On-line Research is About to Leave Home

The World Wide Web is 18 years old and after some rebellious teenage years is about to mature into a very different adult than we all expected from its youthful promise.  With adulthood, comes the yearning to leave home and become independent, and that’s exactly what’s happening to the web.

The August issue of Wired Magazine proclaims ‘the web is dead’, focusing on the shift to use of applications to access content rather than browsers.  Much of this shift is driven by the increasing use of mobile platforms.  As an example, aside from business, email is now increasingly conducted via social network sites, and access to news, information and even social networks through third party applications (see US data below).  The web is moving from our homes into our pockets.

In some cases these trends are more advanced in Asia than other parts of the world. China now has 420 million internet users and 795 million mobile phones (more than any other country).  By some estimates, 60% of internet users in China access content via their mobiles, and this will only increase.

In many Asian countries there is an even greater disparity between internet and mobile phone access (India and Indonesia have very low internet penetration, but high mobile phone penetration).  Mobile phone use is very skewed to younger consumers (one estimate is that 80% of teenage Asians have access to one), and in many Asian countries the majority of people’s time is spent out of home.  Although they are out and about, young Asians like to stay connected, and 50% or more of mobile internet use is focused on social network sites.

So when will market research take advantage of the greater accessibility of young Asians via their mobile phones?  In the 2010 ESOMAR Global Report, Finn Raben comments that, “People will contribute vast amounts of information when allowed to do so at their pace, in their own place, without an interviewer in their face”.  Participation rates will increase rather than fall, as long as participation is based on more equal relationships between researchers and participants.

Let’s look at two very different Asian markets, Singapore and Indonesia.  When I checked on the websites of some of the biggest online panel companies they had between 30-100,000 panel members in Singapore and 0-30,000 panel members in Indonesia.  To put those numbers in perspective: Singapore has 4.8 million mobile phones, 3.7 million internet users and 2.3 million Facebook users; Indonesia has 168 million mobile phones, 30 million internet users and 27 million Facebook users!

In fact, Indonesia is the third largest Facebook community in the world, and soon to be the second (only the US and UK currently have more users). Facebook itself recently reached the 500 million mark, making it the third largest population in the world (after China and India).

While these numbers seem daunting, they point very clearly to the future, and how market research will need to conduct itself in order to access participants.  Applications are growing in prominence because of the need for greater ease and functionality of use given the limitations of small mobile screens.  This has huge implications for research, placing enormous limitations on what can be measured and how.

These limitations also come with great opportunities.  The latest generation of enabled mobile phones can be used to determine participants’ location, movement, social networks and leisure activities (if they agree) and enable sharing of text, picture, speech and video content.  If we give participants greater freedom and involvement in the dialogue, we will be richly rewarded, but must accept in turn that such access will be on participants’ terms.  That means ceding control of the process to research participants!

Market research online communities (MROCs) are already the fastest growing area of market research, led by companies like Vision Critical, while the use of applications in research is still in its infancy.  For those with an iPhone or iPad you can try out ThumbSpeak and EverydayLives to take a glimpse at how surveys and ethnographic research may be conducted in future.

The web has grown up, and is leaving home to get a glimpse of the real world.  It’s time for market research to do the same.

By Neil Gains, Tapestry Works