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How mobile helps establish connections with consumers

Article ID:
July 2013, page 48
Julie Wittes Schlack

Article Abstract

A look at some of the many applications of mobile research, beyond straight surveying, and how they can help brands build bonds with consumers.

Character counts, characters count

Editor's note: Julie Wittes Schlack is senior vice president of innovation at Boston research firm Communispace.

The explosion in mobile adoption has enabled market researchers to expand their ability to connect with consumers in the physical and temporal contexts of their daily lives, opening up all kinds of possibilities. Since people are already photographing their meals, tweeting their product reactions and otherwise chronicling experiences as they unfold, why not learn from those behaviors and postings? And since geofencing technology (see article on p. 56) can trigger an action when someone crosses a geographical boundary, why not routinely survey shoppers on their smartphones the moment they enter the store? Who needs a mall intercept when you can get even more targeted and without all that human labor or social awkwardness?

It’s true – mobile technology lets us establish connections with consumers in unprecedented ways. But before abandoning live and online and interpersonal methods, we have to consider the quality of and best uses for those in-context, in-the-moment responses. Will a busy mom, shopping for groceries with children in tow, give useful or detailed feedback through a mobile survey? Will a customer at a pharmacy log his impressions with precision and candor? And even when the answer to both questions is yes, what more can brands achieve when they collaborate with active, engaged consumers in an ongoing way?

Results were similar

In 2011 – the early days of mobile surveys – Gongos Research, Auburn Hills, Mich., tried to answer some basic questions about the quality of mobile survey responses by comparing the average character count from a mobile survey to the identical survey administered online. They found that the results for open-ended questions were very similar, with smartphones actually yielding slightly longer responses – an average of 65 characters vs. 59 for online surveys.

This finding surprised us, as our empirical sense was that online surveys conducted in our private online communities generated much higher character counts than did mobile surveys. To put our instincts to the test, we conducted a quantitative comparison of 1,178 member-generated, open-ended survey responses gathered via mobile and online surveys and analyzed character counts from each. Qualitatively, we looked at thoughtfulness of responses and compared themes between each of these data collection methods. Results suggested that, while we gather more member-generated text via online surveys – an average of 136 characters for online responses vs. 50 characters for mobile ones – members’ short mobile responses were nonetheless extremely valuable for an in-the-moment, focused learning objective. (See “Character counts: a comparison of mobile and online open ended survey responses” at for more detail.)

Our findings from this study have informed our approach to using mobile techniques within the online community setting – when to employ them, how to design fruitful projects and, most importantly, how to use mobile technology in conjunction with other methods to fuel ongoing, productive collaboration between brands and consumers.

Mobile surveys, ethnographies, mobile metering and now even mobile-enabled remote shopalongs can answer the question of what the in-store experience looks and feels like. For instance:

What’s causing a drop in sales? A food company was seeing significant decline in the sale of a specific SKU when it changed the shape of its 64-ounce jar. Was the new design the source of the problem? To find out, we asked this client’s community members to go to the relevant aisle, take a picture of the shelf and answer a few closed-ended questions about what they were seeing there. Their answers confirmed our client’s hunch – the new jar was indeed creating confusion. But they also revealed the fact that in many cases, the product simply wasn’t on the shelf, alerting this client to a distribution and stocking challenge it might not otherwise have uncovered.

What merchandising strategies are most effective? A simple ethnographic exercise, in which we asked participants to capture the in-store sights and sounds that caught their attention, yielded eloquent pictures and captions that told a big, actionable story. They validated the expected finding: big signs and good deals break through the noise and drive impulse purchases. But they also revealed the surprising power of simplicity, exclusivity and humor in packaging and displays.

How are shoppers using mobile apps in the store? Mobile metering apps capture and transmit log data from people’s smartphones that, when aggregated, provide a longitudinal view of what people are doing on their phones, at what times of day and in what locations. Of course people must provide their informed consent to participate in these types of projects and install the necessary app but if they do, it’s possible for manufacturers and retailers to learn what specific shopping, scanning, financial management or other apps are being invoked when people are in specific commercial locations. In our experience, this type of data won’t help you understand why but can at least reveal a pattern that’s worthy of deeper, more direct inquiry.

