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
Despite its high penetration, SMS allows for one or two questions,
within a limit of 160 characters and therefore cannot harness complex
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
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
"Without some kind of robust sample which is representative of the known
universe, any quantitative research is frankly a sham," Perrott
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
"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
"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.