FEATURE2 June 2010

Insight is dead

Features

Nick Johnson is so over insight. He wishes researchers would stop going on about it and start thinking instead about what businesses actually do with it.

Hands up if you think the word ‘insight’ is overused. It has become so prevalent that it has lost all sense of its real meaning. It’s like the word ‘luxury’ when applied to an Ikea bathroom suite or ‘executive’ for a motel bedroom.

For an industry obsessed with insight, the funny thing is that we’re not short of it. In fact quite the opposite – we’re tripping over it. Most professional, consumer-focused client companies have been commissioning research for decades. They’ve spent millions on it. They regularly segment their target audiences, then revise their segmentations to keep them up to date. They do innovation research and advertising research, they subscribe to the relevant industry reports and monitors. They probably have an agency on retainer to monitor web chatter about the brand. They may even have a Facebook group to get them closer to their peeps.

In fact, most organisations are now suffering from a serious case of insight indigestion. Insight managers now have so much information coming at them that insight itself has ceased to be the issue.

At the end of a successful project, the agency comes in, does their debrief and makes their recommendations. It’s at this point that one of a number of factors kicks in:

  • The debrief came too late and the end client has already made a decision
  • The debrief contradicts the last piece of work, so is met with doubt
  • The debrief gives bad news or contradicts an idea that was popular internally, so findings are ignored
  • The debrief gives good news and everything is hunky dory – so much so that everyone wonders why they bothered with the research in the first place

None of this is about the quality of insight, it’s about what happens to it once it has been unearthed. Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, once said that if he left IBM’s strategic plans on an airplane seat they would be useless to any competitor, because business success is not about grand designs, it’s all down to how you execute your plans.

The same holds true for market research – we all obsess about finding the breakthrough insight, the idea or the angle that no-one else has thought of and that will drive brand differentiation and desire. No-one, at least on the agencyside, seems to spend much time thinking how these insights are going to be executed and how the agency and insight manager are going to get the end-user of the research to actually use them.

“Insights have zero intrinsic value. They need to be applied to the business and used to change something before the value is realised”

Insights have zero intrinsic value. Knowing that your target consumers behave or think in a specific way is not immediately of commercial value to an organisation. The insights need to be applied to the business and used to change something before the value is realised. Too often, as researchers, we are guilty of sweating over a project and then, once we have come up with some smart consumer insights, we sit back. Job done, aren’t we clever. It still leaves the end client having to make sense of the research findings and work out how to apply them to their business.

Consumer insight managers face a constant challenge to engage with their end customers and demonstrate the power of research to the business. Finding killer insights isn’t the issue any more (and anyway, if it’s a decent insight, you can bet that your competitors have also come across it). The challenge is to find ways of enabling the insights to be immediately put to use.

Many clients can be somewhat cynical about attempts by agencies to ‘get closer’ to their business. Suggestions to run an ‘insight workshop’ instead of a conventional PowerPoint debrief are often rebuffed on the grounds that there is not enough time, or that it won’t add enough value. There is something comforting about the controlling environment of a debrief – debates are not opened up, there’s no risk of things that have already been agreed being discussed again and un-agreed.

But a two-hour meeting that consists of a researcher reading a deck of 80 PowerPoint charts and then fielding a few questions is a very poor way to turn research into decisions. Debriefs are like university lectures – someone stands up at the front and the audience sits and listens – it’s very ‘broadcast: receive’ and as such it actively discourages discussion. When done properly, a two or three hour workshop can be a more effective way of actually carrying ideas into the business and turning them into something that end clients can immediately use. If your clients are sceptical and you think they might drop the workshop in order to save some budget, offer to do it for no charge.

A good workshop helps to set the research within its wider context, both historical and forward looking. Key project stakeholders are invited (it needs to be a small action-oriented group and not a wide audience of anyone who is vaguely connected to the project). These key stakeholders can bring vital context to the findings. How do they compare to previous research findings? Do they fit with what the business believes to be the correct way forward, or do they challenge those beliefs? Has the business moved on since the research was conducted? Are all the insights still relevant?

The researcher’s job is to actively engage with the stakeholders, getting their input into the insight process. This can lead to arguments of course – while they know more about the brand or product than the researcher does, the researcher has come fresh from the insight coal face. These arguments are in fact a crucial part of the process – they make sure that any recommendations coming out of the research have been properly debated and understood. They not only reflect what the research said, but also the realities of the business.

At this point some of you will be throwing your arms up – the purity of the research has been corrupted by the evil client. Who cares? This is about using research as a conversation that enables the business to reach the correct decision. It isn’t about the researcher coming down from the mountain with ‘the truth’ and pointing the way that the client has to follow if they are to succeed.

This approach is not without its risks and it requires clientside insight managers as well agency researchers to stick their necks out a bit. But the benefits can be huge.

By allowing the discussion to encompass not only insights from the project but also a discussion that sets these within the context of the business, the research is able to see the bigger picture and take the business to a higher level.

“In any discussion the final and most important element must be a debate as to what the insights mean for the business. This is the part most researchers feel uneasy with”

In any discussion the final and most important element must be a debate (sometimes heated) as to what the insights mean for the business – what should the next steps be? This is the part most researchers feel uneasy with. The further away they get from the project insights, the more naked they feel. Yet despite the risk of saying something foolish or just plain wrong, this is where researchers need to go in order to really deliver.

