Right place, right time

Editor's note: Allen Vartazarian is director of product, mobile at uSamp, Encino, Calif.

In 2011, mobile was considered an emerging data collection method. Since then, the market research industry has overcome the challenges of high cost and limited reach and witnessed a surge in mobile research adoption. More sophisticated technology and affordable pricing increased smartphone penetration. Additionally, mobile as a mode for data collection could go where in-person, telephone and online research could not go – engaging respondents to gather in-the-moment insights. Mobile presents researchers with a unique opportunity to think beyond the existing quantitative and qualitative techniques and explore creative ways to obtain actionable consumer data for businesses.

The promise of mobile is on-demand and in-the-moment access for consumers anywhere, anytime. As of 2013, mobile devices have greater consumer penetration than PCs, high-speed Internet and even television. Over 92 percent of American consumers carry a mobile device and over 52 percent of those are smartphones equipped with geolocation technology. 

For market researchers, these figures represent unprecedented access to consumers. By capturing consumers on-the-go, researchers can more accurately gauge customer experience with products, events and services while they are happening instead of having to rely on feedback at a later time.

A virtual fence

Key to this in-the-moment ability is something called geofencing, which is technology that allows the creation of a virtual fence around a geographic location. Smartphones that are location-enabled can detect when someone enters or exits these fences, which can be as large as a city block or as small as a retail store. As soon as a person crosses into one of the fences, notifications ranging from real-time deals to vendor-specific surveys can be triggered.

Though researchers can be detailed about defining the criteria for each geofence, there are certain technical limitations in the way that a smartphone determines your location, especially when the device is not actively being used (like when it’s in a bag or pocket). Nonetheless, through geofencing, researchers can set an acceptable location accuracy threshold when attempting to underzstand a consumer’s proximity to a location.

Variety of insights

Geofencing technology can be leveraged by market researchers, retailers, CPG companies and advertisers to gain a variety of insights. These insights can include on-site quality audits, product awareness and ease of locating the product and out-of-home advertisement effectiveness.

Here are some of the top applications of how geofencing is advancing mobile market research:

Out-of-home ad effectiveness. By setting geofences around out-of-home advertisements, market researchers can tell when consumers are nearby and potentially exposed to the ad. By setting geofences around specific businesses, agencies can better gauge ad effectiveness by comparing store visitation of exposed consumers to those who were not exposed.

Real-time feedback. Whether it is a trip to the grocery store or going to see a movie that just came out, it’s imperative to gather feedback as close to the time of the experience as possible. With geofencing, market researchers can trigger an alert as someone enters or exits a location with an invitation to answer a few questions while the experience is still fresh in their mind.

Behavior monitoring. Geofencing can be used to track store visits, time-on-site and other key metrics vital to retailers and advertisers. Combining this with other collected data (i.e., Web browsing and purchase activity) helps identify the true impact of out-of-home ad exposure.

Natural shopper intercepts. In addition to being able to actively prerecruit and drive traffic to a specific location, researchers can catch respondents on-location without the need to prerecruit. With geofencing technology researchers can easily intercept natural shoppers as they go about their normal consumer habits in and around retail locations all over the world. Natural shoppers can be enlisted on-demand, informing metrics such as ease of locating a product, in-store ad effectiveness, shopper intent to purchase, etc. The data collected inside the geofence acts as the store intercept.

Competitive analysis. By setting geofences around the locations of a company’s competitors, researchers can obtain data to understand what factors motivated someone to visit one store over another.

Field research. As an alternative to the in-person field when a respondent is leaving a mall or a movie theater, with geofencing, market researchers can identify and ping consumers to participate in a certain action as soon as they exit any location, making this a much more scalable solution for capturing valuable insights.

Battery drain

Most talk about mobile optimization tends to focus on responsive design and customized content. Consumers expect mobile Web sites to not only be geared toward their eyes and thumbs but also to their tablets and their various operating systems. Yet even as companies continue to explore and invest more in mobile, there has been little discussion about one of the key issues that could make or break the experience as a whole, especially as it pertains to the market research industry: battery drain.

Any app that uses your device’s location will cause battery drain. The more frequently that app searches for location, the more battery life it will sap. No one is more aware of this than the mobile carriers themselves. Verizon just issued a warning to its customers about high-risk apps. We can only expect these types of alerts to increase as more apps involve battery-sapping geolocation technology.

As firms start turning out research apps in the rush to accommodate the latest and greatest mobile technological advancements, it becomes even more critical to ensure quality. Before running a geofencing project, be sure to ask the technology provider what steps they have taken (if any) to preserve battery life and then download their app so you can experience it yourself. If apps are draining batteries, the quality of the research can be compromised. The industry is responsible for ensuring a positive experience for all respondents, regardless of the device.

A more dynamic experience

Mobile market research is blurring the lines between qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Thanks to ubiquitous cameras and microphones, most mobile devices let consumers capture feedback in their own words. Researchers can now create a more dynamic user experience by building barcode scanning, photo, video and audio features into their surveys. The rapid adoption of mobile apps that encourage the use of cameras and photo-sharing (i.e., Instagram) is proof that users are comfortably conditioned to snap a photo for surveys as well, whether at a grocery store or in the intimacy of their own home.

By combining geofencing technology with rich-media capabilities, researchers will have unprecedented access to audiences in real time. However, as with the adoption of any new technology, it is critical for researchers and project management teams to understand a respondent’s interaction with and usage of a smartphone. Equipped with this knowledge, they can set realistic expectations, effectively target relevant audiences and encourage higher engagement rates. All of this will ideally result in more accurate and insightful data.

For the better

The market research world sits at the nexus of technology proliferation, consumer conditioning and willingness to engage. Mobile, through the combination of location-based technologies and quali-quant methodologies, is revolutionizing the research landscape rapidly and irrevocably for the better.