A definition of insight that’s actually useful

Really you’ve got to feel sorry for insight.

This poor little word is so abused and misunderstood that it’s a wonder that it’s managed to survive this long.  But then perhaps that’s its strength?  It’s so nebulous that it can mean whatever you want it to mean – and nobody understands it quite well enough to challenge its dubious applications.

In the world of advertising – where the word and its misuse is especially prevalent – this has become a running joke.  What is and isn’t an insight has been a hot topic of conversation for years.  So far as I can tell all this discussion hasn’t really taken the industry any closer to a consistent grasp of insight – sometimes they nail it, often they don’t – but at least they’re aware of this fact.

Outside of advertising the word is used more sparingly, but even more erratically.

Generally it has become synonymous with “stats”: facts and figures gathered from research.  This usage has been encouraged by research agencies who tend to label their findings as “insights” whether they are or they aren’t.  This isn’t to say that researchers never find insights, nor that their non-insight findings don’t have worth.  It’s just that many call everything an insight, which isn’t very helpful.  Insights are a particular type of information, and in order to gather them you really need clarity over the definition of insights – what they are, and what they aren’t.

Top line, it’s pretty simple.

What separates insights from other forms of information is that they are, in effect, “secrets”.  They are “secrets” about categories, markets, consumers which your competitors probably don’t fully understand – and so when you have one you gain immediate competitive advantage, at least for a time.

This loose definition of insight certainly beats the more “proper” definitions you hear, such as:

  • A deep understanding of something
  • Understanding the true nature of a thing
  • An underlying truth
  • Etc.

These are all fine but… ugh.  They just aren’t helpful.  To me these are all wooly and subjective, and thus are indicative of why people struggle with insight.  You can totally see why people would argue about whether a given piece of information is or isn’t one.

If “secret” works for you, then use that – I certainly think substituting the word “insight” with “secret” would massively improve the clarity of most strategic conversations – however we can get more specific still.  For me the most practical and binary definition of insight is:

A piece of information which is both obvious, but unknown.

Obvious, but unknown.  Self-evidently true, but never spoken or thought of before.  That is the key.  With this definition it should be pretty clear when you find an insight.

  • Is it something that is obviously true, without the need to be verified or proven?
  • And is it also something new, which you’ve never heard before?

Tick these two boxes and you have something powerful on your hands.  These are the pieces of information which make you go “huh, I never thought of it like that”.  Information which makes the penny drop.

At first glance this definition might sound somewhat contradictory.  How can something be simultaneously obvious, yet also unknown?  Actually it’s extremely common.  There are all sorts of  such realisations hiding in plain sight, needing no fancy research to unearth; accessible purely by looking at things in a different way.

Consider the often-marvelled-at recency that people started putting wheels onto luggage.  With hindsight nobody can believe it took us to long to come up with this idea, and yet it did.  The first entrepreneur to figure this out had a genuine insight which was obviously true (luggage would be easier to roll than carry), and yet, for whatever reason, nobody had thought of it before.  Or if they had they hadn’t acted on it, which amounts to the same thing.

Another one that amazes me is the insight behind the dating app Tinder.  Tinder, it appears, were the first dating platform to realise that people don’t like putting themselves out there and risking rejection, even online.  Now I know that this doesn’t sound like an insight because it is so grossly obvious — and yet had any of their competitors responded to this?  Not meaningfully, no, and so it was in practice undiscovered information, thus an insight.  Consequently Tinder were able to design an interface – the famous swipe – which completely removed rejection from the dating equation (at least until you met in person).  This is now the standard model for all dating apps, just as wheels are now the standard for all luggage.

What is beautiful about these two examples is that while the insights were massive – completely transforming their respective categories – they weren’t especially clever.  Indeed they are almost embarrassing in their obviousness.

That obviousness is what gives insights their magical power.  Obviousness removes the need to explain the resultant product or offering to people.  Everyone instinctively “gets it”.  There is no sales pitch required for the wheeled suitcase.  No sales pitch required for Tinder.  Their worth is completely self evident.

In the world of advertising strategy, where there is far too much importance placed on the “cleverness” of an insight, the same thing applies.

Great ads use truths which the audience instantly recognise, even if the thought has never crossed their minds before.  I remember a Dove ad which juxtaposed footage of little girls excitedly posing and grinning when someone took out a camera, alongside footage of grown women covering their faces and waving the camera away in the same situation.  The insight was obviously that women’s self-esteem erodes as they move from childhood to adulthood – a truth totally recognisable, but probably not specifically thought about by most people.  As a result the ad needed no copy whatsoever.  You see the footage, and immediately you “get it”.  “Huh, never thought of it like that”.

As a result a crucial characteristic of insights is that they don’t need proof.  If something requires proof, then it isn’t an insight.  It might be a useful or interesting fact, but that’s a different thing.

For example, if I were to say to you “73% of people have never read a book”, you might find this fascinating.  But it requires substantiation.  It’s not intuitive and implicit knowledge, and so doesn’t have the leverage that an insight has.  It’s unknown, yes, but not obvious – hence not an insight.  (It’s also untrue by the way, I made it up).

Equally if something is obvious but widely known, that clearly isn’t an insight either.

“People love their pets” – we all recognise, and agree with that statement, but it’s hardly news.  It’s not very useful.  “People sometimes hate their pets”, on the other hand, is equally obvious, and yet not something that’s commonly talked about.  It’s much closer to being an insight, and, quite clearly has more commercial leverage.

So there it is, my take on insight.

Although I never actually use the word, every piece of work I do for my clients really does hinge on this idea.  Until I can tell them something obvious about their business, but which they’ve never realised before, then I haven’t delivered value.

But when I have, everything just “clicks”.

And that’s what insights are all about.

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