Cell Phones and the Future of Market Research

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Tools & Techniques, Online Qualitative Research


Walt Dickie

Many of you may have probably seen the recent announcement of a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project on cell phone usage. Reporting of the findings has been a bit hyperventilated, focusing on odd behavior, such as turning phones off to get a break from using it (between 26% and 32% for all age groups under 65) and pretending to talk on the phone to avoid talking directly to someone (30% of 18-29 year-olds in past month). More about this last one later.

The report, however, highlights some genuinely interesting trends.

  • The increasing dominance of cell phone use generally, but especially for text messaging and photography.
  • The fact that African Americans, Latinos, and to a lesser degree those with college educations, urban- and suburbanites, and parents over-index on cell usage.
  • The enormous difference between “Smartphone” users and other “Cell/Feature Phone” users.
  • The diminishing differences between the ways different age groups under 65 use smart phones.

With 83% of adults owning cell phones, and 3/4 of them using their phones for text messaging and photography, it is clear that research techniques based on text messaging and/or picture-taking should be considered as fitting quite nicely into “normal life.” While text messaging can be seen as roughly analogous to writing or typing answers to traditional survey instruments, “picture taking” now has a place primarily in specialized methods such as ethnographies and MROCs. But, as research becomes increasing mobile, might not the normal way to answer many typical questions be with a picture? What groceries did you buy this week? What do you use to clean the floor? What snacks do you eat regularly? There will be no forgetting key parts of the answer when it is a picture.

It seems equally clear that Smartphone Owners (35%) are a distinct segment of the population whose use of phones for messaging, internet access, games and entertainment, and retrieval of information needed “right away” index over Cell/Feature Phone Owners by anywhere from two to five times or more. It seems likely that we will need a new survey grammar when we create mobile instruments directed at this more impatient target who craves immediacy. It may not be the place to ask questions about the restaurants visited six months in the past.

Smartphone owners have a distinctive demographic profile, but age is clearly becoming a salient variable – although the youngest age segments over-index on pretty much everything, all Smartphone Owners under about 50 clearly share a core set of behaviors that is distinct from the behavioral set of Cell/Feature Phone Users.

By the way, if Smartphone Users are a distinct population, how will we talk to people about cell phones vs. smartphones? Pew doesn’t seem to have a term for devices that aren’t smartphones. When they screen, they use awkward questions like, “As I read the following list of items, please tell me if you happen to have each one, or not. Do you have…a cell phone or a Blackberry or iPhone or other device that is also a cell phone?” The industry sometimes uses “feature phone,” but I’ve never heard a normal person use that term. “Dumb phone?” My son had a pretty nice phone with a touchscreen that wasn’t an iPhone, Android, or any other obvious “Smartphone” type. He called it “a wannabe phone.”

Back to people who pretend to make cell phone calls to avoid contact with others. Instead of wringing our hands about the end of civilization, we need to recognize what it truly indicates. It is interesting that this is behavior of young adults, those most at home with all things mobile. But, also no surprise. Cell phones truly have become rooted among young adults. The gestures of their usage have generally accepted meanings within the “culture.” And, nothing demonstrates this more powerfully than the fact that faking a call works.

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