What’s a Research “Insight?”


Insights are use­ful truths that can change the way you do things. But what’s the dif­fer­ence between insights and plain ol’ bor­ing research data? Mainly, insights are action­able, clear, not-obvious real­iza­tions that give you some kind of advantage…if you know how to use them.

Let’s talk about mar­ginal, lin­ear changes. Henry Ford sup­pos­edly said “If I asked peo­ple what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse.’” Ford knew that peo­ple only knew how to ask for changes in degrees, but they can’t know how to ask for a revolution.

Ford was right on the money. He, like Steve Jobs, knew what peo­ple needed, because he was cre­at­ing some­thing that met one of their basic needs. But what if you don’t know how to gather that insight, and you’re stuck mak­ing lin­ear, mar­ginal changes in price, ser­vice and qual­ity? In this post, we’ll talk a bit about what insights are, and a lit­tle bit about what they do.

Three Things about Insight

An insight is always an unfore­seen con­clu­sion. If all your com­peti­tors know it, it’s not an insight.

An insight cre­ates a change in the way you do things. In other words, it never tells you to try harder or do some­thing more, instead, it inspires a change in point of view.

An insight cre­ates strate­gic advan­tage by giv­ing you a mean­ing­ful under­stand­ing of the data (often qual­i­ta­tive “data”). In other words, it turns data into spe­cific mean­ing so you can act on it.

How You Get Insight

You need imag­i­na­tion to reach insight. You have to be able to con­nect things that other peo­ple can’t. And you’re doing it in a way that’s open, yet rel­e­vant: you’re open and actively lis­ten­ing, but you’re always com­ing back to the rea­son you’re doing the research in the first place.

Things that Pre­vent Insight Gathering:

  • A rush to get an insight. You have to be emo­tion­ally dis­ci­plined to slow down, or just nat­u­rally curious.
  • A lack of imag­i­na­tion. If you can’t enter­tain new pos­si­bil­i­ties or see them when they come up, you’re wast­ing your time.
  • An inabil­ity to lis­ten. If you can’t get peo­ple talk­ing about what’s impor­tant to them, good luck com­ing up with any­thing new. They’ll quickly real­ize that you only hear what you want to hear.

The Most Straight­for­ward Way to Gather an Insight

Ask open-ended ques­tions of your cus­tomer, in a one-on-one set­ting and try to enter their world. It’s harder than it sounds if you’ve never done it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. There are other ways, but this is the most effective.

In sum­mary, the best way to get an insight is to, first, know what you’re look­ing for. It’s a sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery that changes the way you do things in a way that cre­ates strate­gic advantage.

Build an Advertising Team from Scratch

Marketing Team Presentation

The win­ning team from fall of 2014

If you find your­self need­ing to quickly—or slowly—build a team that can com­pe­tently build and exe­cute a com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy from your busi­ness goals, I’m here to help.

How I Know

For the last few years, I’ve taught Adver­tis­ing Cam­paigns, a class that asks 25–40 stu­dents to build a strat­egy and exe­cute for a real client. The chal­lenge is tak­ing a ran­dom mix of stu­dents and help­ing them focus all they’ve learned on real client work.

What’s Dif­fer­ent for Businesses

If you’re a busi­ness owner, you prob­a­bly have most of these skills. The excep­tion would be the abil­ity to exe­cute strat­egy (cre­ative pro­duc­tion) and a really com­pe­tent strate­gist (which is like a uni­corn; most com­pa­nies just try to make a coher­ent plan).

The good news is this: there are plenty of con­trac­tors who can execute.

The other good news: my stu­dents are great, but they don’t have the expe­ri­ence. Your staff might be able to cre­ate some­thing more pol­ished and pro­fes­sional than my stu­dents can. (On the other hand, after a year, my stu­dents will be kick­ing @$$; just sayin’).

The Jobs

Let me first say that, if you’re not hir­ing well, you cre­ate the need for micro­man­age­ment. You don’t want that. Get the right peo­ple. Here’s a guide.

