The Unique Ethical Challenges of Mobile Research

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Mobile ResearchAs smartphones become ubiquitously integrated into our daily lives, they become more than a device as they contain all the information and records that we need to manage our households, and often our businesses. Where we are, what we are doing, who we are with – with the right tools, that information is instantly and openly accessible. However, as marketing researchers do we have the right to that access?

According to Dataspring, these ethical issues first gained attention in late-2011 when a research study tracked shoppers as they moved through a shopping mall. Their movements were monitored via the unique signal from individual phones. The shoppers did not opt-in nor agree in advance, but signs about the study were posted around the mall. They could opt-out of the study by turning off their phones. This study drew attention from the U.S. Congress, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the topic of mobile privacy was officially on the radar.

Marketing researchers have long held themselves to a code of ethical conduct, but mobile marketing research raises some new and interesting concerns, including defining and getting participants’ informed consent, as discussed above. However, have you thought about these:

  • We certainly don’t want people completing surveys while they are driving. How do we prevent that?
  • Mobile communications cost the participants money, so we must avoid using up too much of participant’s data contract.
  • We must ensure participants’ privacy and anonymity.
  • How do we protect participant communications from hacking and data breaches?

The American Marketing Association and the Insights Association have long had ethical standards that marketing researchers agree to abide by. Now, ESOMAR, the European Survey Research organization, and the Mobile Marketing Research Association worked together to create a code of ethics for mobile marketing research, which includes many of the standards for traditional research, as well as these standard that are specific to mobile marketing research:

  1. Always provide your privacy policy. Make sure it is easily accessed and understood. (If you do not have a privacy policy, you need one!)
  2. Never ask participants to risk their safety, compromise confidentiality, or harm their device.
  3. Take special care in the design and delivery of any downloadable or web-based applications. Make sure they are bug-free, work on small screens, do not alter the settings or reduce the performance of the device, and can be uninstalled easily after the research.
  4. When conducting passive data collection such as geo-location tracking, or web browsing behavior, ensure that the participant is aware of what information is being collected and how it will be used.
  5. Do not collect or use personal information about third parties that may be stored on a participant’s mobile device(such as in contacts list, recently called numbers, email histories).

The marketing research industry relies on the public’s confidence (and government’s forbearance) to stay in business. Collecting information from individuals is easier now than ever before. Let’s not let that ease of access lull us into neglecting these essential ethical standards.

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Kyle Burnam

Kyle Burnam is the CEO of Infosurv and the leader of its sister company, Intengo, where he oversees all client research and R&D projects. Having been in the industry since 2005, Kyle brings a wealth of experience to the table and an innovative eye to every project.