A Short History of Mobile Marketing Research

Navin Williams and I are creating an MMR (mobile marketing research) module for the University of Georgia’s MRII’s Principles of Marketing Research course (under the guiding eye of Reg Baker) – click here to read more.

As part of that course we need to provide a very short summary of the history of MMR. So, the text below is my starting point and I would love to hear any suggestions, corrections, etc that people out there might have.

In terms of context, the course takes the term MMR to include:

  • Self-completion surveys via mobile devices (i.e. not CATI)
  • Qualitative research utilising mobile devices
  • Passive data collection via mobile devices

Mobile devices are taken as mostly being mobile phones, although more recently the term has been expanded to include tablets. Other devices exist, such as PDAs, but they have never been central to the bulk of MMR. Phones tend to be divided into smartphones and feature phones. However, the definition of a smartphone keeps changing, and a feature phone is pretty much any phone that does not meet the current criteria for a smartphone – and yes we are assuming that smartphone is now a single word.

A Brief History of Mobile Marketing Research

The first serious attempts to use mobile phones for market research appeared in the 1990s. The projects that were run at this time tended to use SMS. Questions were sent to respondents via SMS, and the respondents answered via SMS, typically by entering a single digit, such as 1 for Agree strongly, 2 for Agree, etc. These surveys were very short. Few market research projects were transferred to this method, because of the requirement for surveys to be very short and because the interface was considered so limited. This method is still in use today, in cases where it meets specific research needs.

One early innovation with the SMS method was to utilise its ‘in the moment’ potential. For example. some locations put up signs inviting users/visitors to text their satisfaction score to a central location.
As phones became ‘smarter’, for example acquiring larger screens and some form of internet access (e.g. WAP) people started to try and utilise the phones for longer and/or more complex surveys. For example, by 2000 several researchers were reporting success in Japan, utilising DoCoMo’s early lead in this area, sending longer surveys and incentivising respondents via telephone credits. However, MMR remained marginal as a percentage of all marketing research.

With the growth in the ownership of smartphones, the app/web dichotomy was created and started to deepen. Some researchers preferred to design software that could be downloaded on respondents’ mobile devices, whilst others sought to get the respondents to connect to the internet. This dichotomy is explored elsewhere in the course. Although both routes are still being used, the majority of quantitative MMR at the moment is via browsers, i.e. by connecting to the internet at the time of the survey, rather than via an app. The app approach, however, is very popular with some of the qualitative and passive data collection approaches.

By about 2005, with Blackberry phones becoming more common and internet enabled PDAs becoming more common, researchers started reporting that a small percentage of respondents were completing online surveys, intended for PCs, on their mobile devices. At the time this ‘accidental’ MMR (accidental on the part of the researcher) accounted for a very small proportion of online surveys. Over the next 8 years this proportion of accidental MMR has grown, as phones have become smarter/larger, and with the arrival of tablets, and is now reported as being in the region of 10-20% of all online surveys.

From about 2005, the qualitative uses of mobile devices started to blossom. With a growing number of researchers utilising participant’s phones to collect data about the participants everyday lives – for example by collecting images and recordings. Researchers also started utilising participants’ mobile devices to connect the participants with blogs, bulletin boards, discussions and communities. From 2005, and until very recently, much (perhaps most) of the success stores in MMR came from the realm of qualitative research.

With the advent of the iPhone in 2007, MMR moved into a higher gear. Qualitative researchers sought to use the extra facilities, as did some quantitative researchers. In 2008, the appearance of Android phones from companies such as HTC helped ensure that the new generation of smartphones established a critical mass, enabling MMR to focus on the benefits of mobiles.

In 2010 the iPad was released, presaging a major growth in the penetration of tablets, and making definitions in MMR a bit more tricky. Some researchers have been using smartphones as CAPI devices for several years, but the arrival of tablets has made this more attractive and easier to implement.

By 2010 mobile phones had become common across both the developed and developing world. Consequently, researchers were putting them to ever greater use in developing markets, particularly in Africa and Asia. However, in developing markets MMR tends to focus on feature phones rather than smartphones, and online surveys tend not to be an alternative.

From about 2010 there has been a growth in the amount of passive data being collected as part of MMR (telcos have been collecting it for their purposes from the outset, of course). This passive data is typically collected by downloading an app onto the phone, which records information such as: usages, internet connection, phone calls, location, etc.

By 2012 the MMRA (Mobile Marketing Research Association) had been formed, conferences were being dedicated to the topic of MMR, ESOMAR had published guidelines on the proper and ethical use of MMR, and there were about 6 billion mobile phones in use globally.


I would love to hear your thoughts, corrections, suggestions, extensions etc? In particular, I am keen to source data on the incidence of different forms of MMR from about 1990 onwards.

3 thoughts on “A Short History of Mobile Marketing Research

  1. You are correct about passive data collection. System-level, rich data collection was done by the telcos virtually since the beginnings of the smartphone but passive, app-level data wasn’t widely available until late 2011.

    We’ve done a lot of work in this area. Contact me if you would like to discuss this issue in greater detail.

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