What is an insight? And, why don’t most research projects find insights?

Insight is like drawing up a curtainRay Poynter, 21 August 2023

In the many training courses I run about extracting and narrating the story hidden in data, insights emerge as a crucial focal point. One striking observation I’ve made is that there’s no universal definition of ‘insight’.

When I ask attendees, many of whom have ‘insight’ in their job titles, about their organizational definition of the term, the responses vary widely. This diversity is a reminder to be wary of anyone pitching a singular ‘correct definition’ for an insight.

Common Descriptions of Insight

  • A new perspective.
  • An unrecognised truth.
  • A change in viewing things.
  • An understanding of underlying motivations or behaviours.
  • The uncovering of the ‘why’.
  • A gateway to new outcomes.
  • Actionable, relevant, and often obvious in hindsight.

Illustrative Insights

  1. Starbucks: Their success isn’t just about coffee; it’s about the experience. Howard Schultz envisioned this after experiencing coffee bars in Milan.
  2. Dove: Recognizing that only 2% of women view themselves as beautiful, they spearheaded the impactful ‘Real Beauty’ campaign.
  3. Apple: They discerned a significant consumer group that prioritized style and simplicity over multi-functionality.
  4. Betty Crocker: In the 1950s, an initial cake mix requiring only water was a flop. Research showed housewives felt they weren’t genuinely baking, leading to the reintroduction of eggs in the mix, making it a hit.

Research Findings vs. Insights:
All research should provide findings, but not all research yields insights.

Consider an example where we test ten TV ad concepts. If they all fare well, and our findings align with expectations, then the research generates valuable findings, but not necessarily insights.

However, if all the concepts perform poorly, we might find that deeper analysis reveals that the ads resonate only with heavy product users due to the exclusive language. Realizing that language is the barrier to wider success would constitute an insight. Our picture of the world has changed, and we can generate new outcomes.

When Are Insights Most Likely?:
Based on my 45 years in market research, I have discovered that insights predominantly emerge from projects linked to problems or failures. When research validates our expectations, it often yields valuable advice based on findings. But when faced with unexpected problems, we delve deeper, making the discovery of insights more probable.

So what?
When we are conducting research, we should not get too hung up on ‘insights’. We should always be able to provide useful, evidence-based advice. But we won’t always (or even usually) be generating ‘insights’. Or perhaps, we should re-cast the word insight to use it in the way data science uses, broadly referring to any useful finding from the analysis.

Want to learn more about storyfinding and storytelling? Check out the courses I am offering by clicking here.

One thought on “What is an insight? And, why don’t most research projects find insights?

  1. hey Ray … you are correct in that “insights” is aterm used very loosely and personally i find it used way too often. how oftern is it found in a piue4ce of research. in my experience very rarely. indeed i would say 90% of all research studies dont end up having an insight in them. and that is fine. research has findings, in the 90s we used to call them “learnings”. but rarely insights. i personally hold them to a higher standard. Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Singapore Airlines are all built on an insight. not generated from a specific piece of research but from looking across a lot of input. they all continuously do research and no doubt having mant new and interesting and important findings. my own experience with MasterCard and L’Oreal and many other brands over decades across many markets and 100s of pieces of research just gave us good, or bad ammunition. so well done for raising the subject. and well done as we both continue to try and build experise of taking findings ( and very rarely insights ) and building better storytelling around them.

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