I didn’t want to sound rude but I had to ask: “Why start another association for the marketing research industry?” Rather than be insulted, my interviewee fielded my question with aplomb. And as our conversation progressed, I started to feel like it wasn’t that crazy of an idea after all.

Launched in January, the Mobile Marketing Research Association (MMRA) is the newest initialism in the crowded alphabet soup of organizations serving our industry. In answering my opening salvo, its Executive Director Mark Michelson offered that one of his reasons for co-founding the group along with the Merlien Institute’s Jasper Lim was that proactive self-regulation of the use of mobile devices for marketing research could go a long way toward ensuring that mobile research is allowed to fulfill its seemingly immense potential. “We felt that we need to start focused discussions with the right people and be the advocate for the use of these devices. We want to work with other associations like ESOMAR, the MRA, the Mobile Marketing Association – whoever wants to talk. There are regulations in the hopper now across the globe, different sorts of privacy rules, across companies and governments, opt-in rules – they’re all putting at risk the use of these devices for the types of data collection they are capable of,” Michelson says.

Some of the most tantalizing types of mobile research, from ethnographies to shopper-intercept studies to behavioral tracking using GPS, also have the potential to raise red flags with privacy advocates, who may not understand the differences between legitimate data-gathering and the mobile version of sugging or intrusive, Big Brother-like monitoring. “We’re not talking about the kinds of things you hear on the news, of hidden stuff in phones that can track people’s behavior. It’s about using the devices’ capabilities of video, audio, texting, connectivity with certain applications, GPS – advocating all of those different uses and being a clearinghouse for talking about and setting standards, ethics and best practices,” he says.

Michelson, who runs his own research firm, Atlanta-based Threads Qualitative Research, also helped launch the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) in 1997. He sees parallels between mobile interviewing and the pre-MSPA version of mystery shopping. Both can be used for purposes outside of or beyond research – with similarly undesirable outcomes, depending on the scruples or intentions of those wielding the methods. But both also offer tremendous potential as information-gathering vehicles. Yet because of that, and the likelihood of abuse, overly-strict regulation by governmental or other bodies could end up neutralizing the very data-gathering capabilities that make them so attractive.

With a membership of 80 when we spoke in early February, the MMRA has an initial goal of attracting 300 founding members. Committees have been established for various topics and some of the planned efforts include working with existing educational bodies to develop mobile research-focused curricula; creating and maintaining a taxonomy of mobile research-related apps and technology; and a slate of annual events around the world. (Find out more at www.mmra-global.org.)

Protect the future

The reasons for forming the MMRA boil down to wanting to protect the future of mobile-based research – in all its forms. “If we don’t write some sort of standards and codes of ethics or pursue self-regulation around the ideas of opting-in, of payments and incentives for opinions, this stuff is going to be totally mangled – and soon. Consumers may not know the difference between legitimate mobile research and questionable mobile practices and we as researchers need to protect the integrity of the process and make sure that the data we gather are meaningful and useful,” Michelson says.

Those sound like good reasons to me.