As we close the book on 2014 and look ahead to 2015, what topics are top-of-mind for marketing researchers? In mid-November, we put out the call to researchers from around the globe, on the qual side and the quant side, to get their answers to the following questions. Many thanks to all who participated and sorry we didn’t have room for all of your insightful comments here. On that note, we’ll feature more responses in an article in a January edition of our e-newsletter, so watch your in-boxes.

Quirk’s: What’s your general feeling about the state of the marketing research and insights discipline for the coming year? Hopeful? Pessimistic? What makes you feel that way?

Diane Bowers, president, Council of American Survey Research Organizations: I’m optimistic about the opportunities we have for our industry, including research businesses and the profession. However, I still believe we are challenged by an uncertain economy that keeps us hesitant about exploring and investing in these opportunities.

Jeri Smith, president and CEO of Communicus Inc., Tucson, Ariz.: I’m very bullish about the state of the industry. Marketers, and those who reside within the C-suite, have a sense that the world is changing faster than they are able to keep up with and they have a hunger for insights to inform their decision-making. The market research and insights industry has the opportunity to take on an expanded role, consolidating multiple data sources and telling simple stories that produce the “aha” moments marketers and brand managers rely on. Researchers who can deliver on these promises will increasingly be invited to the table as companies plot their future courses. Researchers are also beginning to realize that forward-looking is of greater value than simply analyzing numbers from a rearview-mirror perspective. To the extent that our focus shifts in this direction, research will be providing far greater value to the C-suite.

Adam Rossow, partner, head of marketing, iModerate, Denver: I truly think it’s what we make of it. If we are able to adapt and help organizations be more consumer-centric in a way that works with their current data sources then the sky is the limit. If we are rigid and pigeonhole ourselves into ad hoc project work then we are doomed to vendor status and easily replicable and replaceable. That said, I’m very optimistic about qualitative. The more data our clients lean on, big or otherwise, the more they are going to need context, meaning and reasoning.

Huw Hepworth, group account director, Painted Dog Research, Perth, Australia: On balance I’m optimistic but I’m also aware a lot of hard work is required to reap any rewards. It’s the same as it always is: As an industry we’ll have to continue to prove our relevance to clients in order to keep working for them while also keeping the burden on respondents/participants as low as we can so that they remain engaged. Budgets will be squeezed, as they always are; competition will be fierce, as it always is; and we have to keep innovating and improving in what we do.

Steve Raebel, president, fieldwork, Chicago: I am hopeful, I am always hopeful. Do I have reason to be? I’m not sure. As the economy continues to recover, I think corporate clients will have more and more confidence in the stability of the economy and will continue to invest in research for new and existing products and services. Even given this, I only expect moderate growth in the industry in the short term. This assumes we avoid another government shutdown or significant escalation of foreign hostilities.

What are some of the main factors shaping the direction of the MR and insights function these days and how do they impact the industry and its members?

Diane Bowers: I think we should re-commit to our inherent ability to investigate and innovate and be more entrepreneurial. That doesn’t mean we abandon our rigor or our tested and proven methodologies. Rather, we need to adapt – or perhaps adopt – emerging technologies and techniques. We must continue to analyze and accommodate change while maintaining the integrity of our core inherent strengths.

Peter Harris, managing director, Vision Critical APAC: A number of factors are shaping the industry. Budgets are getting slimmer, more technology is available to help capture insight about customers, from business intelligence to social media analytics. Regardless, the opportunity is large for insight professionals. Firstly, customer insight has never been more important. Representative, accurate and holistic insight is in the hands of MR professionals, so while their budgets may be shrinking, they have never been more meaningful to other areas of business with increased budgets, like the CMO. Additionally, while there are many options to truly learn about customer behavior, only customer intelligence provides quick and robust insight into why consumers do the things they do. Social media only captures a small portion of a customer base and there is only so much CRM and BI technology a business can use before it actually has to ask its customers “Why?”

Steve Raebel: The price pressure has been making it more difficult [for research companies] to remain profitable and has begun to weed out the less-skilled researchers, both at the consulting level and the fielding level. This has created a buyer’s market for research as [research companies] are more and more willing to accept lower prices. My hope is that this process is beginning to stabilize and supply is becoming more equal to the demand. The 2008 recession slowed corporate spending and the recovery has been slow. Unfortunately, I don’t think our economy and the confidence in it is there yet but it’s getting close. When it does turn around, I believe we then will be in the enviable situation of having a higher demand for research than the supply of researchers and prices – and profits – will begin to rise. I just don’t see that happening [in 2015].

