Is there a pony in there somewhere?

Two cheers for mobile: MRMW 2011

I spent two days this week in suburban Atlanta at Market Research in the Mobile World 2011 (MRMW 2011), a conference as its name suggests (almost) totally focused on mobile research. It had an imposing agenda with a whopping 29 presentations all in the same room over two days. The presentations were grouped into four "modules" and at the end of each one we had an "activation" session (get it? mobile? activation?) to develop actionable recommendations for the industry

The mobile hype was thicker than the Georgia summer air outside with lots of dazzling (although sometimes questionable) numbers on mobile growth and skyrocketing smartphone penetration along with assuranCell phone revolutionces about people's willingness, nay eagerness, to serve up the intimate details of their personal lives in unprecedented ways. (In one presentation we were shown a smartphone self-portrait of a smiling couple in bed as a part of an in-the-moment qual study about how they spent the morning when hubby stayed home from work and baby slept in.)  There was an evangelical revival meeting flavor to the affair with an added element of surrealism given that we were talking about using mobile to probe deeper into people's lives at the same time Rupert Murdoch was being grilled in London by the Select Committee. When one doubter worried aloud if we were moving too far too fast and needed to do more validation studies he was quickly denounced, but then just as quickly reassured the mob that he "lives and breathes this stuff." Me, I kept my head down.

But there were moments of genuine enlightenment as well, at least for a mobile ingénue like me. There was a nice presentation on the promise and the technical challenges of geolocation research; an entertaining and very informative presentation on HTML 5; some good examples of effective uses of SMS, especially in developing countries; a debate of apps versus browser-based approaches; some intriguing qual methods involving mobile and a nice sampling of the different kinds of mobile implementations both currently being used and under development. There also were a couple of presentations about social media that in this setting seemed almost retro. The envelope was being pushed and pushed hard.

A few observations:

  • Whether it's ready for prime time or not mobile research is not just here to stay, it's poised to grow very quickly. It will be messy and there will be lots of problems. The key question: when will it start to command a significant part of client research budgets and move from the boutiques and the startups to the mainstream agencies? Those agencies, the software developers and the panel companies are all hedging their bets so that when/if it does take off in a major way they are ready.
  • Clients are going to have to think about research differently if they want to deploy mobile on a broad scale. One of the major challenges with online has been questionnaire length, much of it due to the need to drive the advanced analytics that have been one of the major stories in MR over the last decade. So, for example, is customer sat going to devolve to all NPS all the time? One of the counter arguments here is that the richness of detail that clients are accustomed to getting from surveys will now come from behavioral data and mobile surveys may be used more to fill in the gaps. But that's a big shift and a hard one that will require clients to fundamentally rethink their research processes.
  • Mobile inherits all of the problems of online panels—coverage error, sample bias, professional respondents, and a shortage of willing respondents. Novelty may bring some new people into the mix but as the use of mobile grows and becomes routine there is no reason to expect that we won't be stuck in the same place we are today with classic online.
  • Privacy is a much bigger problem than the mobile evangelists want to admit. It's not just the concern of a few misguided politicians. We already are seeing regular public uprisings about a whole range of questionable privacy practices based in technology and that will only get worse. The fact that teenagers say and do dumb things on Facebook is no guarantee that they'll continue to be that oblivious to sharing all the details of their lives as adults with jobs, families, and assets to protect.

Obviously, all of this is speculative. But then everything about mobile is speculative, a combination of powerful technology and wishful thinking. That's part of what made this conference so interesting and the main reason I was glad I went.

Hats off to Leonard Murphy who seemed to be the prime mover behind the event and whose breathless enthusiasm for mobile picked us up whenever our spirits flagged. If you want to hear why mobile is the future and the future is now, Lenny is your man.