Mobile Research Poised to Create a Tipping Point for the Industry

In the market research industry, the mobile phone as a communication medium is at a tipping point. This emerging 5th research methodology has the potential to create new opportunities for reaching people “In the moment” (or real-time). However, mobile research is a disruptive technological change and could become the greatest missed opportunity for the market research industry, if not handled appropriately. This paper uses our experiences to assist those seeking to develop this methodology.

In the market research industry, the mobile phone as a communication medium is at a tipping point. This emerging 5th research methodology has the potential to create new opportunities for reaching people “In the moment” (or real-time). However, mobile research is a disruptive technological change and could become the greatest missed opportunity for the market research industry, if not handled appropriately. This paper uses our experiences to assist those seeking to develop this methodology.

mobile phone users

In Physics, a “tipping point” can be defined as “the point at which an object is displaced from a state of stable equilibrium into a new, different state”. A tipping point suggests that if enough energy is provided (in the form of heat or a catalyst, for example) an object may develop into a new state, but if that energy is insufficient or removed; the object may remain in its current state.

The same could be said for the market research industry, following the introduction of the mobile phone as a communication medium. This emerging 5th research methodology has the potential to create a new and different state, thanks to the opportunities it generates around reaching people “In the moment” (or real-time). However, mobile research is a disruptive technological change and could become the greatest missed opportunity for the Market Research industry, if not handled appropriately.

This paper uses our experiences to date to assist those seeking to develop this methodology. It is based on knowledge consolidated from around 2,000 OnePoint supported mobile projects, accumulated over three years and across 47 countries.

The insight gained is provided as four different perspectives (commercial, technological, global telecommunications infrastructure and methodological). These perspectives, in turn, have led to the development of six guiding principles – designed to give some clarity around the practicalities, opportunities and the challenges ahead with regards the acceptance and implementation of mobile research.

The starting point of this paper therefore, is the following statement:


We believe the point this statement makes is central to the success of mobile research and is the driver behind the proposed key perspectives and principles.


The Emergence of Mobile Research

The 4.1 billion mobile phone contracts world-wide illustrate one key unavoidable fact – whatever the reason, people like to use their mobile phone to communicate. In fact, they like it so much that according to the ITU World Telecommunication / ICT Indicators Database, 2007 the penetration rates are around 45% for the developing world and 97% for the developed world. Furthermore, since the trend for having a mobile phone shows no indication of slowing down, we can expect the penetration levels to increase above the current 49% global average.

What this means for mobile research is that the potential respondent pool is also continually growing. As a result, the time has come for the mobile phone to be recognised as a valuable channel for market research. Indeed, despite the low current numbers, Rockhopper Research’s RIT Report 2009 highlighted that 66% of US research agencies said they anticipate doing more mobile research in 2010 compared to 2009.

This emergence is further supported by industry recognition through events such as the 2nd Annual Mobile Research Conference held in London in March this year. In fact, this conference seemed to be the tipping point – a critical juncture which will go on to affect the future shape, understanding, and most importantly the implementation of mobile research.

The Conference highlighted several positive aspects, including the increasing level of interest in terms of number of attendees, and the variety of global mobile projects underway. However, there is also a worrying precedent emerging, whereby mobile research is being defined in a somewhat limited way. For example, to pigeonhole it as a method for sending an online survey link to a Smartphone would be to miss much of its potential. It is tempting to regard mobile as an extension of online research, especially for those who have considerable existing investments in it both financially and methodologically. However, we should also continue to be mindful of what other opportunities it can deliver for us.

This concern is echoed by Reineke Reitsma, Vice President and Research Director of Forrester Research, in her 2009 report ‘The Opportunities and Challenges of Mobile Research’, where she states:


Therefore, we would suggest that mobile research is viewed more as a disruptive technological change than an extension to existing methods. As a result, it offers its own unique opportunities and those organisations with foresight are likely to be the first to identify and benefit from them.


Communication Methods for Mobile Research

Today, a mobile phone allows the user access to a wide variety of ways to communicate and access information, and opens up many new options for research:

  • SMS (Short Message Service) – commonly known as “texting”, this has become the most globally accepted and utilised channel. In the USA, over 1 trillion messages were sent in 2009, an increase of circa 300% on 2008 (CTIA, 2009). And in the UK, 265 million texts are sent on average every day, which equates to 11 million per hour, with an annual growth of 23% (MDA, 2010).


Researchers were testing simple SMS message surveys as long ago as 1999. Although the potential reach and opportunity was identified early on, it was restricted by the lack of a dedicated mobile research software platform. As a result, only multiple choice and open text responses were possible, which at the time made researchers feel it was more trouble than it was worth. However, the picture is now very different. Today, businesses such as O2 Telefonica run thousands of customer surveys over SMS on a daily basis and get 50% completion rates – all with no incentive! This clearly demonstrates that there is potential for others to follow in their footsteps.

  • MMS (Multimedia Messaging Services) - this extends the core capability of the SMS by enabling longer messages and the sending of photographs and videos from camera equipped handsets (the most popular use).


In terms of research, MMS seems to have promised more than it delivered to date. Perhaps this is due to the cost, fragmentation and inconsistent delivery approaches across telecoms territories, which have meant it is difficult to deliver cross-territory multimedia campaigns. Fortunately, mobile research software vendors have solved these challenges.

  • WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) – A WAP browser provides all of the basic services of a computer-based web browser but is simplified to operate within the restrictions of a mobile phone, such as using a smaller view screen. It allows people with a WAP enabled mobile phone or PDA to access the mobile web while on the move.


SMS and WAP-based functionality enable researchers to conduct surveys. To date, we have found that there is a consistent trend towards 80% via SMS and 20% via WAP. Although this ratio can vary across territory, SMS messaging is most popular as operators have made it more cost accessible compared to the cost of data contracts. We anticipate this will evolve over time, although the majority of participants are selecting SMS, when given the choice.

  • Web - As for WAP, people will choose how they want to use their web services and the content they will access. Advanced web services with flash animation will undoubtedly achieve greater adoption as the penetration of Smartphones and the speed of data transfer increases, and the cost of data packages decreases.


The use of the web is limited for the time being to those who have the technology, the capability and the desire to use it for research. However, this is likely to change as it is widely agreed that there will ultimately be convergence of services delivered over the mobile web. As such, global mobile marketing revenues are predicted to jump from $1.8 (2007) to $24 billion in 2013, (ABI Research, 2008).

  • Applications - The launch of the iPhone has both popularised and made mainstream, the development of specialist applications for people to download on to their mobile. Although the iPhone is not the most widespread Smartphone, the take-up rate for applications has been impressive. For example, 65 million of the 350 million Facebook users now access their account via an iPhone application or through the internet on their mobile phone (dotnet, 2010). We also know that users on mobile Facebook are 50% more active than those online with some remarkable numbers (20 million monthly iPhone Facebook users and 12 million Blackberry Facebook users).


To date, the success of downloading applications for research has been limited by the challenge of encouraging people to download and install to their phone. This is a combination of overcoming usability (technical capability of phone and user) and acceptability (willingness) issues.

  • Email – The extension of email to mobile phones and devices has provided an enormous opportunity to engage with people on the move via their business or personal accounts.


Mobile email is often termed “push” email as it allows researchers to send invitations to online surveys on the mobile.

  • CAMI (Computer Assisted Mobile Interviewing) - Many US research agencies currently define mobile research as an extension of the RDD approach to fixed line telephones – namely researchers call mobile (cell) phones to conduct an interview via voice.


We would caution this approach. Receiving a call out of the blue on such a personal device could cause much dissatisfaction with the respondent, which in turn could increase resistance to participation.

  • GPS (Global Positioning System) – although not technically a channel, it is worth including here. Because there is a GPS function within advanced mobile phones, it also provides the opportunity to locate people geographically enabling a rich research triangulation of “Where are you? What are you doing? How do you feel about it?” and “Why don’t you send us a picture or a video of that experience as well?”


From a research perspective this has some very exciting possibilities, affording even greater access to respondents’ daily lives by including location (with the appropriate permissions of course). In summary, all of these channels present an opportunity to communicate with the mobile phone user “In the moment”. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that deploying one or a combination of them is a good idea, just because we can.

The process of engagement is more important than the technology to ensure that high quality research is achieved – and the acceptability of mobile research is likely to develop through word of mouth and experience. This is also recognised by Malcolm Gladwell (author of “the Tipping Point”), who states:


Therefore, we have considered a number of critical success factors or principles for mobile research that will support its acceptance and help it to spread, the first of which is:


The remainder of this paper examines a further five principles, taking into account four main perspectives (in this order of priority):

  1. Commercial – will the market for mobile research be driven by supply or client demand?
  2. Technology – what mobile communication channels work best and who gets to choose?
  3. Global telecoms infrastructure – what is the optimum way to conduct mobile research within each specific territory based on what the operators enable?
  4. Methodology – What effect does “In the moment” insight have on responses, and the full array of question types?


The Commercial Perspective

The adoption and development of any new product or service depends on supply (how much it is promoted to customers) and demand (how much customers ask for it). The same is true for mobile research and many organisations are now asking themselves “should we be adopting mobile research as a valuable addition to our research toolkit?”

From a commercial perspective, the questions which will need to be answered focus on ROI (will the new revenue streams generated warrant the investment in time and resources?). From a mobile software provider’s perspective, we have experienced two emergent and somewhat contradictory schools of thought:

  1. Agencies agree that mobile research provides an exciting opportunity but state that their clients are not asking for it yet, and
  2. Clients who are seeking mobile research and insight capabilities but find that their roster agencies are not offering it.


This contradiction would suggest a “chicken and egg type” situation. Does one promote this 5th methodology as a new tool capable of providing “In the moment” consumer research services or wait until clients ask for it? Our experience shows that forward-thinking clients are indeed interested in this method of research. However, they do not currently necessarily consider an agency as the primary provider and will even come direct (following an internet search on the topic). We would therefore recommend that agencies take the opportunity to stay ahead of the curve and invest time and effort in getting to understand what mobile research can offer them and their clients. Each agency therefore needs to consider where it sees itself with regards to its views on the use of mobile research. For example, does your organisation:

  • believe that mobile research will be an important channel for communicating with the world at large?
  • want to be at the forefront in understanding and implementation of this methodology in order to advise and guide clients effectively?


Those who answered “yes” to either or both questions are organisations more likely to take a proactive approach towards developing and adapting this new methodology – possibly acting in a consultative capacity as well as working with more innovative customers, willing to try something new. It is a well established fact amongst marketing circles that companies who are the first to enter a new market benefit from “first mover advantage”, which leads to our second principle.


The full version of this whitepaper is available in pdf format.

This content was provided by OnePoint Global. Visit their website at

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