Researchers get marginalised precisely because they refuse to engage with the realities of business. We need to move beyond insight if as an industry we are to demonstrate the value of research, value that comes from using insights to deliver sustainable competitive advantage to companies.

This isn’t just about engaging with the consumer, it’s about engaging with the end-user of research. This is where the battle should be in the 21st century. Insight is dead. Long live diffusion!

Nick Johnson is managing director of Volante Research

25 Comments

10 years ago

Almost but not quite....I think Nick is missing the point. Most so called insight projects don't deliver any insights at all. Insight is just a nice way of rebranding 'research' to try and make it seem more relevant. But in reality nothing has changed ....most research produces endless powerpoint decks of facts and data. There's no insight to be seen! An Insight is something that by definition suggests an action, that points to the way forward. Ironically it is what good researchers have always provided...unfortunately as in many professions these are the exception not the rule, and some how the industry has got it into it's head that new processes or techniques are the solution. Yes they can help, yes they allow a researcher to get closer to the consumer, but they are no substitute for a good researcher who knows what a real insight is.

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10 years ago

This article is nothing short of amazing. In my 20+ years of retail marketing and research the series of teams I worked with have clashed their good share of times within different areas of each company we belonged to. Having had this mindset this clearly stated before ... life would have been easier! It's time to move forward in this direction .. and ease market research insights within our organizations to achieve better business results. Let's go ... share!

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10 years ago

I enjoyed Nick's article very much. As a clientside research manager I agree with his comments about what happens at a debrief!

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10 years ago

I just grappled with what to call myself in my work with a digital marketing agency and finally settled on Head of Insight. I struggled because Insight seems so disconnected, isolated, a gem to be held up but not part of a bigger picture. I still like Head of Research! What a timely article this is for me. Yes we provide insights but we need to get involved in the execution of that insight, what to do with it. This isn't new. Every research conference I've been to has been saying the same thing for years. Fact is the research industry continues to fail at helping with implementation, execution, delivery. That's why collaboration with people who do makes so much sense.

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10 years ago

Great article. I was immediately captured by the headline, and I agree about the abuse of the i word. But I don't think researchers can take on the responsiblity for 'making it happen' or even just diffusion within the client organisation. That would require quite profound change in the relationship, not just workshops instead of debriefs.

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10 years ago

Yes, yes, thrice yes ;-) One of the reasons that research still - after all the MRS papers, after all the calls to action, after all the pleading by clients - fails to have a place at the top table in business is because the industry lacks the confidence to do what Nick is advocating here. People can come into the industry, become talented and competent researchers, yet never really gain a grasp of business issues. Of what the client needs to DO with all this insight, and of how, as Nick says, insight is worthless unless it comes with a mechanism to help the client actually DO something. Training and exposure are key. Young people in our industry should be spending time in marketing departments, learning commercial realities. This doesn't mean that they should lose sight of what their chief role may later be - nor that their entire career should be spent borrowing the client's watch to tell him the time (as Management Consultants are prone to do), but they will gain a grounding in the context and puropose of research. Too many MR people remain too isolated, and become deskilled because of it. There is another factor here though. Client companies are not always blameless. There can be a certain complacent comfort in resisting attempts by research people to energise their findings into the organisation. The positioning of research with a client culture can be to blame, but it can also be an unseen, almost institutionalised attitude. "He/She's only the researcher...). And at a structural level, there may also be problems of knowledge transfer - Knowledge Management issues... We need to earn the right to be heard (how many times has that been said?), but client companies also need to truly ask themselves if they are really ready to properly listen.

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10 years ago

This is one of the best, most refreshing articles I have read in research-live. The number of responses would also suggest it's really hit a Research Industry nerve. It also highlights one of the great ironies of the industry- that while we make a living from creating or gathering facts on how different customers use what our clients make, we really have no facts on how our own clients really use what we make.

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10 years ago

Great article, Nick. I see something similar all the time in my role, looking at digital engagement opportunities. Agency X produces a range of fantastic ideas for using social media in an innovative way, but fail to account of the resource, knowledge and timescales available at Client Y. Equally, Client Y is guilty of demanding 80 slides, instead of making their limitations clear and basing an ideas session around these.

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10 years ago

This is exactly right - so much so that a group of us, all like minded people are well advanced in starting a business built around using a wide selection of innovative research companies commissioned by senior business analysts whose task is to address and solve defined real-life client issues. Anyone want to join us - contact me at brian@bjanda.com

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10 years ago

"Too often, as researchers, we are guilty of sweating over a project and then, once we have come up with some smart consumer insights, we sit back. Job done, aren’t we clever. It still leaves the end client having to make sense of the research findings and work out how to apply them to their business." OMG! Are you living inside my head? I cannot agree enough. Too often while a client researcher I have tried to push the "we've done the research now how do we apply it to the organisation?" But often find myself battling not only other researchers but a marketing department who believe it is not my job to worry about implementation. I laugh with cynacism everytime I read a marketing article about how insight(s) will be the saviour of business, when the truth is many organisations like the idea but as another comment mentioned are afraid to let the appropriate people have the time to focus on the implementation. Is it dead, my question is was it ever truly alive?

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