US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said he could not define pornography, but he “knew it when he saw it”. That’s the way most people seem to relate to insights, as well. The issue is, they don’t get to see them very often. That’s because what parade around as insights, in most cases, aren’t. And that’s a problem.

Insights are a crucial catalyst for nearly all marketing activity. As a marketing leader, I rely on insights for helping to identify relevant and valuable audiences and segmentations; for identifying the stimulus for more compelling communications; for providing the foundation for innovations and new products, among other activities.

Without insights, most ideas remain superficial and generic. So, it’s natural that everyone in the business talks about insights. If you Google “Marketing Insights”, you’ll get 802,000,000 results. Every strategic brief has a “Key Insight”. There are departments and many a job description with “Insights” in the title. And every strategist promises to be expert at digging them up.

But the problem is, as I mentioned, they’re very likely to be anything but true insights. If I had a nickel for every time a marketer, strategist, or analytics guru handed me an insight that was instead an observation, a fact, a truth, or any other such known piece of data, I’d be significantly wealthier. Though data and facts are important, they are by no means insights.

Here’s what you should be looking for in a true insight:

An insight likely won’t be a matter of fact — instead it should feel almost challenging. Often insights shed light on a tension between what is perceived and what is reality (e.g., “While people think x, in reality y is true” or “people think they care about x, but instead behave y“). These can be powerful, because they help brands communicate in a way that is closer to the real way consumers feel, vs. some superficial category or manufacturer-speak.

Often, an insight comes from something desired by people that they don’t have. Again, there is a tension that comes from what is wished for vs. actually experienced. This provides marketers with a powerful opportunity to fulfill on their consumers’ true needs.

It’s more than a data-point
Data can be at the root of insights. But an insight needs more – it needs to marry data with added context and meaning. Often there’s a feeling or sentiment – yes, X% of people do something, but how does it make them feel? – added to a data point which helps make it insightful. Which is why you generally need people with experience and curiosity behind your insight development, not just data folks – people with a more varied experience set and who are good at making connections and seeing patterns between ideas and disparate concepts.

A known thing seen in a new way
Sometimes an insight IS an observation or truth – but connected with something new and unexpected that leads you to see it in a new way. In fact, the author Walter Isaacson told Mark Schaeffer that insights fundamentally come from this combination – the mashing together of mental frameworks.

An example from the psychologist Gary Klein is a story of a police officer on routine patrol who sees a driver in a new car flick his cigarette butt inside the car. Ordinarily, that might not be terribly noteworthy – but the combination of the cigarette flick and the fact that the car was a new BMW led the officer to arrest a car thief.

It leads to something
This is the key part of an insight – an insight needs to lead somewhere. It should feel dynamic, charged, and motivate action. Its fresh-ness, tension, and creativity-grounded-in-truth should make you want to do things with it, create things, build off it. And the fact that it often is an expression of a consumer need causes marketers to want to solve for it.

And a true insight leads to change – it changes the way you understand things, see things, feel about them and how you understand. So a real insight changes you, too!

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