We Have Met The People Meter, And It Is Us: Mobile Apps Change The Data Game

The emergence of the smartphone as the next great media platform is also poised to change consumer data-profiling and -gathering as we know it. While retailers are scrambling to defend themselves against the assault of the always-connected, super-savvy consumer in Aisle 3, there is another data picture here. All those people using apps and mobile Web sites to research goods, compare prices and construct shopping lists are also casting off enormous numbers of data sets about crucial decision points in their purchase paths.

We are now able to watch people move from inspiration to research to planning to purchase on a single device. For more than a decade we have seen metrics companies like Nielsen try to install panels of people-meter-equipped consumers and households that track this consumption trajectory. Guess what? Now almost half of Americans actually carry their own people meter in their pocket. The issue now is how to gather that data in privacy-respectful ways that actually benefit both consumer and marketer.

All this came to mind when I saw that the enormously popular Dinner Spinner meal planning app from AllRecipes got a major upgrade last week. The cool new feature is a built-in grocery scanner technology that lets people craft recipes from what they have on hand or see in the supermarket. Scan a product like a can of peas, and the Dinner Spinner can spin up possible recipes. That simple act can tie a specific product to a user’s profile and start building interesting information about consumer behaviors for marketers.

Intrigued by the possibilities here, I asked AllRecipes strategists to share some of their thinking about how the data from these kinds of app-based tools and meal planning could craft new data sets for brands to ponder. There are already some striking patterns that an app like AllRecipes reveals. For instance, the company sent me a graph of its daily mobile traffic, and for every weekday the curve is freakishly similar: a radical peak of activity at 3 p.m,  and then a very sharp decline thereafter. The sweet spot for reaching people planning meals is as predictable as sunset. Also important is that weekend activity escalates, so it is clear how apps start replacing desktops very markedly on Saturday and Sunday when as many people are out food shopping.  

According to AllRecipes one in four people accessing their content now is coming from a mobile device. And the Dinner Spinner app is the most popular food-related app in the Lifestyle section of the iTunes app store. The company claims over 12 million downloads. More than half of the app’s users are opening it in the grocery store to see their shopping lists or check recipes.

But when you have people actually scanning specific UPCs as part of this meal planning process, what kinds of data does it cast off, and how can it be used by marketers? Dan Dillinger, director of sales at AllRecipes, gives me a walkthrough. “Allrecipes apps already allowed us to show search-to-store interactions, and now with the scanner, we’re able to connect this information directly to the brands' individual products,” he says. “Previously, when a home cook searched a recipe, we were able to see the search terms, pages viewed, the recipe added to a recipe box, then added to a shopping list -- and from a mobile device, we could tell when the home cook checked each item off their list as they added it to their shopping cart," he adds.

"Now, with the scanner, we can take that one step further, connecting the brand of each item scanned directly to saves, shopping lists and fulfillment. This is fantastic for our partners, as it connects their brand directly to a massive selection of recipes and provides great insights into exactly what home cooks are cooking with their ingredients.”

And this is not an app feature that is ultimatelymore about the marketer than the consumer. Since many of us face the evening conundrum of “What's for dinner?” as a kind of puzzle with just a few pieces visible, the app provides a real service. It leverages the technology to address a real use case. What do I do with a can of beets and two onions, and rice?

On the marketing side, the injection of ever-more sophisticated product scanning tools on highly mobile, personal devices opens up worlds of new possibilities for building consumer profiles. Dillinger says that brands have been using AllRecipes for a while as a lower-funnel branding platform because the site engages people within hours or even minutes of their purchase. But the sheer granularity of this emerging smartphone model adds another layer. “Being able to provide geo, time of day, seasonal and matched recipe data to CPG brands will help them determine when and where to market individual products and how they can better connect their brand to the consumer's everyday cooking, shopping and eating habits,” he says. For AllRecipes, it helps the company identify very precisely what ingredients people are struggling with.  

It goes without saying that recipe apps are amazingly well positioned to reach consumers at that critical point of purchase -- when they are actually in the supermarket aisle. What will be even more interesting is how mobile platforms generally give us amazing new insights into the complete purchase cycle of consumers -- an opportunity not just to track and target, but to build genuinely useful new tools for consumers.

We have met the people meter -- and it is us.

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3 comments about "We Have Met The People Meter, And It Is Us: Mobile Apps Change The Data Game ".
  1. Nick D from ___ , April 13, 2012 at 12:10 p.m.
    Interesting article, and interesting points. But you do overlook a couple of hurdles.
    Firstly, we've seen with comScore's efforts to track mobile use that Apple's proprietary approach to apps, tracking and data can be a major problem with trying to see a unified set of data. Until there's more openness from Apple in particular (but also to a lesser extent from Microsoft with WP, I guess), we'll struggle to draw a complete picture.
    Secondly, that point of unified - even when successful, we'll still just have a mobile data set. It won't be a unifed pan-device data set, and so there will be duplication.
    But as you say, it's a start, and the possibilities are there to even use mobile phones to track exposure to *other* media (a PPM app on your iphone tracking TV exposure, for example).
  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , April 13, 2012 at 1:34 p.m.
    Just please figure out what your want to buy and not clog up the aisles ( that supermarkets keep making smaller) with your shopping carts so everybody can move along.
  3. Doug Garnett from Atomic Direct , April 13, 2012 at 5:09 p.m.
    I think there's an even more fundamental problem. When we do online surveys, we find there is a clear psychographic and category interest skew in the people who respond. In other words, it's only really, really interested people who respond. So, they don't reflect general population within our target segment (unless we care only about those specifics). This gets FAR, FAR worse when collecting data through apps. Can you really make $100M decisions based on feedback gathered from (or by watching) a very narrow, oddly incentivized population? Not if you want to succeed.