How to Develop 'Insights' that Mean Something


One of the advantages of sticking around an industry for a long time is that you have a decent chance to have known someone who left a mark on its development. I was lucky enough to have known Saul Ben-Zeev, one of the guys who developed the focus group as a marketing research tool. I went to work for Saul in 1978, fresh out of graduate school, and I worked beside him as a junior analyst, then a senior colleague, and then, eventually, as a partner in the business.

I say that Saul was, "one of the guys" because focus groups, like most things, came about because several people were working with similar ideas at about the same time, and, in this case, all of them contributed to the "group depth interview," as focus groups were then known.

Groups were developed from the "focused" one-on-one interviews that were pioneered by Robert Merton and Patricia Kendall in the mid 1940s. The depth, or focused, technique was applied to groups for therapeutic purposes in the 50s, when therapy groups, or T-groups, became a standard tool for psychologists. Saul, a product of the University of Chicago psychology department, was familiar with the technique and was one of several practitioners who worked to re-purpose group interviews for MR starting in the late 50s, when Creative Research, the predecessor to C+R, was founded.

The motive behind "group depth interviewing," for both psychology and marketing, was mining for insights. And a great deal of serious thought was given on the academic side to the nature and quality of the "insights" that could be discovered. It was something Saul had spent a great deal of time thinking about, both as a student and a research professional.

So it may seem surprising that I've never known anyone in the business who put less stock in "insights" than Saul. He was particularly tough on what he called "gurus" who traded in "insight" without the benefit of rigorous analysis or meticulously constructed argument. And he was equally dismissive of those focus group moderators - several of whom we hired over the years - who felt their wealth of "insights" made up for their poor analytic skills. "Insights," Saul said many times, "are a dime a dozen."

What cost much more than a dime, and was the only truly worthwhile goal in Saul's mind, was the ability of closely reasoned logic to instill a sense of confidence in the reader of a report, specifically, the confidence to make a decision.

What Saul realized a half-century ago is something that the MR industry seems to struggle with, learning and re-learning. Most marketing research is conducted because someone has to make a decision. A team will have to align around that decision, argue for it, and support it through a process involving intense scrutiny and, often, intense pressure from other teams to take a different course.

The industry seems to have learned that no one in business today needs more data, but the blogosphere seems to be all over the idea that they all need "insight." Saul will be 86 this summer, and he doesn't come around the office very much anymore, but every time I hear that a client is "starving for insight" I can hear Saul's voice dismissing the thought.

Dictionaries say "insights" are intuitive and that they reveal some deep truth or essence. Saul certainly recognized that clients needed deep truths, and he delivered them - week after week, report after report - over a long, distinguished career. I went to many presentations with him, and saw the way his clients idolized him. And I can tell you without hesitation that the insights poured out of his pen (or pencil - he never really did get comfortable with a keyboard).

The thing about insights is that they feel deep and intuitive when you hear them and you've got the context that they fit into ready in your mind. The key fits the lock, turns, and suddenly, you get it! Without that context, that set up, an insight doesn't hold up. You may feel its rightness in your gut, but you'll have difficulty getting your team to align behind it and even more defending it. (It's more than interesting to look at some famous insights when you're a bit removed from the right context; often they're not much more than gibberish without the support structure. "The medium is the message." "Business is like the Beatles.")

For an insight to be insightful, the audience has to be ready to get it. And for one to have an impact, they have to be able to get others to get it, even in the face of opposition. And for that, as Saul taught all of us who worked with him, you need to provide the supports.

Maybe one reason that clients feel starved for insights is that they've seen too many that were nothing but intuition; insights that evaporated at the slightest hint of a challenge. Or maybe they've seen too many tortured arguments that never got down to the deep level where insight lies.

Clients are starved for insights wrapped in a well thought-out supporting structure.

Personally, I think this was one of the many things Saul right. What's really needed is an analyst who has the experience to understand the decision to be made, who carefully works through how what's been learned relates to the issues that drive the decision, who can then find insights that will feel deep and intuitive. Anything less really isn't worth a dime.

Newsletter Signup