What’s the sensory experience of shopping a specific category? Mobile-enabled collaboration apps like Kibitz let small private groups share media, text, files and locations and do it all in real time. We were curious to see whether such apps might let us effectively conduct virtual shopalongs. After having gone bra shopping at one major retailer, shopping for personal care products at another and Black Friday shopping at multiple stores with an entire multitasking family, we’re delighted to say that the answer is yes. Pictures of half-stocked shelves, dirty changing rooms, in-the-moment accounts of sales staff dishing about their manager’s absence, concrete suggestions for how to improve product arrangements and signage – all of these inputs had an immediate and profound impact on our clients and their customers, the retailers whose stores these consumers were shopping in.

Biggest breakthroughs come from outside

However, the biggest breakthroughs often come from outside the store, outside the category, even outside the shopping mind-set. For example, the success of a major apparel firm catering to youth around the globe depends heavily on staying ahead of the fashion trends and getting inside the aesthetic sensibilities of their consumers. To that end, they run periodic ethnographies in which they simply ask members of their communities to share videos and Instagrammed images of what inspires them. From chalk graffiti on an alley wall to colored lamps in a London market, some of the most sensorially and emotionally exciting objects lie outside the category and have much to teach.

Here’s another example. When Proctor and Gamble was developing scents for a new product line, it asked members of its online community to simply record the scents that they encountered over the course of a day that made them feel good. By week’s end, they had images, videos and simple text odes to cut grass, fresh paint, Playdough and other aromas that revealed volumes about how scent triggers not just nostalgia but feelings of competence, adventurousness, comfort and other powerful emotions.

This scents project illustrates how mobile enables discovery around a specific sensation. But P&G also embarked on an ambitious attempt to get a more holistic understanding of its consumer – who she is, where she goes, what she sees. So, using a mobile ethnography application, we asked community members to share “beauty moments” – the sensory experiences and encounters with beauty products and brands that they have during the week, both at home and out in the world. We learned in great detail about how they feel at different times of day, in different contexts, about what triggers them to use an existing product or try a new one.

Go deeper

Beauty is a highly subjective attribute and feeling beautiful is a highly dynamic state. So P&G enlisted its community members to help it go deeper, not just through more personal, one-to-one sharing via these mobile apps but through collective collaboration. After all, while emerging new tools and apps make people more accurate reporters, they still have to be willing to do it. That’s why it’s so important to be able to establish intimacy, trust and relationship in one venue, like an online community or series of advisory group meetings or online chats, that you can then apply to mobile projects, and vice versa.

In this example, P&G was trying to discover the parallels and discrepancies between how women see themselves and how others see them. So community members simply used their phones to take pictures of themselves in the moment – at home or at work – and posted them, along with their own critique. Then other community members privately and anonymously commented on the images.

“This is me after work. I am still wearing work clothes, tired, but feeling good,” wrote one brave volunteer beneath her uploaded picture. “I see my smile, yet again. I also see that my face needs powdering and my eyes are tired.”

But is that what other women saw when they looked at her? Some glances were pretty sharply appraising. “She seems to have a bit of acne,” one unsentimental member wrote. “Her nose ring doesn’t go with the rest of her,” wrote another. But more were warmly appreciative: “Bright, happy eyes!” observed on admirer. “Absolutely great smile. White teeth,” wrote another. Overall, the “critics” were kinder than the subject.

Is it surprising to learn that young women are harder on themselves than others tend to be? Probably not. But the deeper lesson in this experience is about the positive potential of collaboration – between technologies (mobile vs. online), between consumers and between consumers and brands. If people are this willing to put themselves and their opinions on the line to help brands better understand their consumers, what more might they be willing to do? That’s the exciting question.

Reveal the human face

Ultimately what matters is not whether a survey response averages 65 characters or 136. What matters are the relationships between brands and consumers that help reveal the human face of all stakeholders, from marketers and consumers to engineers and distributors. Each of us is a “character” in our own right and in this era of big data, small-scale human connections matter more than ever. The biggest lesson that mobile research can teach us is that consumers are not only willing but eager to partner with brands … but only if it’s a true partnership, rooted not just in clicks or counts, but in, well, character.

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