Adver­tis­ing Job Descriptions

AKA: Account Exec­u­tive (account manager)

Cares about: What the client/company wants and thinks.

Func­tions: Con­nect with client (sales skills). Project man­age­ment (stay out of tasks).

Team spirit and good functioning.

Tools: Soft skills, good focus on client goals, project coor­di­na­tion and busi­ness knowledge.


AKA: account plan­ner, brand strategist

Cares about: Con­nect­ing client with the customer.

Func­tions: Research, sys­tem­atiz­ing infor­ma­tion from research, form­ing ques­tions and telling an inter­est­ing, focused story to cre­atives, giv­ing them a clear prob­lem to solve.

Tools: Mind maps (to sup­port lat­eral think­ing), curios­ity, deep under­stand­ing of the brand and the cus­tomer, good judg­ment, and the cre­ative brief (to sup­port lin­ear thinking).

Media Plan­ner

Cares about: Bring­ing the strat­egy to life through media choices.

Func­tions: Under­stands how to bring strat­egy to life in media.

Tools: Bud­get (spread­sheet), sched­ule (cal­en­dar), mea­sure­ment of effec­tive­ness and an under­stand­ing of avail­able media.

Con­cep­tual Creatives

Note: Cre­atives fall into two cat­e­gories. It’s best not to get them con­fused. Con­cep­tual cre­atives think up new ideas and con­cepts. They’re gen­er­ally more strate­gi­cally aligned. They’re bet­ter at com­ing up with a new approach that will match up against your com­peti­tors’ claims. A fin­ish­ing cre­ative is a pol­isher and edi­tor. Don’t ask them to have a robust cre­ative process; they’re the ones mak­ing your stuff look nice, not fig­ur­ing out what it should be.

Cares about: Bring­ing the strat­egy to life through a focused story.

Func­tions: Expe­ri­enced and con­fi­dent enough in their cre­ative process to rig­or­ously explore mes­sages that will exe­cute the strategy.

Tools: Strat­egy, focus, fun, work ethic (lots of thumb­nails and head­lines), the abil­ity to tell a great story with a moti­vat­ing moral.

Fin­ish­ing Creatives

AKA: Design­ers and Wordsmiths

Cares about: Pro­duc­tion quality.

Func­tions: Mak­ing sure some­one else’s idea looks nice, is well-edited and professional.

Tools: Design pro­grams, edit­ing abil­ity (gram­mar, usage, spell-checker) and good design best-practices.

A Word about Think­ing Styles

Think of account exec­u­tives and fin­ish­ing cre­atives as peo­ple who want to get things done and look really nice. In other words, they’re peo­ple who want to do it really well. So you don’t want to hire peo­ple who have great new ideas for these posi­tions. You want peo­ple who can reli­ably exe­cute, based on expe­ri­ence. Think “best practices.”

Think of strate­gists and con­cep­tual cre­atives as peo­ple who want to do things dif­fer­ently. So you don’t want some­one who never takes risks and never fails. You want all kinds of ideas that show rich­ness of thought. Think “innovation.”

The media plan­ner is a mix.

Real­ize that the dif­fer­ences in think­ing between these two think­ing styles actu­ally builds a high level of cre­ativ­ity that also works.

Quickly Build­ing a Cre­ative Team

In the end, it’s not hard to build a team that does good work. I do it in 10 weeks with under­grads. You can too. And that’s just the invest­ment. Think about what could hap­pen after that 10 weeks is up and the team is gelled, has ideas and now has experience.

How Curiosity Leads to Brutally Efficient Strategy

Curious cat

Cour­tesy of Flickr user Admiller. Edited by Stadler. Cre­ative Com­mons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

If curios­ity is a self-indulgent, unbusi­nesslike pur­suit, why is it so pop­u­lar these days? Maybe because we’re real­iz­ing it’s fuel­ing some pretty effi­cient strategies.

You might be pic­tur­ing curi­ous peo­ple as soft, undi­rected and undis­ci­plined. They’re time-wasters who prob­a­bly enjoyed their time in lit­er­a­ture class a lit­tle too much, dis­cussing things that don’t mat­ter. But that’s not the curios­ity we’re talk­ing about.

