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The last 10 years will go down in history as the decade when the digital age actually took root. This was the year the world was, for the first time, dominated by internet-driven things, from social media to smartphones; voice-enabled devices to augmented and virtual reality; and everything else associated with them. And their influence on our society as a whole was and continues to be all-encompassing.

This global shift in consumer behaviour has been reciprocated by market researchers, who are increasingly adopting digital methods to gather insights and, in turn, enabling brands to connect with their consumers in whole new ways. This is evident from the fact that 22% of global market research in 2018 was digital, according to the ESOMAR 2018 report.

However, the shift to digital research habits has not been uniform across the globe. In Africa, only 2% of market research is digital.

Rise of Digital Africa

Today, African nations are among countries with the fastest internet adoption rates in the world. According to a GSMA survey, 66% of sub-Saharan Africa will have smartphone connections by 2025, while mobile internet users are estimated to grow from 239m in 2018 to 483m in 2025.

When narrowed down to a larger African economy such as South Africa, these figures rival even developed countries. For instance, South African internet users spend significantly more time online than Americans or Germans (almost 2 times more), according to a Hootsuite’s Global State of Digital report

Our Digital Behaviour Study across LSM in South Africa reveals that the number of online shoppers has grown 2.5 times from 2009 to 2019. On the same line, 72% of South African consumers prefer to shop online alone, which is once again higher than in the US and EU.

These stats make it evident that digital adoption in Africa is not only on the rise but already has a significant hold among consumers, especially in larger economies such as Nigeria and South Africa.

The advantages of digital market research

Even as large sections of consumers in key African markets are available online for brands to connect with, digital research in sorely lagging – despite high readiness and the technology already being available. Following are some great reasons why this needs to change.

Faster as well as reliable data collection

One of the reasons for poor adoption of digital research is misplaced perceptions. It is commonly acknowledged that digital research is faster but not much more. On the contrary, it has been observed to offer a far greater depth of insight and highly improved data quality compared to traditional research.

In one study carried out by Borderless Access, where respondents had to recall an action they had performed and report it, it was observed that modern, device-agnostic online research methods applied by us yielded a higher percentage of responses as compared to CATI.

Device-Agnostic Online Research Methods

Since digital research allows participants to give their responses as and when an action is performed, the results are more reliable since the respondents no longer have to recall actions they might have performed much earlier, which is an improvement over traditional methods where researchers have to rely on respondents’ memory which can oftentimes be unreliable.

Online digital panels and samples

Online digital panels provide a faster way for researchers to access samples. Furthermore, intelligently profiling samples based on responses, behaviour and available demographic data makes the process faster and more efficient. The use of machine learning and automation can further accelerate and simplify the process of assigning the most appropriate set of respondents based on the study requirements and even let researchers know the feasibility of studies upfront.

Greater flexibility and higher engagement

Traditional F2F research is typically done at a set period of date and time depending on the availability of respondents. In contrast, digital collection is constant, and this allows researchers to target more precisely, to adapt and be more flexible with time. For instance, real-time status dashboards can be monitored to make changes to sub-samples on the go for a more reliable outcome.

Traditional F2F Research

Respondent engagement is another area that sees vast improvement with digital research. We have recorded a marked improvement in respondent engagement time when they are allowed to participate in their own time, throughout the day. And this can be made possible through dynamic surveys where machine learning can be used to automatically push out questions to individuals based on their propensity to answer questions during certain times of the day.

Case Study: Real-time monitoring of cooking behaviour among South Africans

The effectiveness and importance of digital online research in African nations is well established by our work with Unilever, Africa. The goal of the 5-day diary study was two-fold:

  • To provide Unilever with real-time, in-the-moment consumer behaviour and preferences data to measure the changes in cooking behaviour of consumers
  • Help them identify the right audience category, their path-to-purchase, substantiated with rich media, for the launch of a new meal-kit product

The research methodology

The 5-day diary study, covering 2 weekends and 3 weekdays, involved 300 people with an LSM of 7+ and aged over 25 years, who prepare meals at home. A minimum of 50 responses per day per occasion (lunch and dinner) were needed.

During the study, spread across 13 South African cities, empirical data was gathered based on observations and mobile diaries were maintained by creating online communities. The latter enabled the collection of multiple responses from the same respondents on different occasions in real-time and made analysing information from different times of the day for lunch and dinner simpler.

The real-time nature of the survey was also beneficial in the way that it enabled us to carry out iterative and adaptive research.

The observations

Several significant observations were made, which directly influenced our client’s decision making.

  • We were able to measure the changes in behaviour in terms of food preparation over the years
  • We were able to link meal types to attributes such as health and convenience, as perceived by the respondents
  • Through meal time mapping in real-time, we could see the different meal choices influenced by occasion and various other attributes
  • The sharing of rich, in-the-moment images of the cooking process further provided valuable insights

The mapping of data in real-time and the sharing of rich, digital information was particularly advantageous for the client, as mentioned by Claire Bekker, CMI Foods and Refreshments Lead, Africa, Unilever, “Before, using traditional methods, we would have said ‘what did you prepare yesterday?’ As we know, that’s always difficult to remember, and potentially good insights could have been excluded. In comparison, in the case study, we received responses – as well as rich imagery – very soon after the cooking occasion…some within 2 hours after the meal was prepared.”

The outcome of the study

The most obvious benefit of the digital study was gaining access to a much wider audience with high-quality data and rich actionable insights.

Owing to the digital nature of the research study, logical and discreet patterns emerged for various survey attributes in relation to the time of the day and geo-locations. The results were also more accurate as a result and the insights were more reliable and actionable.

In a time-sensitive industry such as FMCG where timely insights are critical to stay ahead and win in the market place, the use of digital tools enabled the client to gather the complex set of results it required for its new product strategy in mere days, which further helped them to connect will consumers at the right time and using the right message to make a bigger brand impact.


Africa is well-suited for digital market research, due to both its logistical constraints, which make carrying our F2F research difficult in certain regions, as well as the growing penetration of internet and handheld devices, which have become the primary mode for connecting to the Internet.

Furthermore, the study demonstrates the flexibility of digital research techniques, which can be exploited to open up opportunities for new creative methods for gathering rich and actionable consumer insights.