What is Insight?

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you work in an Insight team. So what are insights?


Most people would agree that insights are not the same thing as data, or facts, or information. Insights may well be drawn from all of these, but in themselves they are not the same as insights.


Many people outside our teams might well describe Insight as market research, customer analytics or competitor intelligence. But we would say that these are labels which describe some of the functional inputs to the insight generation process. They are not the same as insights either.


So what are insights?


Confession time: before working full time with the Insight Management Academy, I ran the Insight and Analysis function at Barclays in the UK for over a decade, and during that time I didn’t really put too much faith in precise definitions. I would have said that whether something was seen as insightful had as much to do with the audience and what they had previously known or not known, as it did with whether the work conformed to a specific definition.


I was more interested in whether we were developing evidence-based opinions that could move the organisation in a sensible direction. But definitions can sometimes be useful, so here goes. The IMA defines insights as:


'Insights are contextualised observations about consumer value, behaviour, habits, circumstances, attitudes, market or environment that have the potential to change how an organisation acts and achieves success'.


That’s a lot of words, so let’s focus on three parts of the definition in turn:


Insights are contextualised observations


Insights are not isolated facts or figures, they are findings presented in the light of a wider piece of contextual understanding. 


Writing this in April 2020, every day we are told how many people have been hospitalised with the coronavirus. Each instance represents a crisis for someone and their family, but the daily numbers don’t really mean anything as statistics in themselves.


They only become insights if we are simultaneously told whether that is more hospitalisations or fewer than in previous days, more or less than our hospital capacity, more or less than expected, or the number seen in other countries.


about consumer value, behaviour, habits, circumstances, attitudes, market or environment


The long list in the middle reflects the wide range of focus, even for a team specialising in customer and market insight. Any piece of evidence is relevant to our role if it helps us to explain how and why consumers in our market become customers of our organisation, and create or destroy value for it.


It follows that there can be many data inputs to the insight generation process, including:


Customer databases: if we are lucky enough to have them, may tell us the identity of our customers, the nature of the relationship we have with them, the transactions they do, and the value of those transactions.


Internal data: other departments may supply important pieces of the knowledge jigsaw – employee interactions, operational constraints, financial implications, complaints made.


Market data: the sector in which we work will often determine our ability to analyse our own customer data versus our relative reliance on market data. But all companies need some external perspective about the volume and value in a market, their share of that market, and broader trends (consumer, demographic, societal, economic, technological, etc).


Consumer research: last but by no means least, the market research which forms the backbone of Insight work in many companies, whether it’s quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic, semiotic, or [insert your favourite methodology here]. We all need to talk to our customers to understand why they do what they do, and under what circumstances they might behave differently.


that have the potential to change how an organisation acts and achieves success.


And finally, a key differentiator between insights and information. All progressive Insight leaders agree that insights have to be actionable, and if taken, that action would have to contribute to our organisations’ success. Nine times out of ten it’s possible, indeed imperative, to quantify that success with a $ or £ sign; first to prove to ourselves that we have produced valuable insights, and secondly in order to demonstrate the benefit of our recommendations to decision-makers.


So that’s the IMA’s definition of insights. Feel free to produce your own if you prefer different words. But check that your definition covers the same bases, otherwise there’s a risk that your Insight team will go on to define its work too narrowly.


Finally, if we now have an answer to the question, ‘what are insights?’ does that mean that we also know the answer to a second question, ‘what is insight?’. Not necessarily.


What is insight?


If insights are individual, contextualised discoveries, insight is the accumulated understanding that is built up from many insights. It relates to the process of collating evidence and findings from multiple projects and sources, reflecting on the connections, and investigating the contradictions.


It’s this bigger picture that enables corporate Insight specialists to form evidence-based opinions that explain to others how and why consumers in our market become customers of our organisation, and how they create or destroy value for it.


So that’s insights and insight. What are the implications for the work of Insight teams? That’s the question we’ll explore in our next 5 Minute Insight email. If you work in a corporate Insight team and you would like to receive our 5 Minute Insight emails every month, please click here