Curios­ity Focuses on a Goal

When curios­ity is most effec­tive, it’s ask­ing ques­tions about a busi­ness goal. In my field, curi­ous peo­ple ask ques­tions about the mar­ket­ing goal, even decon­struct­ing the mar­ket­ing goal so they can under­stand how the com­pany makes deci­sions. Addi­tion­ally, we try to under­stand why the mar­ket does what it does and pro­file com­pet­ing brands to find patterns.

Process Dis­ci­plines Curiosity

Great strate­gists apply curios­ity by using a process. Some build a SWOT, 5-Forces or 4P’s/4C’s analy­sis, using those frame­works to inven­tory and orga­nize their research. Those inven­to­ries inform the research they do from here on out. Oh yeah, and those analy­sis tools go through at least 3 revi­sions before the work is done.

Rig­or­ous Research Enables Curiosity

Addi­tion­ally, they don’t just ask ques­tions when it’s fun, but they stick with it, know­ing that the process always pro­duces action­able results that give a strate­gic advan­tage. This some­times looks like an addi­tional 3 inter­views or 5 more hours of read­ing user forums to gather more insight.

Curios­ity Asks Ques­tions You Don’t Care About…Until You Do

Strate­gic curios­ity can seem to ask irrel­e­vant ques­tions or ques­tions that are too sim­ple. Strate­gists are used to tak­ing chances by ask­ing ques­tions that help them under­stand the real sit­u­a­tion (behind all the assump­tions). The best strate­gists have a way of ask­ing ques­tions that make us real­ize we don’t know the answer (even to sim­ple ques­tions like “Who’s our audience?”).

And by demand­ing a higher level of speci­ficity, they help us to make deci­sions that are strate­gi­cally help­ful, rather than vague and slippery.

Best of All, Curios­ity Feeds Strategy

Strat­egy shows you the most direct route to the best result. But it can’t work with­out the right insights. To put it another way: strat­egy uses sys­tems think­ing to make sense of insights; curios­ity deliv­ers the insights.

By study­ing the dif­fer­ences between us and our competitors—by show­ing curios­ity for hid­den, but high-leverage differences—we can become bru­tally effi­cient in adver­tis­ing and brand decisions.

How the CIA Puts Thinking back into Problem Solving

CIA Crest

When solv­ing a prob­lem, lots of peo­ple are taught research (by itself, an unin­sight­ful process for problem-finding) and prob­lem solv­ing. But the miss­ing piece is the “think­ing” part. And that needs to hap­pen reg­u­larly from begin­ning to end in order to under­stand the sys­tem: how the parts work together. And that’s why I love the CIA’s Phoenix Checklist.

Research with­out think­ing only takes us obvi­ous places. We don’t see con­nec­tions, because we don’t look for them; instead, we’re only see­ing con­nec­tions from oth­ers’ research and opin­ions. We’re only see­ing what presents itself, as the the data lead us down rab­bit trails. In the end, we’re left with no insights about the prob­lem we’re solv­ing, but only a cat­a­log of facts that are pretty obvi­ous to both our­selves and every­one else.

Brain­storm­ing with­out under­stand­ing leads to poorly fit­ting solu­tions. With­out the abil­ity to see the prob­lem at a log­i­cal, systems-level is like ask­ing a three-year-old why my truck is back­fir­ing. He doesn’t even begin to under­stand com­bus­tion, so why would he know about this par­tic­u­lar situation?

The the Phoenix Check­list asks us to look at the prob­lem from dif­fer­ent angles, essen­tially cre­at­ing mul­ti­ple thought exper­i­ments for us to use to log­i­cal and sys­tem­at­i­cally nav­i­gate the prob­lem, giv­ing us a much fuller under­stand­ing. And with a fuller under­stand­ing of the prob­lem comes more energy spent on highly rel­e­vant solutions.

How the CIA define prob­lems & plan solu­tions: The Phoenix Check­list « BBH Labs.