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Increasing the Return On Insight

At the latest IIeX NA conference in Atlanta, InSites Consulting held a Roundtable discussion on the topic “Increasing the Return On Insight”. Here is a summary of the discussion.

By Niels Schillewaert


At the latest IIeX NA conference in Atlanta, InSites Consulting held a Roundtable discussion on the topic “Increasing the Return On Insight”.

niels1We centered our discussion around the main question “What does the life of an insight look like?”, while probing a little further on “what impact of an insight means” and “what a powerful insight is”.

We conducted 6 rounds of 20 minute discussions with 35 to 40 participants overall (sorry, could not keep the exact score even as a researcher!), representing a mix of agencies as well as client-side executives.

Here is a summary of the discussion.


The overall take-away –

The lifecycle of “insights” is a function of Type, Reach, Organo-Political Context, Research-Client Relationship and the Delivery.

  1. Type

The life of an insight is often short-lived, due to the fast paced and changing business environment but it also depends on the kind of “insight”. There is a different mindset when the insights are more macro, business general versus operational or tactical. Foundational research and journeys for example last longer. Truths also have a higher longevity. These truths require constantly looking deeper and create a need to measure and test over and over again. That cyclical aspect enhances the longevity.


The reality today is that there is now more often an upfront big investment made by means of a deep-dive study which is then “completed” by adding on, rather than going into new studies all the time. Clients are in a state of continuous “building on” and augmenting. So, the life cycle is not a straight line. It is often about understanding why and go back 3 steps, and start again. It never ends with the delivery of a study as such.

  1. Reach

Next to the time aspect in an insight’s lifecycle, there is also a component of reach and applicability. It can and should be wider than marketing, e.g. stores, merchandising … then it’s longevity is enhanced.

Insights often get stuck in the executives’ minds or static knowledge management systems. The challenge is in how to cascade the insight experience to people actually doing the work and put action against the consumer learning.

  1. Organo-political context

The lifecycle of insights depends on the politics as well as the disruptiveness of the insights. Ideally research findings help changing decision making, but if it is unexpected or disruptive than the lifespan of an insight shortens. The newer the learning, the more difficult the acceptance within companies.

On the positive side it creates and triggers more questions because if it is something actionable executives want to validate and understand it more deeply. The downside of it is that it often gets locked up because executives do not want to hear “bad news” or something that goes against what they believed. Many executives are looking for their self-interest in a political environment and are afraid to commit career suicide. A lot of it has to do with the personality and the marketer’s job. Will the insights help their career? Will it hamper their career advancement? What is the risk for them? What happens if they pursue and it does not work? Research is about making executives look smart. Similarly, next to the individual the organization matters too and it is conditional for powerful insights to emerge. It takes bravery for companies not to immediately go for monetary return on investment or efficiency. A willingness to change and redirect vision is needed. Some corporations just want to validate what they already know and have a consumer insight department that is just an order taker who does not want to ruffle any feathers.

Organizational changes within brand teams also do no good to insight life spans. If the new team does not buy into the methodology or findings, then it gets dismissed and they want it their own way. Therefore, there is a need for high level buy-in in consumer insights building, teams need to consistently see tangible outcomes and all stakeholders need to be involved as early on as well as continuously to make sure it is a habit for them to using the research.

  1. Relationship between researcher and client

Executives are busy and feel no urgency as such to connect with researchers, so it is all about finding the right time and how to be able to position oneself as a partner. Getting invited at the table, into a marketing meeting is a challenge for insight people. The key is to go and “invite yourself” as an insight manager. Many marketing managers go on intuition, so it is important to just get in front of them. There is a need for research to position themselves strategically within organizations. The openness of business leaders their desire to be customer centric is of course important for this to succeed. If things do not come true and generate different results, there needs to be soul searching around what has been learned. For agencies it is often hard to influence or create such impact. Often the consumer insights department is the end point, but the research findings need to be championed and socialized. If the delivery is engaging and in-person that is great but often there is no impact and follow up with agencies.

