Editor's note: Jon Sadow is product manager at Google Consumer Surveys, San Francisco.
For the second time in as many decades, the market research industry has an opportunity to lead organizations in a time of transformation. The growing pervasiveness of mobile devices presents client researchers and their supplier partners with advantages in scale, speed, cost and quality. These will not only transform how research is conducted but how it is valued. If researchers embrace this opportunity, they can expedite decision-making, in-troduce powerful new data streams and scale their knowledgebases to help drive marketing, sales and product development. Yet, there is a precedent of resistance to change within the industry that must be overcome in order for researchers to really be mobile innovators.
Learning from history
About 15 years ago, a major change began in the market research industry. The movement of research practices online would soon transform how data was analyzed. Researchers were just beginning to consider the possibilities presented by interactive online surveys hosted on the World Wide Web.
The next decade would bring with it an endless series of investigations into the value – and limitations – of online research practices. The discussion began as early as 1996, when Ravi Iyer wrote about “The Internet: A new opportunity for marketing research firms” in Quirk’s. By 2001, Quirk’s and publications such as Marketing Research were running articles like “Can we trust the data of online research?”1 that dissected the advantages and disadvantages of the “online frontier.” In 2005, Internet Research – nearly 14 years after it published its first volume – was still publishing pieces like “The value of online surveys,”2 that debated the merits of Web-based research.
Consider that from 1997 to 2005 the number of Web users grew from 70 million to well over 1 billion. By 2003, U.S. e-commerce sales had soared over $100 billion annually, growing a rate of more than 40 percent from the previous year.3 By the mid 2000s, in spite of the fact that businesses of all sizes were building out profitable online segments, the research community continued debating the same topics as the years before.
Meanwhile, the research industry lagged behind. Researchers were reluctant about, and perhaps afraid of, change. As a result, most research continued to live offline well into the late 2000s, despite the growing adoption of the Internet.
Another technology-driven transformation
Today, the industry is in the midst of another technology-driven transformation in the form of the widespread adoption of Internet-connected mobile devices. With mobile, the industry has another opportunity to innovate. The reality, however, is that the adoption of new, mobile research practices is like déja vu for many industry veterans. In 2013, the fourth or fifth consecutive “Year of Mobile,” only 27 percent of researchers conducted mobile surveys at all.4 This figure is actually generous, as it factors in the percentage of regular surveys panelists open on their mobile phone. Even fewer researchers, just 19 percent, are using mobile for qualitative work. The research industry seems set to lag behind other industries, those which all our clients operate in, when it comes to embracing mobile innovation.
A cautious approach
If you asked people in the market research industry to identify the reason for the slow adoption of mobile re-search, many would point to methodologists who advocate for a cautious approach. At conferences and in conversations, we most often see fingers aimed at so-called “traditionalists” who insist that an exceptionally slow investigation of new platforms is required to preserve data quality.
On the supplier side, many say their clients are the reason for the slow incorporation of mobile, insisting that “mobile isn’t what they’re asking for.” Some even contest the notion of slow adoption, citing the percentage of their panelists opening and responding to surveys on a mobile device as “mobile research.” Researchers single out mobile research as a distinct survey mode, a separate component of the research plan that requires specific expertise. The result is that mobile research seems overwhelming to researchers, despite how similar it is to desktop research.
The Google Consumer Surveys team thinks the best way to catalyze the adoption of mobile research is to reorient ourselves. When we launched our desktop platform in March 2012, we insisted that the priority in a modern research platform must be the respondent experience. We kept surveys short, implemented response and character limits into our questions and didn’t offer cumbersome question formats like matrices. Many of these best practices are the same as the techniques advised for mobile survey design. Not surprisingly, we’ve found they have many benefits on desktop data quality also, as evidenced by many validation studies run on our platform.
There is no such thing as mobile research. We’re designing market research tools for a multiscreen world. When it comes to survey design, if you’re designing your desktop surveys in a respondent-first way, then mobile devices are really just a variant of a laptop or desktop computer. Questionnaires are written, read and answered in a similar style. Compared to the transition from landline to online, desktop to mobile is far less dramatic. Yet, classification of smartphone and tablet research as mobile research has made the change seem much more severe than it really is. As result, researchers feel ill-equipped to embrace mobile, seeing it as an unknown new medium versus an expansion of current practices.
