terms of PCs, researchers will usually assume they need to cater for Windows and Mac operating systems, with a screen size of at least 800 by 600 pixels, and a relatively modern browser. With phones, there are more operating systems and more configurations than with PCs, and beyond the smartphones there are tablets, phablets, and feature phones. This complexity makes designing mobile research more complex and problematic.

However, the current growth and dominance of Google Android and Apple iOS is making life simpler for those market researchers who are not dealing with feature phones, although the many variations of Android that are used by different manufacturers and devices mean that this is not quite as standardized as it might first appear.

Achieving Participant Cooperation

Most developed research markets have an infrastructure of access panels, customer databases, and even online dynamic sampling services, such as river sampling, from which to source potential participants. This means that participant cooperation is at least predictable and organized.

Mobile market research is at an earlier stage of development, and while many researchers have found people willing to take part in surveys or qualitative research, there has been a less complete infrastructure to support mobile market research.

In around the year 2000, online market research grew because online sampling methods became widely available, and the sampling options grew because online research was growing. The same situation now appears to be well underway with mobile sampling options and mobile market research.

Ethical, Regulatory, and Privacy Concerns

Like all forms of research, mobile market research raises a number of ethical, regulatory, and privacy concerns. As with other modes, some of these concerns are general and some are specific. These issues are covered more fully later, but the key points are:

  • The safety of people taking part in surveys (we don’t want people driving and filling in surveys at the same time).
  • Defining and achieving informed consent.
  • Avoiding annoying people: don’t send unwanted or too many messages or send messages at the wrong time of day (very easy with global studies and/or global travel).
  • Avoiding passing on costs to the participants, or using up a significant propor- tion of participants’ monthly data contract.
  • Ensuring participant privacy and anonymity.
    Ensuring that communications to and from participants are secure.

It is clear that mobile market research has arrived. A large number of surveys are being conducted via mobile, some as mobile only, and many as part of mixed-mode online studies. Most of the major survey platforms have mobile options and there is a growing body of research-on-research (RoR) suggesting what works and what does not work in mobile market research.

Mobile market research is having a major impact on some forms of qualitative research and on research communities and is beginning to help create a range of new and innovative approaches, especially in the areas of ethnography, diaries, and data logging.

Passive data collection is already an important part of media consumption measurement and is a major business for some non-market research businesses. A number of industry forecasters expect it to be a major part of the market research mix in the near future.

Mobile market research is not an established method, yet, but it is one that most researchers will be dealing with as part of their regular, everyday work. Mobile market research is no longer a niche, it is a mainstream approach. Many researchers are forecasting that mobile will become the dominant mode of data collection over the next few years, while others forecast that online and mobile will merge to become a single, platform agnostic approach.

The first book that focuses on the area of mobile research, The Handbook of Mobile Market Research offers a range of practical tools and techniques to meet the needs of beginners, practitioners or advanced users and help them address the challenges of mobile market research.

About Ray Poynter


  1. Exciting stuff.

  2. Chalermyuth Boonma says:

    Really wanna buy the book now!

  3. Raymond Aind says:

    Mobile market research in new markets is really a Challenging
    task. Leading 3G Phone Provider wanted to launch its
    services in Myanmar. To better understand the Market we conducted a research
    which included several Tools and Techniques. Outcome of Research helped client
    to identify best Marketing Strategy. Pricing and competitor information helped
    him to identify how to position itself against competitors. To know more on this please visit:


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