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Is Market Research Still Fighting the Last War?

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History buffs will remember the Maginot Line.

It was a string of imposing fortifications the French built along their border with Germany during the 1930s. German forces had poured into France during World War I, and it took four years of brutal fighting on French soil to defeat them. The Maginot Line was built to ensure that this would never happen again.

What the French high command failed to anticipate was an end run executed at unprecedented speed with unprecedented military technology. Blitzing German forces flanked the Maginot Line in the early days of World War II, and France fell in a matter of weeks.

Now market research has its own Maginot Line. Like the one in France, it’s an impressive and righteously intended piece of defensive architecture that will have little effect because it has been built to fight the last war.

This new line of defense is a recently-announced system designed to protect researchers from buying bad internet sample. It aims to address an acknowledged crisis in MR – intensifying gaps in the quality, reliability and demographic reach of online panels. The program has a laudable goal — to test and vet the panels that participating suppliers provide to the project’s sponsor, a company that aggregates and brokers panels for research projects. It aims to help buyers become better-informed and more secure about what they’re getting, because they’ll be able to check the panel-quality ratings and rankings the system generates. It’s also designed to give suppliers a strong incentive to address any issues that are holding down their panels’ scores.

The concept makes sense. If it works as intended, it undeniably will be very helpful – in fighting the last war.

As recently as the late 2000s, such a quality-rating program for online panels would have mattered a great deal. At that point, personal computers still ruled. But that’s no longer the case. It’s the smartphone that now permeates our lives – and by all reckoning its domination will continue, in what we can confidently call the Smartphone Era.

People want to do their business and experience their pleasures on mobile. They want to be informed and entertained on mobile. They want to relate to friends and family on mobile. They want to be on mobile.

You can verify this just by looking around. But if you need harder evidence than what your eyes tell you, the Pew Research Center provides the numbers: 72% of American adults owned smartphones as of early this year – including 86% ages 18 to 29 and 83% ages 30 to 49. These are the prolific consumers, present and future, who are crucial for researchers to reach.

The process that undergirds online surveys is a throwback to ancient times – well, to a time before 2007, when the iPhone debuted. Online research calls for panelists to be notified by email, click on a link, and take a survey that’s housed on a website. It’s not a process that suits a smartphone-using public. Citizens of the smartphone era vastly prefer apps to web connections that can be fragile and data-consuming. Properly-designed survey apps will cache content, allowing respondents to answer questions offline. Mobile panelists receive push notifications — the friendly doorbell ring of the smartphone era – rather than emails, which often are seen as annoyances to be ignored or quickly skimmed through and tossed out.

Again, the numbers bear this out: comScore’s report, “U.S. Cross Platform Future in Focus – 2016,” found that by the end of 2015, mobile apps accounted for 56% of Americans’ engagement with digital media, measured by time spent on all devices combined. Factoring in web connections as well as apps, mobile devices accounted for 65% of Americans’ time with digital media.

Given these facts, the stark logic in market research comes down to this:

  • The bedrock basis of this industry is its ability to communicate with a representative slice of the public. 
  • Today’s public overwhelmingly presents itself on smartphones and occupies itself with smartphones.
  • Therefore: Is there any reason to believe that taking surveys is the one form of communication and information exchange that people would rather not conduct on mobile?

It’s a mistake, however, to make a simple blanket statement that surveys targeted to mobile devices will solve the panel crisis. The key is using an advanced mobile approach rather than one that’s been quickly slapped together in order to catch up.

It takes special software engineering and survey-design work to make questionnaires display and function well on smartphones. The look must be clean, the content instantly understandable. The survey can’t slow the respondent down or let boredom seep in. It must be the kind of glitch-free experience that smartphone users expect and demand from everything that’s on their devices.

It almost goes without saying that, given the public’s obvious preferences, a quality mobile survey experience will attract and engage panelists in numbers that now elude online research.

But can anything comparable to the quality checking that’s now being advocated for online surveys be duplicated for mobile research?

It’s already being done, in the most natural way: mobile survey apps come with a built-in, completely public quality control system. They’re downloaded from the App Store (for iOS users) and Google Play (for Android). These are among the most prominent storefronts on the digital town square, and each provides a public bulletin board where people who use an app are free to comment on it and rate their experiences for all to see. To get a good idea of a survey app’s functionality and its panel’s satisfaction and engagement, researchers need only do what they’re best at – listen to a slice of the public.

We’re not in a position to evaluate how well the new project to rate online panel quality will fulfill its aim. All we can say is that it’s aiming at the wrong target. It’s asking market research to shoot arrows into the past, where even a bullseye won’t help it succeed in the present, or position it to prosper in the future.

The French put a lot of thought, effort and expense into the Maginot Line. It may have been the strongest bulwark the world has ever known. And it would have worked perfectly – if only time and technology had stood still.