Tech Is Easy, People Are Hard: Behavioral Design Considerations to Improve Mobile Engagement

By Cathy Richards

Mobile platforms are often a go-to when it comes to monitoring and evaluation in developing communities and markets. One provider of these platforms, Echo Mobile, is often asked, “what sort of response rate can I expect for my SMS survey?” or, “what percentage of my audience will engage my IVR initiative?” In this session at MERL Tech DC in September, Boris Maguire, CEO of Echo Mobile, walked participants through various case studies which highlight that the answer to that question largely depends on the project’s individual context and that there is ultimately no one size fits all solution. 

Echo Mobile is a platform that allows users to have powerful conversations over SMS, voice, and USSD for purposes such as monitoring and evaluation, field reporting, feedback, information access, market research and customer service. The platform’s user segments include consumer goods (20%), education and health (16%), M&E/Research (15%), agriculture and conservation (14%), finance and consulting (13%) and media and advocacy (7%). Its user types are primarily business (35%), non-profit (31%) and social enterprises (29%). 

The team at Echo Mobile has learned that regardless of the chosen mobile engagement technology, achieving MERL goals often rests on the design and psychology behind the mobile engagement strategy – the content, tone, language, and timing of communications and the underlying incentives of the audience. More often than not, the most difficult parts in mobile engagement are the human aspects (psychological, emotional, strategic) rather than the technological implementation. 

Because of this, Echo Mobile chose to dive deeper into the factors they believed influenced mobile engagement the most. Some of their beliefs included:

  • Responder characteristics: Who are you trying to engage with? It’s important to figure out who you are engaging with and tailor your strategy to them.
  • Social capital and trust: Do these responders have a reason to trust you? What is the nature of your relationship with them?
  • Style, tone & content: What specific words are you using to engage with them? Are you showing that you want to know more and that you care about them?
  • Convenience: What is the level of effort, time and resources that responders have to invest in order to engage with your organization?
  • Incentives/relevance: Do they have a reason to engage with your organization? Do they think you’ll understand them better? Will they get more of what they need?

Through informal analysis, Echo Mobile found that the factors most highly correlated with high rates of engagement are the time of day in which recipients receive the messaging, followed by reminders to engage. Financial incentives were found to be the least effective. However, case studies prove that context ultimately adds the most important component of the mobile engagement strategy.

In the first case study, a BBOXX team in Rwanda sought to understand the welfare impact of solar consumption amongst their customers via SMS surveys. They first ran a set of small experiments, modifying survey financial incentives, timing, length, and language to see which moved the needle on response rates and compare the results to what customers told them in focus groups. In this case, Echo Mobile found that reminders in the morning and surveys in the evening nearly doubled their response rates. The choice to opt or dive in also affected response rates.

In the second case study, a UN agency nearly doubled SMS engagement rates from 40,000 Kenyan teachers by dropping financial incentives and tweaking the structure, tone and content of their messaging. In this case, incentive amounts once again did not do much to increase engagement but rather the ability to opt or dive in, reminders, and content/tone made the biggest difference. 

In short, Echo Mobile’s biggest takeaways are that:

  • Convenience is king
  • One can harass but not bore
  • Financial incentives are often overrated

Several participants also shared their experiences with mobile engagement and cited factors such as survey length and consent as important. 

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