What Is ‘Insight’?

“Insight.” It’s a word that most of us probably use every day. Client companies demand insight, agencies and consultancies strive to deliver it. But what is it and how do you know when you’ve got it? Or have 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?

It’s interesting how the vernacular and language of the marketing research and information services business has changed over the years. When I started out (sometime in the previous century), at the end of the data presentation we would present a “summary,” then we started to present our “conclusions,” which was a shift from a statement of the key facts to an opinion as to their significance. We then strove to deliver “more value” by providing “recommendations” as well, which was an additional opinion as to what we believed the client should do about our conclusions. The trouble was that the recommendations as such were not often very well-informed, as you were often only addressing a problem with a single set of data and therefore only looking at it through a particular lens.

Round about the turn of this century, the word “insight” suddenly burst onto the scene. Everyone got really excited about it and started to change the name of their departments and their jobs. Market research departments became customer insight departments but apart from that nothing else much changed. The same job was being done, pretty much in the same way. So what exactly is insight, particularly when we are talking about marketing or customer insight?

The standard definitions of insight talk about the ability to discern the true nature of a situation or to understand a complex problem. I think we think that there’s more to it than that though. For me, these definitions don’t pass the “so what?” test. The “so what?” test is one that I coach my analysts and clients to use. When faced with a piece of data, ask yourself, “so what?” 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.

This view of insight was reinforced to me a couple of weeks ago when attending a meeting set up by a client with all their research agencies and consultancies. The head of the marketing services function spent 40 minutes talking about “insight.” He talked about what insight was in his opinion and why it was hard to deliver. He talked about insight as being “contextualized information that changes behavior.”

That definition rang true for me as I’ve often talked about “analysis without action is not insight.” Real insight leads to change in the way that a company or its customers behave, and that’s why clients demand it and 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. That’s why our recommendations all those years ago were pretty facile most of the time; it was because we didn’t have enough of the facts. 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, and user testing the cumulative impact can lead to insights that change behavior.

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

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