To understand Africa’s emerging markets, mobile research is undergoing a redesign
By, Emily C. Koenig, Quirk’s Content Editor
Africa contains some of the most rapidly growing economies on the planet. For companies looking to cater to these complex markets, traditional market research methods can be difficult and expensive to conduct, resulting in a data void that threatens to cripple strategic decision-making. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for a continent with over 1,500 spoken languages, mobile research is proving to be a tremendous tool for learning about and better engaging with these emerging markets.
The substantial growth of the mobile population is paving the way for easier access and better-quality data. While Internet connectivity and phone technology can vary greatly even within one country, mobile phones remain one communication constant researchers are beginning to rely on. “Amazingly, more people in the world have mobile phones than access to clean water or electricity,” says Steve Gutterman, president of GeoPoll, a company which runs a mobile surveying platform. In Africa there is about a 15 percent Internet penetration, 5-to-10 percent permanent home ownership and a 75 percent cell phone penetration.
Mobile phones are the most commonly used devices in emerging regions, used more often than laptops, PCs and tablets. The high penetration of mobile often offers researchers greater stability and longevity than even face-to-face market research. According to PewResearch Global’s 2014 report Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology, which surveyed 24 emerging nations including parts of Africa, more than half of the populations own a cell phone. This can be partially attributed to the lack of landline connections, with countries such as Ghana and Kenya reporting as little as 1 percent of their populations having a working landline telephone in their home.
Mark Michelson, executive director of the Mobile Marketing Research Association, says data collected via mobile research is often the only method available other than face-to-face to reach people in emerging markets. While the general consensus is that mobile market research is not intended to replace traditional tracker studies or long surveys, it is an excellent method for providing continuous longitudinal survey data as well as a way to bring respondents closer to the researcher through voice, video and photos. But researchers can’t simply replicate traditional face-to-face methodology or even traditional mobile research on to mobile in these markets. Mobile research in Africa requires an entire redesign to work in the shorter form of mobile engagement and structural limitations.
Adapting Mobile Research Methodology
A good study design takes time, place and device type into account. Guy Rolfe, global head of mobile research practice for research firm Kantar, believes one of the biggest challenges surrounding mobile research in Africa falls down to the basic understanding of the devices used throughout the continent. While smartphones are still scarce, feature phones are dominant.
According to Rolfe, researchers tend to think of feature phones as the Nokia handsets popular in the earlier days of the cell phone. In actuality, a majority of feature phones are modern and often include a touchscreen but are limited in memory and often lack the power to run more complicated services or apps.
Unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) is emerging as a popular mobile research methodology in Africa due to low cost and local familiarity. USSD is a Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication technology that creates a text connection between a mobile phone and an application program in the network. A real-time connection is created only during the USSD session time, allowing a two-way exchange of sequenced data. Rolfe calls this an “African phenomenon” as USSD does not transcend to all emerging markets, as it is not feasible in India and difficult to scale in Latin America. SMS mobile research surveys are also readily available across Africa from a number of suppliers. Unfortunately both market research methods are limited to maximum character lengths. When adapting to this many researchers are redesigning the survey approach often with shorter and more frequent interactions via mobile.
Researchers must adapt methodology even further for areas with low literacy rates. Kellie Jakobie, director for consumer experiences in Africa at GFK, a global market research insight’s company, believes illiteracy is one of the biggest challenges. With literacy rates ranging from less than 30 percent in some areas to 85 percent in others it is important to know your target audience. Even those with a basic level of education may feel uncomfortable participating in mobile research studies or may participate inaccurately, Jakobie says. IVR is one option that has allowed market research studies to collect data that better represents many areas that USSD, GMS and mobile Web surveys would miss. In general IVR methods are easily adapted for basic and feature phone use.
While a large majority of mobile phones are second or third generation and do get more basic in rural areas, Michelson says the decrease in smartphone cost is predicted to continue bringing newer feature phones and smartphones into the marketplace.
Statistics provided by a mobile trend study published in May 2014 by On Device Research are in line with Michelson’s theory, showing mobile Web traffic growing around the globe, specifically in Africa. Even with a smaller penetration of smartphones, Africa is the leader in mobile Web browsing across the globe, with the percentage of page views coming from mobile devices climbing from 18 percent in 2013 to 38 percent in 2014 (the global average hit 25 percent in 2014).
With the cost of cell phone airtime being so high, incentives are still required in many cases to gather enough mobile research respondents. Providing free airtime and ensuring surveys are free to respondents are just two of the ways researchers can encourage market research survey-taking. Jakobie says that respondent participation is often high and even oversubscribed when popular incentives like airtime are used. Researchers may come across “serial respondents” who use several SIM cards to conduct multiple completes.
Obstacles for Mobile Research in Africa
As researchers prepare projects whose data-gathering is designed around an app or access to mobile Web, it is important to account for Internet access that is often expensive and slow. Poor network coverage provides a challenge, specifically in rural areas. Gareth Pearson, chief executive officer of BMI Research, recommends that all mobile research apps have on/off capabilities to allow respondents to work offline in the event of a network coverage outage. Studies should also consider rural respondent connectivity issues. Free Wi-Fi may not be readily available, requiring rural respondents to travel to a nearby town to find an access point. As this travel may only be done on a weekly basis, researchers must work with rural communities to understand general schedules, specifically when designing survey and study time-frames.
While Rolfe does not recommend relying solely on mobile Web and apps at this point, he does point out that apps have the ability to work effectively in Africa when they are built for Africa. Typical market research apps built for developed markets do not consider factors that are necessary for a feature phone, such as size requirements. In general, emerging market research apps should be less than 800KB in size and need to use compressed data.
Michelson believes that one of the keys to utilizing apps is in convincing panelists of the benefits of downloading the app itself and then continuing to engage them. Reaching people that primarily access the Web on a mobile device often requires creative recruiting. By creating a positive first engagement with respondents, researchers are able to develop not only a strong panel of mobile research respondents to draw from but a group of locals who are able to promote market research study participation. Especially when phone storage is limited and Internet connections are expensive, it is important for researchers to demonstrate that they value the time and opinions of respondents.
While mobile Web appears to be the way of the future, it is essential to incorporate other means of contact in order to avoid the smartphone user bias. If the right technique is not applied or if researchers do not fully understand their respondent target’s preferred mobile research method (such as USSD, SMS, IVR or mobile Web) the data quality will suffer.
Creating a Relevant Market Research Model
Many researchers note that the novelty value of mobile research is now deteriorating throughout Africa. Respondents are beginning to take mobile surveys for granted, but at the same time they are more interested than ever in sharing their opinions when they feel responses are of social or intrinsic value.
As government and social agencies such as the World Food Programme and the UN MY World survey turn to mobile market research to gather information, respondents’ participation is truly adding social value. Following a non-incentivized survey project aimed at gathering votes from people around the world on what they felt were the most important global issues, GeoPoll followed up and asked people why they responded. Many answers coming out of emerging countries involved statements such as, “Because I want my opinion to count,” and “To ensure good governance.” Gutterman found this study to be one of the most rewarding experiences and said that it showed him just how important it is to give populations a voice.