Mobile phones - a research tool, a haven for marketers - but what good are they for consumers?

posted Jul 7, 2011, 1:04 AM by Wendy Hein
With the official publication of our paper on mobile phones as a tool for ethnographic research , today's post looks at how mobile phones have evolved for consumers and marketers. In this paper, we tell the story of how the functions of a mobile phone evolved in an ethnographic study and argue that mobile phones have great potential for ethnographers and consumer researchers for their presence in everyday life. Technology developments may in fact allow us to merge traditional ethnography with videography and netnography in the future. Taking a look at how we are now using mobile phones as consumers, I can't ignore so many more functions and mobile phone 'apps' that have come to the fore since this study. I'm finding it tough to figure out whom mobile phones serve more: marketers or consumers. The BBC programme on superbrands (see post below) certainly also provided some insights into this.

Let me start with an anecdote: I went to the cinema yesterday to watch the new Transformers movie. Before the film started the announcement to switch of mobile phones - which has now been turned into a sponsorship message - suggested 'when switching off your mobile phone, why not check in?' Now, I know what 'checking in' means, but I wondered why I would check in to the cinema to have everyone know where I am? Ok, maybe it's due to my limited tech literacy, highly influenced by my bordering to both Gen X and Gen Y cohorts- yes I grew up with technology, but I still have to appropriate a lot more skills than someone born in the 90s. Nevertheless, I don't get why I should let everyone know that I'm watching a film at the cinema. Isn't the cinema a place to be left alone for a few hours? Shouldn't you be in the 'here and now', maybe with your friends, with your partner, with others around you at a push when you're in the cinema, and there alone? Now, I understand you may want to share with others that you have watched a film and maybe even what you thought of it (Rosie Huntington whatshername can't act!). But why not use your usual blog/twitter/facebook resource for this? In fact, if I tell everyone where I am at all times, my first thought was that people know when I'm not at home - giving them an opportunity to clean out my house (here's a new entrepreneurial idea - the 'savvy thieves' app - she's watching a film, we have two hours min.). Of course you may want to brag that you're at a concert, at a sporting event or whatever makes others green with envy. But is it always wise to check in? I'm suspicous.

Now, a quick look into new social marketing tools and a bit of common sense tells me that checking in is highly attractive for marketers. They can bombard you with offers, promotions, vouchers, events in your vicinity and entice you to spend that extra time and money wherever you may be. But if we are complaining that we see too many ads and are constantly influenced by marketing messages (and I certainly didn't ask for Mercedes, Gillette, Cisco, and co. product placements in the film - in fact it reminded me of a known Wayne's World scene, that'll tell you my age), in the case of 'checking in' it is our choice to receive these messages . We are inviting marketers more and more into our lives and the border between what a friend recommends and what google adwords produces is blending further. On the one hand we can argue that we are learning to 'play' with marketers by inviting more choice. We may hear about a bar or a shop we never knew was around the corner and, hey, maybe it's happy hour or there's a sale on. With the example of local promotions and vouchers, mobile marketing could allow us to exert our power to bring our custom to whoever is providing the best value for us, in whatever location we are. On the other hand, the blend of marketing messages with what friends recommend produces the most powerful mix known to advertisers - promotion backed up by WOM. Boom, a star is born. All of a sudden we may not be these independent, savvy shoppers we want to be, but duped into doing something because other people tell us to. Then mobile marketing is not about exploiting the exploiter, but about always chasing what's 'cool', and now having constantly more tools at our disposal to let others tell us about it. I see: he's at a football game, hmm, but I'm at a Bon Jovi concert - and yet another friend is travelling to France. Damn, when will I ever win this race? Why not find out for yourself what's cool, and keep it to yourself? No tweet from your phone, no facebook evidence. Whatever happened to that?

If this is one consequence of mobile marketing, ever noticed how difficult it has become to hold somebody's attention? While in the pub, we are busy tweeting and facebooking about our choice of drink, informing others where we are and who with, so that really when you find yourself in a social setting these days it is not any more only with your immediate company. You are surrounded by all your linkedin, facebook, tweet friends... and of course, their friends and friends of their friends. Mobile apps allow us to receive ever more validation or disapproval from outside. When can I ever just be me? With everyone vying for our attention - and us wying for theirs? - are the centres of our identities constantly fleeting, challenged, displaced, anxious? Maybe now and again it's time for us to 'switch off'.

It's probably me, but I'm most comfortable when only a select few know where I am and where I've been....and I hope I'm not a dying breed.