Orient themselves to take advantage
Researchers certainly believe in the long-term prospect of mobile. A Quirk’s reader study in 2013 ranked mobile research as the “new technique” with the highest potential, at nearly 74 percent of responses. At Google Consumer Surveys we believe its our responsibility to build technology that empowers researchers in order to hasten adoption mobile adoption. If researchers want to be seen as innovators, they must orient themselves to take advantage of the mobile tools being build by Google and other providers.
We know that the ubiquity of mobile device usage globally and the feature set of smartphone devices together can magnify researchers’ ability to conduct great research. The burden on the platform developers is to build technology that captures the scale and capabilities of mobile devices. In the same vein, researchers must help accelerate the shift to mobile if they want to be leaders within their organizations. Embracing mobile means realizing that that “going mobile” is about much more than a panelist opening a mobile-formatted survey. It goes well beyond creating a mobile-optimized version of an existing questionnaire. Researchers must evolve from thinking about mobile research as its own practice to thinking about a singular, cross-platform approach. Only then will they move the industry in line with consumer behavior.
Finding the right mix
Until now, the major limitation facing app-based survey platforms has been the same challenge experienced in traditional panel recruitment: finding the right mix of incentive and medium to attract willing respondents is difficult and expensive. Google Consumer Surveys has set out to solve the recruitment problem by yet again prioritizing the respondent experience. With the launch of the Google Opinion Rewards survey app on the Android platform, for example, Google Consumer Surveys sought to introduce a respondent-friendly survey experience that maximizes respondent value. By offering a Google Play credit incentive and maintaining short surveys we have attempted to create the best user experience possible. This integration with the Google Play Store and focus on the respondent has led to the accelerated onboarding of respondents. Roughly six months after launch, Google Opinion Rewards has more than 500,000 users.
With significant uptake in individual markets like the U.S., hyperlocal research become far more feasible. The overall result of this mobile scale could be truly global and local platforms that enable research for businesses of all sizes, throughout the world. The speed and turnaround times of studies, given such a large sample base, could rival that of any data collection source. Researchers must realize that this future is not far off and begin preparing for it now.
We owe respondents more
For researchers, beginning to adjust their research practices today is critical to long-term and competitive ad-vantage. However, research editorials and conference presentations of the past year have offered guidance on how to mobile-optimize surveys and other research practices. The results of this type of optimization, until now, is typically either reformatting the look of questionnaires to show up on mobile devices nicely, or identifying separate, minor projects to run as mobile-only.
These solutions are limited, at best. To make the most of mobile, we owe respondents more than to take an extensive online survey and format it to a small screen. Most of us are mobile users ourselves – we know how different our attention spans on our smartphones and tablets! When it comes to mobile-only projects, we can’t possibly expect to drive innovation by designating the least important and/or shortest projects to be the ones that are mobile-only.
The truth is, the very notion of mobile-optimized is an intermediate step, a crutch for timid adopters. Re-searchers should really be overhauling their surveys, both for mobile AND desktop, to fit into the so-called mobile-optimized mold. At Google Consumer Surveys, we call this “respondent-optimized.” Respondent op-timization, like mobile optimization, might require dropping questions, shortening answer lists and the use of sometimes unfamiliar survey designs. But, it is only a matter of time until we must do those things. Starting now gives us the chance to get out in front and learn how to do it right on any device.
Luckily for researchers, the industry has been and is developing many solutions that make the challenges of these shorter, more respondent-friendly surveys easier. Data fusion, modeling and modularization can all alle-viate the constraints of fewer questions and limited formats. Once surveys are optimized across platforms, out-lets like Google Consumer Surveys have created unified survey creation tools that work on both mobile and desktop. This is surely the future, and will help researchers by reducing overhead, avoiding the need for de-vice-specific survey designs going forward.
Methodologists and researchers should aggressively explore and identify the best practices and guidelines for respondent-optimized surveys. It is the willingness to begin adopting these approaches before the ecosystem forces us to that will separate the innovators (and winners) from the rest.
1Marketing Research, “Can we trust the data of online research?”, Miller 2001.
2Internet Research, “The value of online surveys,” Evans and Mathur 2005.
3“The growth of multichannel retailing,” http://www.gfoa.org/downloads/0407MULTICHANNEL.pdf, Forrester Research 2003.
4GRIT Report, Winter 2014.