The nebulous concept of an insight

(Note: Apologies in advance if I offend past, present or future clients and colleagues with the following opinion)

Inspired by Neil and John railing against the word “consumer”, I must profess my annoyance with how “insight” is bandied around. I’m struggling to think of a word more overused and misused (the word “specialist” with respect to social media is the only thing that springs to mind).

SIDENOTE: Personally, I don’t mind consumer and think it is a better word to use that people. People may imply some level of individuality or humanity, but it is broad and without context – at least consumer implies an action.

Anyway, insight…

According to this, an insight is

the ability to gain a relatively rapid, clear and deep understanding of the real, often hidden and usually complex nature of a situation, problem, etc

Notice the words “hidden” and “complex”.

Insights aren’t part of a production line. It is rare that someone can go away and just come up with a new insight, or meet a request for some particular insights, or deliver an insightful piece of work with a snap of the fingers.

It takes time. It is labour intensive. It isn’t a commodity. It is both inspiration and perspiration.

Insights are rare. Compelling and fresh insights are even rarer.

The best, if overused, example that comes to mind is “Dirt is Good“. Genius.

So when people have “insight” in their job title, or work for the “insight” department, I have to suppress a groan.

Before I joined Essential, I was a Commercial Research & Insight Consultant at ITV. I always explained to people that my job comprised of three distinct elements:

Data: Reporting on numbers and explaining situations. When I dealt with data, I was an analyst

Research: Overseeing the process of finding out something new (at a fairly basic level). People may disagree, but I see research as a process. When I dealt with research, I was an executive

Insight: Connecting the dots between different data points or research projects to (attempt to) comprehend the deep nature of a business issue.

But I never knew what to call myself when trying to deal with insights. So when I went around to different companies delivering my report on online video, I used words like “recommendations”, “conclusions” and “ideas” and relied on my job title of “consultant”.

What could I have been? Insights aren’t analysed and they aren’t executed nor managed. Could I have been an Insight connector? Insight developer? Explorer? Gardener?

Insights are the most infrequent part of my job in the market research industry and the most misunderstood. They are also the most challenging and thus the most rewarding.

So when someone asks me for some insights into an area, they are perfectly entitled to. But they need to be sure that this is what they really want, as it takes a lot of time, a lot of patience and there is no guarantee that the end product is something that fits in snugly with any objectives or strategies.

sk

EDIT: As Will succinctly points out, there is a big difference between an insight and an observation. Kudos to the “creative”.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cayusa/

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6 Responses

  1. I like insight miner. Implies someone’s had to sweat to get what they want.

    Or insight panner – like someone who pans for gold. Mostly water, but every now and then…

  2. When people talk to me about insights I put my journo hat on: what they’re actually looking for, as often as not, is an angle.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts Will & Tom. Miner and angler are certainly improvements on gardener.

    Panner does sound a bit like someone who is trying to detract from an insight though – or provide a bit of realism 🙂

  4. I had an argument w/a former manager about “miner” by the way – they said it implied industrialisation and low status. So you can’t win.

    I’ve never seen a good definition of insight, or a convincing example – refine any ‘truth’ enough and you hit a truism, or a proverb.

  5. I’d just add ‘strategic research’ to the list of over/misused phrases…

    And here’s a definition of ‘insight’ – based on output – I prepared (somewhat) earlier ; )

    http://zebrabites.com/2008/04/03/insight-2/

  6. Thanks Katie – it is indeed very useful. Though I would argue that an insight is as much an inference as an answer. The connections are as important as the questions.
    Simon

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