Insights - What Are They Really?

By Scott Gray on 2010/05/04

When asked to write an article about strategy for this week’s newsletter, I decided I’d skip the strategy 101 type article and delve into something a little more challenging. Something a little meatier. Something that we at Quirk believe in so strongly that it’s a core part of our value system. That something is Insight. 

I didn’t realise what I’d be getting myself into until it was too late. Describing what insight REALLY means is not easy! A few searches sent me down a rabbit hole so deep, I think I might still be somewhere between Wonderland and reality. 

At Quirk, insights are to an idea what Blitz firelighters are to a fire. They represent the best way of generating great ideas that inspire success. We like to say “Insight drives our ideas”. Ultimately, we believe that the most effective ideas are based on contextually relevant foundation. 

But, there’s a problem. The word “insight” is very often misused. In fact, I believe that it’s a word that is used incorrectly more often than correctly. An insight is not an observation of behaviour pulled from research. It isn’t a collection of stats and data from your Web analytics. No dear reader, insights are far more than that. If observations are the tip of the iceberg, the remaining two-thirds below the water, the part that is not immediately obvious, would be the insights.

There are so many explanations of what an insight is, I thought I’d pick a few choice descriptions that I’ve found online. 

The text book definition of an insight goes like this: “A thought, fact, combination of facts, data and/or analysis of data that induces meaning and furthers understanding of a situation or issue that has the potential of benefiting the business or re-directing the thinking about that situation or issue which then in turn has the potential of benefiting the business.” ~ Unleashing Hidden Insights – Vriens and Verhulst 

Although spot on, this definition lacks impact. Something that great insights do. 

Here’s an insight: "Product satisfaction arises less from inherent construction and performance than from consumers' internalised perceptions of personal utility."

Not exactly super-inspirational stuff, but an insight nonetheless. This is what advertising legend Jeremy Bullmore calls a low-potency insight - an insight that, while true, is not written in a way that inspires if it were to be found in a creative brief.  

A high-potency insight would look like this: "People don't want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes." ~ Professor Theodore Levitt 

These insights are inherently the same, the high-potency example just having far more impact. 

Anyway I digress, let’s stay with Bullmore’s fantastic post - Why is a good insight like a refrigerator? - for a little longer (it’s too damn good to use just one excerpt!) He defines an insight as “A new understanding, probably of human behaviour or attitude, as a result of which action may be taken and an enterprise more efficiently conducted.” 

A post written back in 2007 - What is an insight - on a blog called Pink Air has some brilliant content mainly in the comments. Here are some of the highlights: “Insight is an interpretation of observation. It requires a point of view on what already exists. You don't fish them out of focus groups, or ppt decks.” ~ Jim D

“An Insight need not necessarily be an emotional one ... but it could very well be functional. It’s almost like digging deeper and deeper into the consumers response to anything, asking them why they say something, or why do they feel in a particular way, and how would they feel if it wasn't in a particular way, rather than stopping at the top most layer of what is said to you upfront. A trap some Brand Managers and Quali researchers seldom fall into.” ~ Taj Desai 

Insight in Action

I’m a fan of examples as a way of explanation, so here are a few examples that might paint a picture of the role of insight as the driver of the idea 

Google and YouTube 

When YouTube was first launched, it was designed as a video search engine – much the same as Google. It was an important insight that led them to change their strategy. Unlike Google, where users want to spend as little time as possible on the search engine and as much time as possible in the resulting pages, YouTube visitors are not searching for one particular thing. The like to get lost in the videos, almost randomly surfing from one video to another. YouTube now focuses on accuracy in delivering videos that you may find worthwhile once you’ve watched the video that’s in front of you. More time on site = more potential to earn advertising revenue. Simple. 

Nike - Just Do It 

Sportswear manufacturer Nike understood that sport is about succeeding, making your mark on the world, and overcoming challenges (from getting off the couch and into the gym, to shaving 0.002 seconds off your 100m sprint time). “Just do it” was born as a call to action, a call to be courageous, pick yourself off of the floor and get back in there. 

MWEB – Free The Web SA 

Closer to home, MWEB’s recent launch of Uncapped ADSL presented a really awesome opportunity for Quirk to apply an insight that became Free The Web South Africa (FTWSA). Due to the secrecy of the launch, MWEB needed to create some sort of hype and momentum pre-launch that gave them a captive mindshare on D-day. Quirk created a campaign that highlighted the common plight of the South African Internet user – expensive ADSL. MWEB were able to build a community of 15,000 frustrated fans in two and a half weeks. The community rallied around FTWSA’s call for a better Web and almost exploded with joy after the announcement. 

After all is said and done, an insight is really just a piece of information or realisation that is arrived at when digging past what is immediately obvious. Approaching a known from a different angle, asking why and then why again. Digging, mining, questioning. Rinse, repeat. 

Perhaps the best description of an insight however, is derived from the answer to Jeremy Bullmore’s question “Why is a good insight like a refrigerator?” his answer – “Because the moment you look into it, a light comes on.