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Mobile Passive Behavioral Data: Opportunities and Pitfalls

Posted by Chris Neal on Tue, Jul 21, 2015

By Chris Neal and Dr. Jay Weiner

Hands with phonesAs I wrote in last week’s post, we recently conducted an analysis of mobile wallet use in the U.S. To make it interesting, we used unlinked passive mobile behavioral data alongside survey-based data.In this post, I’ve teamed up with Jay Weiner—our VP of Analytics who helped me torture analyze the mobile passive behavioral data for this Mobile Wallet study—to share some of the typical challenges you may face when working with passive mobile behavioral data (or any type of passive behavioral data for that matter) along with some best practices for dealing with these challenges:

  1. Not being able to link mobile usage to individualsThere’s a lot of online passive data out there (mobile app usage ratings, web usage ratings by device type, social media monitoring, etc.) that is at the aggregate level and cannot be reliably attributed to individuals. These data have value, to be sure, but aggregate traffic data can sometimes be very misleading. This is why—for the Mobile Wallet project CMB did—we sourced mobile app and mobile web usage from the Research Now mobile panel where it is possible to attribute mobile usage data to individuals (and have additional profiling information on these individuals). 

    When you’re faced with aggregate level data that isn’t linked to individuals, we recommend either getting some sample from a mobile usage panel in order to understand and calibrate your results better and/or doing a parallel survey-sampling so you can make more informed assumptions (this holds true for aggregate search trend data, website clickstream data, and social media listening tools).
  1. Unstacking the passive mobile behavioral data. Mobile behavioral data that is linked to individuals typically comes in “stacked” form, i.e., every consumer tracked has many different records: one for each active mobile app or mobile website session. Analyzing this data in its raw form is very useful for understanding overall mobile usage trends. What these stacked behavioral data files do not tell you, however, is the reach or incidence (e.g., how many people or the percentage of an addressable market) of any given mobile app/website. It also doesn’t tell you the mobile session frequency or duration characteristics of different consumer types nor does it allow you to profile types of people with different mobile behaviors. 

    Unstacking a mobile behavioral data file can sometimes end up being a pretty big programming task, so we recommend deciding upfront exactly which apps/websites you want to “unstack.” A typical behavioral data file that tracks all smartphone usage during a given period of time can involve thousands of different apps and websites. . .and the resulting unstacked data file covering all of these could quickly become unwieldy.
  1. Beware the outlier! Unstacking a mobile behavioral data file will reveal some pretty extreme outliers. We all know about outliers, right? In survey research, we scrub (or impute) open-ended quant responses that are three standard deviations higher than the mean response, we take out some records altogether if they claim to be planning to spend $6 billion on their next smartphone purchase, and so on. But outliers in passive data can be quite extreme. In reviewing the passive data for this particular project, I couldn’t help but recall that delightful Adobe Marketing ad in which a baby playing with his parents’ tablet repeatedly clicks the “buy” button for an encyclopedia company’s e-commerce site, setting off a global stock bubble. 

    Here is a real-world example from our mobile wallet study that illustrates just how wide the range is of mobile behaviors across even a limited group of consumers: the overall “average” time spent using a mobile wallet app was 162 minutes, but the median time was only 23 minutes. A very small (<1% of total) portion of high-usage individuals created an average that grossly inflated the true usage snapshot of the majority of users. One individual spent over 3,000 minutes using a mobile wallet app.
  1. Understand what is (and what is not) captured by a tracking platform. Different tracking tools do different things and produce different data to analyze. In general, it’s very difficult to capture detailed on-device usage for iOS devices. . .most platforms set up a proxy that instead captures and categorizes the IP addresses that the device transmits data to/from. In our Mobile Wallet study, as one example, our mobile behavioral data did not pick up any Apple Pay usage because it leverages NFC to conduct the transaction between the smartphone and the NFC terminal at the cash register (without any signal ever being transmitted out to the mobile web or to any external mobile app, which is how the platform captured mobile usage).   There are a variety of tricks of the trade to account for these phenomenon and to adjust your analysis so you can get close to a real comparison, but you need to understand what things aren’t picked up by passive metering in order to apply them correctly.
  1. Categorize apps and websites. Needless to say, there are many different mobile apps and websites that people use, and many of these do a variety of different things and are used for a variety of different purposes. Additionally, the distribution of usage across many niche apps and websites is often not useful for any meaningful insights work unless these are bundled up into broader categories. 

    Some panel sources—including Research Now’s mobile panel—have existing mobile website and app categories, which are quite useful. For many custom projects, however, you’ll need to do the background research ahead of time in order to have meaningful categories to work with. Fishing expeditions are typically not a great analysis plan in any scenario, but they are out of the question if you’re going to dive into a big mobile usage data file.

    As you work to create meaningful categories for analysis, be open to adjusting and iterating. A certain group of specific apps might not yield the insight you were looking for. . .learn from the data you see during this process then try new groupings of apps and websites accordingly.
  1. Consider complementary survey sampling in parallel with behavioral analysis. During our iterative process of attempting to categorize mobile apps from reviewing passive mobile behavioral data, we were relieved to have a complementary survey sampling data set that helped us make some very educated guesses about how or why people were using different apps. For example, PayPal has a very successful mobile app that is widely used for a variety of reasons—peer-to-peer payments, ecommerce payments, and, increasingly, for “mobile wallet” payments at a physical point of sale. The passive behavioral data we had could not tell us what proportion of different users’ PayPal mobile app usage was for which purpose. That’s a problem because if we were relying on passive data alone to tell our clients what percent of smartphone users have used a mobile wallet to pay at a physical point of sale, we could come up with grossly inflated numbers. As an increasing number of mobile platforms add competing functionality (e.g., Facebook now has mobile payments functionality), this will remain a challenge.

    Passive tracking platforms will no doubt crack some of these challenges accurately, but some well-designed complementary survey sampling can go a long way towards helping you read the behavioral tea leaves with greater confidence. It can also reveal differences between actual vs. self-reported behavior that are valuable for businesses (e.g., a lot of people may say they really want a particular mobile functionality when asked directly, but if virtually no one is actually using existing apps that provide this functionality then perhaps your product roadmap can live without it for the next launch).

Want to learn more about the future of Mobile Wallet? Join us for a webinar on August 19, and we’ll share our insights with you!

Chris Neal leads CMB’s Tech Practice. He judges every survey he takes and every website he visits by how it looks on his 4” smartphone screen, and has sworn off buying a larger “phablet” screen size because it wouldn’t fit well in his Hipster-compliant skinny jeans.

Dr. Jay heads up the analytics group at CMB. He opted for the 6 inch “phablet” and baggy jeans.  He does look stupid talking to a brick. He’s busy trying to compute which event has the higher probability: his kids texting him back or his kids completing an online questionnaire. Every month, he answers your burning market research questions in his column: Dear Dr. Jay. Got a question? Ask it here!

Want to learn more about combining survey data with passive mobile behavioral data? Watch our recent webinar with Research Now that discusses these findings in depth.

Watch Now!

Topics: advanced analytics, methodology, data collection, mobile, Dear Dr. Jay, webinar, passive data