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Strategy in Action

The Definition of Insight and How to Use It


If you’ve worked in marketing or advertising for longer than five minutes, you’ve heard the word “Insight” used many times before. The only problem is, that word gets thrown around a lot, but often means something different to each person who uses it.  

  • Consumer insights professionals believe it’s a nugget of wisdom about consumers, their patterns, their mindsets, or a global human truth that would make us all think differently about how to engage them.

  • Analysts who work to develop performance metrics and reporting believe it’s a more interesting version of the observational data. I hear this a lot when clients see a report full of numbers without a lot of actionable takeaways. They’ll say, “but where are the insights?”

  • Clients tend to believe it’s that ground breaking data point that will redefine their business.


And although it can be all of these definitions depending on the context, it’s critical to know which one you’re trying to achieve. Speaking as a former market research analyst, it’s important to know the desired outcome before you start digging. Otherwise, as is the case in research, garbage in yields garbage out. Essentially, you need to know what you’re looking to find in order to get the best output.


1. the capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing.
–Oxford Dictionary

My definition--- Data that has been curated and interpreted for meaning —that makes you think differently about something —that inspires and incites action

Why It's Important to Start with Insight 

Insights that are based in consumer behavior and data are critical to becoming a consumer-driven company instead of a collection of navel-gazers. We frequently fall into this trap—“I have my own bottom line and my own messaging priorities. I’ll just talk about those and people will listen.” Unfortunately, consumers don’t operate that way.​


It is critical for us to understand our audiences to effectively navigate the relationship between the brand and that audience. There is more data than ever before to help us do that, but more data does not always mean more insights. If anything, it can sometimes mean the opposite—data paralysis.


Once you understand the role of actionable insights, the goal is to use them to directly impact your business strategy and content output. 

Start with the input (data and observations), add a layer of empathy to get to the Insight, and add the skills around strategy and activation, and what do you get? Consumer-driven content. 

The Difference Between Data, Observations, and Insight 

The other trap we frequently fall into is thinking that a data point is the same thing as an insight. I often hear the Dove Real Beauty campaign referenced. It’s a brilliant campaign platform that started from this stat: Only 2% of women think they’re beautiful. This is a great piece of information because it has a truly jarring affect. Although 2% is a ridiculously low number, women who read the stat immediately understand how it could be true. But as compelling as it is, it is still just a data point.

  • DATA--- is factual information (typically depicted in measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation. Data is not insight Until its meaning is unpacked for an audience.

  • OBSERVATIONS--- are information gathered by observing or examining data points. They typically lead to the “why” behind human attitudes and behaviors. But this type of curation is not Insight until you add some analysis and intuition.

  • AN INSIGHT--- Clarifies a consumer truth or revelation unknown before; Points to the underlying motivation, which is driving that behavior; Identifies the consumer barrier or tension that leads to an actionable hypothesis for communications to engage.

So in the case of the Dove example, the progression would look like this:

  • Data: Only 2% of women consider themselves beautiful

  • Observation: Most women believe “beautiful” is a term reserved for others

  • Insight: The $3 squillion beauty industry is built on an unrealistic ideal that makes women unhappy.

  • Data: People feed their pets twice a day.

  • Observation: They tend to feed them at breakfast and dinner time.

  • Insight: People feel guilty about eating in front of their pets. 


It's this kind of unpacking that allows you to get to the deeper meaning behind actions. In the case of dog food, it means gourmet ingredients with premium packing in order to combat the guilt. This unlocking means more impactful content.

So How do You Get One? 

  1. Align around a clear brief—make sure you understand what you’re trying to get out of your findings. How do you expect to use it? Are you prepared to adjust your efforts based on the outcome?

  2. Put in the work and swim in data—I tend to jump in and search for anything I can get my hands on that may be even tangentially related to what I’m looking for. This is the beginning, so what you thought you were looking for may change.

  3. Turn it upside down—once you have a hypothesis to test, try thinking about it in reverse. What if something that we all understand as infallibly true… weren’t?

  4. Get a diverse team in the room—once you have gathered your data, thought about it from many different angles, and formulated a few potential narratives, it’s time to stress test.

  5. Create a hunch-friendly, bullshit-hostile, environment—in the room of people with different skill sets and perspectives, make sure they feel free to tell it like it is, poke holes, and ask the dumb questions.

  6. Be the annoying “why?” guy— when you feel like you haven’t dug deep enough into the true essence of the observation, try asking “why” until you get there. We need to interrogate the statement to find underlying truth.

  7. Add empathy—the final step to creating something that’s usable is to add the human element. Insights are meant to unveil something about the human condition, so we should add our contextual knowledge of what it means to be human into the mix.

And remember:


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