US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said he could not define pornography, but he “knew it when he saw it”. That’s the way most people seem to think about insights. The problem is, they don’t get to see them very often. That’s because what parade around as insights, in most cases, aren’t. And that’s a problem.
Insights are the catalyst for nearly all marketing activity. Nearly everything is based on them, from business ideas to marketing strategies to activation. Without insights, most ideas remain superficial, bland or generic. So it’s natural that everyone in the business talks about insights. Go ahead and Google “Marketing Insights” and you’ll get 139,000,000 results. Every strategic brief has a “Key Insight”. All processes are said to be grounded in consumer insights. And every strategist promises to be expert at digging them up.
But the problem is, as I mentioned, they’re very likely to be anything but true consumer insights – instead being facts, observations, truths, learnings or any other such observable or known piece of data. Though data and facts are important, they are by no means insights.
Insights are important. They are springboards for the new, unique, creative. But that is the heart of the issue – true insights, too, need to say something new. That’s why the perfect response from hearing an insight is “a-ha”. And that’s why one definition of insight is “seeing what others don’t”.
Some key aspects of true insights:
An insight likely won’t be matter-of-fact — instead it should feel challenging. Often insights shed light on a tension between what is perceived and what is reality (“While people think x, in reality y is true” or “people think they care about x, but instead behave y“). These can be powerful, because they help brands speak in a way that is closer to the real way consumers feel, vs. some expected category/manufacturer-speak.
Many times, an insight comes from something desired by people that they don’t have. Again, there is the tension that comes from perception vs. reality, or what is wished for vs. actually experienced.
A known thing seen in a new way
Sometimes an insight IS an observation or truth, but it’s flipped on its head. Or it’s connected to something else unexpected. For example, in the book “Seeing What Other’s Don’t“, Gary Klein describes a police officer on routine patrol who sees a driver in a new car flick his cigarette butt inside the car. Ordinarily, that might not be terribly noteworthy – but the combination of the cigarette flick and the fact that the car was a new BMW led the officer to arrest a car thief.
Or it could be something that is hidden “in plain sight”, in that it seems so patently obvious that it’s discarded or dismissed. In this case, the a-ha is something that makes you say “I can’t believe I didn’t notice that before”.
A creative thought
Insight means, literally, an “inward sight”. So, you’re not just observing externally, but looking inside your own mind for new ways to think about things. To do this right will likely require more than just researchers or strategists – it will require different folks with different skills and thought processes to dig into it.
And an insight takes work – you don’t just find one, as many think. You “craft” an insight. And they take time. So don’t expect to nail it in one short sitting.
It leads to something
This is a key part of an insight – an insight needs to lead somewhere. It should feel dynamic, electrically charged, and motivate action. It’s fresh-ness of spirit, it’s tension, and it’s creativity grounded in truth should make you want to do things with it. Create things. Build off of it.
And a true insight leads to change – it changes the way you understand things, see things, feel about them and how you understand. So a real insight changes you, too.