At the basis there is sometimes a problem that marketing executives do not know how to use the insights and there is a misunderstanding between agency, client-side researchers and users. For some companies it is all a spirit of partnership, in other circumstances insight managers are just tactical executors. A notable exception to this is UX research because of a different mentality. In UX research the insights are directly embedded into the product which makes the researcher is a real partner.

Today’s data rich reality also leads to the fact that brand managers and marketers come up with new insights themselves – which are often (considered) good (enough) – as they have so much facts on their hands.

  1. Delivery

Delivering the core research product, the “so what”, compellingly is key. Lengthy decks hamper the use of research as executives have no time. It best to have something that was not expected, an Aha! that is conveyed by means of storytelling instead of a data dump.

Everyone agrees we need an integrative way of reporting. A PowerPoint is just part of the process and not the end line. Sure we can use newsletters, infographics … . Even more important is to avoid static knowledge management systems and make sure consumer insights reside in a dynamic environment with snackable take-aways which can easily be shared. But it is not because we build it and have portals, newsletters … that executives will come. We often need to push with a content management strategy, as there is no natural pull! Just like traditional marketing we need different products (presentation versions) and target different content to different audiences.

What also works well is an “experiential” delivery of insights, e.g. field days and road shows with executives meeting consumers. The reason is that there is a “source effect” in terms of where the research finding comes from. If consumers say something, that is often more powerful and effective. Make sure executives “hear” it from consumers, even if it is through a video. Managers would often reject the same message if it comes from a CMI manager or if they had just read the report. Different executives – engineers beyond marketers for example – want to see for the themselves and therefore making it an experience is key.


Insights with a longer life cycle are the ones that are truly powerful and generate internal impact.

Not everything that is called an insight, truly is one however. An “insight” is not a piece of information but leads to something different and an actionable consequence. Early on, a true insight triggers validation. “Return on insight” in this phase means it generates new questions and deeper investigation because of a sense of urgency that is created due to the fact that executives realize they may not know everything. Further down the road, impact implies that the insights are correctly socialized internally and the (internal) client uses the work. Hands-on workshops and brainstorms are a sign of this, but not enough. There is a need for an installed track to bring and keep the findings alive in an experiential and memorable way.

For many companies though, this remains a major challenge: how to help brand teams with turning things into actions? What do you do to bridge the gap between insight and action?

Please share...

3 responses to “Increasing the Return On Insight

  1. Niels – fascinating and, to me, a bit disturbing. I think the TYPE is a key, in that I’m not sure I’d call some of those results “insights”, more like “findings”, “results”, or “outcomes”. My research generates a lot of these, insights are rarer. The disturbing part is the role of ORGANO-POLITICS. Having grown up in the industry in the days where the mantra for marketers at places like P&G and Colgate was “don’t screw up the brand”, I had hoped that we’d grown beyond that – apparently not. This also calls into question the dictum regarding innovation. If we believe that true innovation is going to come from uncovering an insight, by definition that insight needs to be counter-intuitive or disruptive; perhaps not completely in opposition to what we believe, but sufficiently different that it should make us pause and rethink what we believe we know. That’s in contrast to playing it safe, not wanting to hear bad news, thinking politically and not about what’s best for the business.

    And sorry about the Euros, Niels.

  2. I have used Natural Language Processing on review based texts to find insights…We found that when trying to identify issues or areas of concerns, we wrote queries to identify the Top 25 Negative Noun Tokens in Sentences and include the related sentences after Natural Language Processing. We then grouped those sentences for tagging in an interactive tree (tree of sentences). We were able to identify the top issues affecting consumers, very quickly; because of the refined sample size (Top 25 Tokens). We would repeat this effort with each week of new data…slowly becoming the knowledge experts in the source domain. As the unique issues started to dry up we instituted a dynamic filtering system where every keyword in a sentence became a filter. We could shuffle the results with each click, spinning the results. We also implemented the ability to combine those keywords and flip them for even more complex dynamic filters. And then we also started an automatic favourite keyword identification system so that on subsequent weeks of results, I knew which keywords/favs were able to pull back the targeted results we were after. So for those looking to find the top negative issues, this may be a plan of attack in the identification of issues, something you could include in your own system. I have incorporated these tools into to see this in action. Hope this helps someone when trying to identify the insights from customer feedback.

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