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Market Research and the Smartphone: Star Crossed Lovers Or Strangers In The Night?

by Allan Fromen , 25.10.2011

When my wife’s text and talk cell phone started to break down, I surprised her with a brand new iPhone. The next day I texted her and asked how she liked it. She responded “It’s great. It’s like carrying around a computer.”

Of course, she was exactly right. Smartphones are essentially mini-computers. They are capable of so much more than the desktops of a decade ago. Emails, web surfing, reading the news, ordering dinner, buying a sweater from the Gap - these are all not only possible, but simple and intuitive via most smartphones. Some have even been known to be used for making phone calls.

The point is, smartphones are incredibly powerful and mobile. They are always with us, and this has serious implications for the market research industry, particularly with respect to where and how we deliver surveys.

According to Pew Research Center, 35 percent of all US adults now own a smartphone and 68 percent use their smartphone to access the web every day. A full 25 percent of owners use their smartphone as their primary method to access the web.

The PC is finally dead (or dying). According to Gartner, PC sales dropped this past quarter 5.6 percent (in the US). On the other hand, Gartner expects global smartphone sales of 467.6 million units this year, up 56% from 2010. This demonstrates the explosive growth of the smartphone and why market researchers need to pay attention to this trend.

The growth of the smartphone has led to an explosion of apps, which are becoming more and more important, as it slowly replaces the open web. A year ago, Wired magazine declared “The web is dead,” which seemed like an intentionally hyperbolic attention-grabbing headline.

It turns out they were right. We now spend more time on apps than we do on the web. As this trend continues, it will be imperative for companies to build and promote user friendly apps, as the chances of consumers finding them on the web will decrease if this app-over-web trend continues.

The topic of mobile payments is yet another proof point that the smartphone is the nexus of the future. In the next few years, you will likely use your phone to pay for your coffee or big mac. Estimates vary, but by all accounts, mobile payments are set to explode and become mainstream.

Juniper puts the opportunity at $670 billion (2015), while Yankee Groups predicts $984 billion as early as 2014. Is it any wonder that the credit card companies, financial institutions and cell phone carriers are all racing to become the de facto standard for consumers to pay via their smartphone, not to mention the high-tech juggernauts such as PayPal and Google. These companies are racing for first mover advantage because they are absolutely convinced that we will be using our smartphone to make everyday payments.

With the increasing ubiquity of the smartphone it is no surprise that online survey response rates are falling. While other factors are certainly involved (poor survey design, professional respondents, etc.), as an industry, we need to consider the fact that an online survey may soon become as antiquated as the rotary phone.

The smartphone is where consumers are engaged, and yet we keep sending consumers online surveys that are designed for their PC, and not their mobile phone.

As an industry, we need to move to where the respondents are today and tomorrow, not continue to bang our heads against the wall trying to reach them where they were yesterday. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the often noted definition of insanity.

And yet, we keep sending email invitations to boring online surveys and then we complain about response rates. Why not deliver a visually engaging survey via the smartphone?

Personally, I thought that by now every major market research supplier would have a mobile app that could deliver cutting-edge, visually stimulating surveys. Recently, Gongos research published a study suggesting parity in mobile and online surveys (Smartphone Surveys Prove Their Validity in Marketing Research, June 14, 2011). While certainly more research is needed, these "equivalence" studies are a step in the right direction.

The one constant is change, and technology and consumer trends are no exception. I remember when online surveys were coming on the scene and the incredible fear and trepidation it caused.

If we want to be successful, we need to innovate and cater to consumer needs, not expect consumers to bend to our old fashioned business models. The smartphone is the future and as an industry, we need to embrace it by creating new tools that can leverage its ubiquity and flexibility.

As Wayne Gretzky said, I always skate to where the puck is going. In this case, it is clear the puck is headed straight to the smartphone. That is where the market research industry should be skating as well.