mobile devices

With mobile surveys, market research gets a makeover

March 25, 2014: 12:03 PM ET

People are moving to mobile devices in droves, but researchers haven't followed. Online survey companies are trying to change that.

By Heather Clancy

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FORTUNE -- The days of lengthy online surveys are numbered, and the startup GetFeedback and online survey leader SurveyMonkey are both poised to benefit.

Countless millions of dollars are spent validating the mobile revolution with adoption statistics and usage metrics. Ironically, the field of market research itself appears to have overlooked this shift, relying on outdated technology and techniques that are increasingly at odds with mobile attention spans.

According to Forrester Research, just 17% of researchers had taken their survey processes mobile as of December 2012. The most obvious side effect is falling response rates. But businesses also risk alienating existing or prospective customers by seeming out-of-step with their communications preferences. There's a lot of money at stake: A staggering $18.9 billion on a global basis is spent annually on telephone polls, online surveys, questionnaires, and other market research, says the Council of American Survey Research Organizations. Roughly $2 billion is spent on online surveys in the United States alone, according to the market research firm IBISWorld.

"People have been using online surveys for a very long time, but now at least 50% of these emails are being opened on a mobile gadget of some sort," says Scott Holden, a vice president of marketing for Salesforce (CRM), responsible for the company's Salesforce1 platform. "If you're not thinking mobile-first, you're going to be left behind for sure."

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Forrester analyst Roxana Strohmenger is more blunt in her annual report, "The Mobile Market Research Landscape." She writes: "Consumers have already decided for us: If you want to connect with them, mobile is the way ... For every new research study you commence moving forward, think about how mobile can play a role. Let this mobile mindset shift your perspective on how you approach testing your research questions. For example, rather than asking consumers to write about their experience at a festival, you can ask them to record through video or photos the parts they like and don't like and even have them write down their immediate thoughts and feelings."

Technology startup GetFeedback.com, launched in December 2013 by two former Salesforce.com employees, hopes to get out front of this transition with a service designed to create surveys for smartphones, tablets, and mobile web browsers. The more than 1,000 early users of GetFeedback include high-tech powerhouses Salesforce, LinkedIn (LNKD), Facebook (FB), and Dropbox, and outdoor apparel company The North Face. Prices range from $20 per month for up to 100 responses to $125 per month for up to 10,000 responses.

"This was a personal pain point for me," says Kraig Swensrud, co-founder of GetFeedback, who fielded numerous research studies in his previous role. "I asked myself, 'What experiences are we delivering in the process of getting these questions answered?' and 'How are we representing our brand when we're having this conversation?' "

One big consideration for mobile surveys is optimizing them for far smaller screen sizes, so that they can be scrolled and processed quickly -- maybe during a two-minute cab ride or between meetings, Swensrud says. In markets where bandwidth is a concern or smartphone adoption is limited, some companies have also found success with SMS or text-based surveys. "This approach is also beneficial if one wants to reach a wide cross-section of a population: for example, both younger and older generations," Forrester's Strohmenger says.

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Visual elements are critical: GetFeedback's templates integrate video clips, photographs, or images that reinforce a company's marketing. "You can use these surveys to create an emotional reaction to your company, product, and brand," says Salesforce's Holden. "You can make it fun and make it look like a representation of things you're looking for feedback on."

The GetFeedback software also integrates with Salesforce, so results can be shared and marketing teams can see how many different surveys are being fielded simultaneously (important for reducing respondent fatigue); additional integrations with leading marketing automation software platforms are forthcoming. This makes results far easier to interpret, Holden says.

Going mobile requires marketers to become far more disciplined about keeping surveys succinct and simple, says Dave Goldberg, CEO of online survey software company SurveyMonkey. His advice: Keep the entire process under 10 minutes. "People are going to resist long, complex surveys," he says.

How can you shorten a survey? One future method would be to integrate them with a person's identity on a social network, which could be used to collect basic demographic information. "That would be a shortcut, but it is also clearly a privacy concern," Goldberg says.

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As the de facto market leader with more than 15 million customers including the likes of Kraft Foods (KRFT), Sirius XM (SIRI) and Facebook, SurveyMonkey says it has seen a 14-fold increase in mobile traffic over the past three years.

The company is adjusting its platform accordingly. In late February, it released a mobile app for Apple iOS devices that marketers can use to launch surveys, and monitor and analyze results in real time. In addition, SurveyMonkey is planning technology for late 2014 that software developers can use behind the scenes to track how users interact with their mobile applications: essentially another way to gather feedback, in the moment. "Right now, they can see what people are doing, but they can't ask them why," Goldberg says.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Holden on the percentage of online survey e-mails opened on mobile devices.

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