MARKET RESEARCH: Mobile Measures - Mobile phones may be the best way to get instant opinions

With names such as McDonald's, Emap and Deutsche Bank launching

interactive marketing campaigns over mobile phones, it is surprising

that market research over wireless devices is still in its infancy.



It is perhaps even more surprising considering that mobile phones reach

twice as many people in the UK as the internet, at 70 per cent

penetration compared to 35 per cent. Internet-based surveys and market

research are relatively commonplace, but there are two major obstacles

to marketers using the mobile phone as a market research tool - the

clunky user interface of SMS (Short Message Service) and the low

penetration of WAP (Wireless Application Protocol).



"We are up to five years away from using mobile phones seriously as a

market research channel," Simon Burrows, the managing director of the

market research agency The Practice, and vice chairman of the Market

Research Society (www.marketresearch.org.uk), says. "It is currently

difficult to collect anything but pre-coded responses and impossible to

get any complex data," he explains.



Steve Wunker, the chairman of the Wireless Marketing Association

(www.wma.org.uk) and chief executive of the wireless marketing company

Saverfone, agrees that it is early days.



"When you register for mobile services you give a certain amount of

demographic information but it hasn't been used to test attitudes

towards new things yet. To do that you need a rich text environment,

which neither SMS nor WAP offers," Wunker says.



"But on the upside you can potentially conduct research in the downtime

periods people have in the day, rather than interrupting them at work or

at home, but it's a minimum of two years before we see that," he

adds.



Despite its high penetration, SMS allows for one or two questions,

within a limit of 160 characters and therefore cannot harness complex

data.



WAP, which allows users to select from more complex options in a

browsing environment, is used by relatively few people.



"At the moment mobile phones can only glean single pieces of information

about single issues, but they can be used to invite people to

participate in a survey over some other channel," Oscar Jenkins, the

managing director of SMS solution provider SMSpress, says.



"For instance, you could send a message to a list of subscribers to a

mobile service requesting that they participate in a survey on the

internet. Emap got a response rate of more than 8 per cent from this

kind of call to action when it asked mobile users to give feedback on

its Beachbeats magazine," he says.



Growing interest in the use of mobile phones for surveys was triggered

by the arrival of WAP technology. "With this came the mistaken belief

that whatever was possible on the web was possible on WAP," Nicky

Perrott, the head of e-mori, says. "But of course we now all know that's

not true."



Mori's trial WAP surveys in the summer of 2000 showed that the WAP user

interface is still too limited and clumsy to permit more than most of

the basic surveys. WAP phones are used by just 2 per cent of British

adults.



"Without some kind of robust sample which is representative of the known

universe, any quantitative research is frankly a sham," Perrott

says.



But as all the flashlights went off around WAP, in the background,

quietly and humbly, SMS took a hold as a powerful marketing tool,

particularly for reaching the youth market. It never promised much, and

yet quickly seemed to outshine its more technologically advanced cousin

WAP, no more so than in sheer penetration. 43 per cent of people with

mobile phones have and use SMS (equivalent to 14 million adults) but the

user interface still makes it difficult to ask more than one or two very

short questions.



"SMS is great for mass research, to get instant feedback on a specific

issue, but it's not so good for an extended dialogue. People only want

to reply to a text message once and don't want to spend long doing it,"

Lars Becker, the chief executive of the wireless marketing company

Flytxt, says.



"The limit is one question and one answer, maybe two, but even then you

risk confusion. Standing with a clipboard at Oxford Circus you can go

for 100 respondents in detail. Via mobile phones you can reach a

database of 100,000, but only address one single issue."



It is too soon to predict accurately whether third generation (3G)

technology will make a difference. "If 3G encourages the widespread

adoption of mobile devices which merge the functionality of portable PCs

and mobile phones, then mobile surveys will surely become popular and

reliable. But as before, the issues of penetration and user interface

will be crucial for success," Perrott says .



Michael Brown, the chief executive of the mobile portal Boltblue, agrees

that 3G will not open the floodgates for mobile research. "However

advanced the interface becomes, you won't have a keyboard, and the

answers will always be either yes or no, or multiple choice as you can

now do on WAP. It is never going to offer the same quality of data as

the internet or a phone call," he says.



In principle mobile phones should be ideal for doing surveys among the

kinds of busy mobile people who are never in one place long enough to be

sampled by more conventional means, or even via a PC, and who are

probably under represented in most surveys.



This includes young people who are a perfect target group for mobile

surveys and the growing number of mobile-only households.



"For example if you've just bought flowers or a plane ticket via your

WAP phone it would be easy for suppliers to send out a short

customer-satisfaction survey to the mobile user right away, while the

recall of the experience is still fresh," Perrott says.



And the call to action needn't initially be via the mobile phone.

Advertising billboards or even TV adverts could ask a user to respond to

a question using their phone. "A film company could ask for feedback

about a film as an audience leaves a cinema, and elicit a response via

SMS. So instead of answers on a postcard, the customer can respond

instantly from their phones. We've used this kind of response method,

but not yet in the context of market research," Becker says.



Alex Nketiah, the director and head of new media at the youth specialist

marketing consultancy Informer, warns that time lags in messages can

make real-time market research defunct. "We've done a few exploratory

trials for new-media clients, but the fact that a SMS message can be

delayed and can be a maximum of 160 characters does not allow for

complex data to be researched," Nketiah says. "And whether it's SMS or

WAP, at the end of the day it's still a phone and sometimes it is better

to just call someone," he says.



"WAP already offers a fairly rich browsing menu system but it doesn't

reach enough people. I believe that 2.5G technology will bridge a lot of

the gaps we see at the moment, but it will be around 18 months before

market researchers feel the benefit," he says.



The criticism levelled at mobile marketing by some, that it is more

intrusive as it reaches directly into the personal space of the user, is

rubbished by Nketiah. "A landline or PC can be more intrusive as you are

entering people's homes and places or work. You know where they are.

With mobiles, people are often more willing to interact and this will

grow as the youth generation doesn't bother to have a landline

connected," he says.



"For 12- to 20-year-olds, their mobile phones represent a badge of

adulthood. If you couple that with a genuine request for their opinions

and add a rebate of say 20p a text message response, giving the user a

profit, it could be a powerful market research tool," he adds.