What Do We Mean When We Want “Insight”?

“Insight.” It’s a word that most of us probably use every day. Companies demand “insight,” agencies and consultancies strive to deliver it, and technology companies try to automate it. But insight is hard to define. How do you know when you’ve got it or that you’ve created it? Is it one of those words these days that we use glibly like “analytics” when we really mean “reporting” because it sounds better or more sophisticated? So what exactly is insight, particularly when we are talking about marketing or customer insight, and how’s that different from “analysis”?

Look up the word “insight” in dictionaries and they talk about the ability to discern the true nature of a situation or to understand a complex problem. I think that there’s more to it than that, though. For me these definitions sound more like what I think of when I think of “analysis.” Analysis is about diagnosing and understanding problems and answering questions such as:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?

So What?

These dictionary definitions don’t pass the “so what?” test. What’s the “so what?” test? When faced with a piece of data, ask yourself “so what?” For example: “So what’s that telling me?” and “So what do I do about it?” If you can’t answer the question, then the data isn’t telling you anything useful. The test can also be used to understand the ability to turn information into action. When faced with a request for information, ask: “So if I tell this information, what are you going to do about it?” No answer means no value.

We all inherently believe that insight is powerful and potentially game changing. Insight is more active than passive and is more than just a really interesting finding from a piece of analysis that no one ever knew before. It might be really interesting; it might be new, but…so what? Unless something is done with it or about it, then it’s nothing more than an interesting fact.

I remember listening to the head of the marketing services function of a large company talk for 40 minutes about the nature and meaning of “insight.” He talked about what insight was and why it was hard to deliver. The conclusion he came to was that insight is “contextualised information that changes behavior.” That definition rang true for me, as I’ve always thought that analysis without any subsequent action can’t be considered to be insight.

Real insight leads to some kind of change, either in the way that a company acts or its customers behave. That’s why companies demand it and that’s why it’s hard to deliver. It’s hard to deliver because information that changes behavior rarely comes from a single source. Insight is the compound effect of the analysis and interpretation of multiple sources of data. Data integration is still a big issue for a number of companies. If you think about it in the digital marketing industry, how much “insight” comes from a Web analytics system? Probably not a lot but when combined with other data from voice of the customer programs, customer databases, user testing, and so on – it’s the cumulative impact can lead to insights that change behavior.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop using the word “insight” and start using something else instead. I do think it’s worth, however, stopping every now and then and asking ourselves, “Well, if that’s insight, what’s going to change as a result?”

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