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What is this thing called “Insight”?

Insight is arguably the most important output of any Market Research project, but how do you define an insight? Here is the simple take by a client-side researcher.


By Edward Appleton

So much has been written about the definition of an insight, it’s difficult to imagine saying something original or (couldn’t resist this) insightful.

However, it’s arguably the most important output of any MR project – every MROC, every algorithm, every text analytics program needs to generate insights.

So – here’s my very simple take:

1. An insight is invariably below the surface. It isn’t immediately visible or apparent.

2. An insight isn’t already common knowledge or part of prevailing wisdom

3. An insight leads to a new opportunity or growth potential that can be effectively exploited.

Examples of insights:

Coffee marketing discovered that the smell of coffee was the most important factor even though you drink coffee, it’s not a perfume. This lead to a focus on the celebration of aroma.

Washing up liquid: the focus on the sparkle of glasses (wine glasses) came from the insight that you can most clearly and easily see with glass if it’s really clean or not. It’s about light, not dirt.

Are Market Researchers good at uncovering Insights? We all know about fulfilling a brief – hitting the objectives.

I’d say that almost every project I’ve ever worked on in market research has uncovered an insight that actually wasn’t in the brief – road-side stuff, so to speak.

Maybe we should consider documenting not just what was asked for in a brief, but point out side-insights that weren’t expected.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Please share...

18 responses to “What is this thing called “Insight”?

  1. Question from a marketing research student: Do insights come more easily from qualitative research? The examples you listed sound like things gained from personal interviews or focus groups.

  2. Jason – without wishing to either ignore your sense of humour or be provocative, where’s the value add in the pure validation of hypotheses? Nothing wrong with the process, just wonder to what extent there’s enough oxygen in that neck of the woods?

    Ben – two answers: i) no, insights can come from all types and manners of research – it’s the critical eye and mind that counts ii) I think that you can learn massively by talking, listening, observing – so qualitative in a sense. But that would encompass eg ethnography, MROCs, co-creation, triads….there’s a lot. Starting with the intuitive is often useful, especially in an age where the data river is in danger of becoming a deluge – more data than insights.

  3. @Edward: to your point, there’s a lot less value in the “validation” work. I put things like customer satisfaction feedback and market modeling in this category (at least around here). The truly creative / destructive stuff happens less frequently but are much larger projects.

  4. Insight might also lead to avoid risk or threat and necessarily lead to more growth potential. Insight becomes more powerful when it is a result of inter/correlate two sets of data points and not only one output.

  5. In my job I find two aspects are key about insight:

    1. Actionability (what is the point of ground braking insight if you cannot change the status quo as a result?)
    2. The discipline used in seeking and providing the insight (if you are trusted to provide consistently accurate and relevant insight you are the one I know I can rely on).

    Following these simple rules you can become you client favourite person which brings a whole lotta satisfaction with it.

  6. dear friends I’m learning a lot from your comments to the Appleton post. I used this definition of “insight”: a simple piece of true knowledge, unexpected ( = surprising), actionable.
    I liked this definition because it calls for four different professions: the scientist (true knowledge), the miner (a small piece of), the journalist (unexpected) and the manager (actionable). All these competences are spread in four quite different professions. But a fifth one (marketing researcher) should include all. Great!


  7. Insight is the value that market researchers add. To Edward Appleton’s three definitions of insight, I would add a fourth point. Insights come from connecting dots that others have failed to connect. Then, the researcher’s challenge is persuading the client to accept the insights.

  8. I like Ruth’s addition to Edward’s definition. I seek to uncover insights by studying data that exists already and/or by creating new data. For me the real value add comes from collating and interpreting this data in ways that my clients/colleagues couldn’t do for themselves and by identifying the best ways they can use it to achieve their business objectives. Insight doesn’t have to be big or game changing but it does have to win hearts and minds and inspire action within client organisations. This is easy to say but hard to do, which is why much great research just sits on the metaphorical shelf.

  9. I have thought about insight in a similar way to Ruth. It is the discovery of something you already knew. A bit Socratic, I suppose. But the idea is that a valuable insight reveals, pulls back the curtain from an observation that seems obvious once it is pointed out. Good insights ring true the moment you hear them. Ed’s examples illustrate this point.

  10. There’s a couple of concepts passing by in the discussion, like insights, hypothesis testing and actionability.
    I would say that you have hypothesis testing on the one hand (with very predictable type of outcome) always leading to actionable recommendations.
    And you have insights on the other hand (which are unpredictable by nature), which cannot always be made actionable in the short run but may become actionable in the long run.

  11. I have been an analyst (market, business & competitive) for about 15 years. When I first became a business analyst, a senior director post me this question – Would you be able to tell me something I didn’t know?
    A very broad base question – looking for a new piece of information, a new perspective, or an insight?
    There is a lot of data & information available, some not so readily available. Nonetheless, it’s the analysis and how we peice these together like a jigsaw puzzle, providing a picture or even story line as an output that matters.
    Anyway, I’m an advocate of the need to integrate market, business and competitive intelligence to provide the so-called insights that you’re referring to.
    I’ve also written an article, Redefining Competition, which looks at how we need to define competition in the modern day business model, which has eveolved.
    This is an interesting topic and could arouse lots of debate and discussion.

  12. Is insight a thing? We talk about it as if it is.

    But I think its more a verb because it’s what it does that is what gives it value. And you only get to the realisation of insights by a change in the way you think about something.

    So in my mind an insight is a process, through which ideas emerge, coalesce and dissipate…maybe more like clouds than icebergs…

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