Marcus Jiménez, founder and CEO, StickyDocs, Denver: One influential factor I believe shaping the industry is the shift to absolute brevity in reporting. With corporate culture’s incessant need for bite-sized learning, the ability to build deep, contextual understanding through story and narrative is being challenged, and in many cases, sacrificed. Insights should be easy to grasp, that is without question. However, story and narrative are proven to be the greatest forms in retaining concepts, but they mandate time and context. Yet too often this is unfortunately the first thing on the chopping block.

Adam Rossow: I think the [corporate] MR and insights function is so burdened in terms of individual projects that they barely have enough time to pick their head up, see how it all works together and look for the bigger picture. While they would like to be more consultative and prove their worth, it’s challenging to do so when they don’t have any room to explore and analyze outside the confines of specific objectives. This impacts us, the research firms, because clients aren’t necessarily looking for a strategic partner as much as a vendor that can help them tick through items on their task lists quickly.

David McCallum, managing partner, Gordon & McCallum, and board director, Australian Market and Social Research Society: To be honest, the focus on driving down costs – and timelines – has been with us since Day 1. When was the last time you heard “The market has got less competitive” or that “Clients have become more relaxed about when they get their data and how much they spend”? The pressure comes from the growth in data sources and the learning time needed to master new approaches and methods, coupled, in part, with downsizing due to market consolidation from mergers. The net effect is that there are less “people hours” to exploit the possibilities, as few executives have the time to assimilate all available information to deliver actionable findings that essentially determine the ROI on research spend in the customers’ (clients’) eyes.

Patrick George, CEO, Askia, Paris: We hear everywhere that surveys should be shorter but our observation is that they are longer and longer. We have also noticed a much larger number of attempts to cheat through surveys to get rewards, which is worrying. There will be an industry need for proper responses – that does not mean better financial rewards for panelists [as some are already trying to be professional respondents] but rather finding panelists who really want to give valid responses.

Did you learn or discover anything in 2014 that surprised you or substantially altered your view of MR and its current and future status?

Mark Sumpter, president, Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA): There’s a prevailing myth that online research studies are far less expensive than in-person and with small to medium projects, that doesn’t often hold true. Online may save travel expenses and time but the labor and skills required to design the study, collect the data and derive insights are the same whether the interview is face-to-face or conducted remotely. As came up at our recent QRCA conference, focus groups are not dead and never will be. Clients still yearn for the face-to-face.

Adam Rossow: I’m surprised that we – the research industry – haven’t taken more of a leadership position on some of these huge trends – big data, mobile, social. It seems like we talk about them a lot but we are still waiting for the chips to fall before we truly innovate or put ourselves out there. It seems like we are dipping our toes in the water for an extremely long time. If we don’t dive in, somebody else will.

David McCallum: I’ve been surprised by the sheer extent to which big tech companies are playing with data mining and various forms of passive measurement – Google Glass, etc. They aren’t doing this for MR purposes per se but they could “accidentally” disenfranchise part of our industry, as MR is only playing lip-service to these trends.

Scott Layne, president, the Marketing Workshop, Norcross, Ga.: What we observe is that, while technology has created an opportunity for more robust and substantive analytics – with more powerful software, techniques and much more data – clients tend to be earlier in the adoption curve than we expected at this point. Two reasons for this jump out to us. First, with the economy still fighting its way back, clients are still somewhat cautious about spending more than they may have in the past for their research, despite the return that they may realize. Second, the DIY trend has slowed the adoption of more advanced techniques and approaches, as most DIY tools are not designed for much advanced data mining or predictive analytics, for example.

What would you like to learn more about or investigate in 2015? What’s got you curious?

Diane Bowers: The use and value of social media in research. Big data and research, of course. How to adapt current research business models to accommodate Millennials – the future research leaders.

Mark Sumpter: How companies are structuring their marketing research – do they see marketing research as a collective goal or do they value segmenting that responsibility by department, by methodology, by channel, etc.?

Jackie Lorch, vice president, global knowledge management, SSI, Shelton, Conn.: I’m interested in doing more research on cultural effects, both because more and more of the annual projects we complete at SSI are global and because these effects impact the entire span of the research process, from how we recruit participants, how we select and quota sample, how we word questions, construct scales, interpret responses and assess the quality of those responses.

Across the globe, for instance, there has been industry concern about fraudulent responses from China. A closer understanding of cultural nuances could help us separate true fraud from poor-quality data caused by our ignorance in question wording, targeting or data interpretation. To take just one example, our SSI Chinese colleagues explain that in China addresses are constructed in a way opposite to much of the rest of the world: you start with a large geography then drill down to the final most specific data point. This makes a difference to how people perceive their home’s physical location and thus how they might answer geolocation questions.

As we improve our questionnaires with gamification and participant-friendly design, differences in how we view the world through our local lenses could impact the data. More and more participants today are choosing mobile for their survey-taking and we are reaching people by mobile who may have never taken surveys before, creating even more urgency to get these details right.

Patrick George: I am excited about wearable technology and its impact on ethnography.

David McCallum: I'm interested in the interface between traditional surveys – the “what people are doing” – and passive measurement – the why/when – maybe from the further integration of mobile and neuro-biometric methods.

Scott Layne: Video is an area in which we have just begun to scratch the surface. Real-time video communication is poised to become one of the most transformative technologies since the Internet. It is clear that video communications is the closest technology to physically being present with those with whom you are communicating. Video has many potentially useful applications in our industry, from gathering, communicating and reporting information. Video is powerful and can be a key tool for how we capture and transfer knowledge.

What skills or qualities should researchers learn or enhance to stay fresh and relevant in the coming year?

Peter Harris: Traditional researchers should challenge themselves to think differently; 50+ page reports don’t work; 100-question surveys don’t work. What we did before doesn’t work in today’s modern, customer-driven world. We need to evolve from delivering statistics and data points to creating stories of real value that can be shared across the enterprise.

Jeri Smith: As the media landscape becomes more complex, the industry has focused on measuring exposure opportunities to help marketers sort through all of the buying choices. Combine this with the push to single-source data – in which exposure opportunities are paired with sales outcomes – and the actual human being who is the consumer is potentially lost in the sea of data. The consumer’s perspective can blur and lack focus – what moves her, why does she seek out particular advertising and brand experiences?

Insights professionals, who are being asked to concentrate on deriving insights from big data sources, need to continue to represent the heart, soul and mind of the consumer.

This is also where tools can be of great value, for example, consumer-generated videos crafted into stories to illuminate the real, live consumer to senior management. But within this context, researchers carry a great responsibility to be accurate in their representations. Stories are very powerful and have the ability to mislead if they are not produced with great care and attention to the real consumer to whom they are giving a voice. This is just one of the areas in which art and science combine – the blend of which will be an even more important skill set for researchers in 2015 and beyond.

Mark Sumpter: Qualitative researchers specifically need to stay in front of the wave of change. Those who continue to offer clients the same old-school approaches to finding valuable insights will be left behind those willing to show success using new tools. The good news is that the fundamental rules and methods of data collection and interviewing remain the same. It is the tools that are changing. Having an updated toolbox is the best gift a quallie can give to clients this year.

Marcus Jimenez: I think something critical for researchers to consider exploring is their own creative sides in how can they bring their data and insights to life. What will become more and more critical in the future is not just an ability to find the right insights but also getting your teams to put those insights to work quickly and effectively. We ask our research clients to consider their data more as content than numbers on a spreadsheet. How can you as a researcher become more versed in the abundance of tools available that you can leverage to breathe life into your insights? It won’t only be fun, it’ll be absolutely necessary to make your insights stick as your team must now compete like any other for its share of attention from internal audiences.

Adam Rossow: I would say that researchers need to do better research – not in terms of the specific projects that we conduct but the type that necessitates looking at other data sources, embedding ourselves in companies, looking at what’s going on in the world, etc. This type of research is necessary to be more holistic and properly portray findings in the larger picture. Simply put, researchers need to be more informed as to how what we capture fits in the mix.

David McCallum: Keep building on the basics. Looking for meaningful patterns in numbers doesn’t change with technology. We’re using less-scientific methods for sample selection so we need triangulation systems to check that our data source is generalizable if not projectable. Build the skills that will prevent clients from going 100 percent DIY. And [research] companies need to find ways to fund the trial of new methods rather than waiting for a client to fund a study out of interest.

Scott Layne: Research practitioners will always need to hone their skills in the areas of research design, synthesizing information and interpreting consumer attitudes and behaviors. The skills that will be necessary moving forward will address the ability to illustrate information so that it can be consumed instantly. Developing or acquiring skills that enable data to be visualized and accessible for dissemination instantly and directly will be key.