Where Have All the Insights Gone?


I recently asked a group of young marketers to draw an interpretive picture of the world of content marketing as they see it. Among the expected depictions of chaos and creativity was a world unlike the others. And it has haunted me. 

It was an abandoned Soviet cityscape, devoid of color, boxy, bleak and frozen in time. “Because all the content I see is so repetitive and functional.” It wasn’t post-apocalyptic—it was a world that had run out of ideas.

Every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, according to Forbes. Standing out has become the marcom challenge of our time. The content in nearly every business category is as alike as it is plentiful. It seems every client briefing I attend, regardless of objective or audience, is now burdened by this inescapable reality. “And, of course, we’ve got to break through the clutter.” Sure, no problem. 

We tend to look at “standing out” as a creative problem. We unfairly place the burden on creatives to generate new ideas distinguishable from the 30 million or so pieces shared each day. Maybe if we punched up the language. Perhaps a cleaner design. But we overlook the long march of unimaginative strategic decisions that led us inevitably to a generic endpoint, as if on a rail.

“Insight is the first condition of art.”

—George Henry Lewes

Valuable, inspiring, imaginative content has to come from somewhere. Ideas do not just waft out of the creative brain like the smell of warm pie from a kitchen. They come from revelations about the audience or subject matter. Novel ways of looking at old constructs. That is, they come from insights. 

Despite unprecedented access to consumer data and constant flaunting of the word in boardrooms, our ability to unearth real insights has decayed, and taken our chances at breakthrough work with it. And clients are losing faith that their agencies can find them: 73 percent of CMOs think their agencies are incapable of generating genuine consumer insights, according to CMO.com. 

Insight quality has declined because the bar for having one has gotten lower. We’re repeating what the data tells us rather than using it to have an original thought. “82 percent of our audience engaged with our content about jogging, so let’s do more of it” is not an insight. Nor is “Gen Z prefers engaging on mobile, so reformat our article.” These are useful observations. But insights that can drive standout content they are not. So if you want more “eureka” moments, here are a few ways to find them.

1. Develop your nose

You don’t even need to invest in new tools or people to up your organization’s insight game—just inspire your people to look at the usual stuff differently. Insights hide in plain sight, camouflaged in spreadsheets and research reports as ordinary data, but they require a certain mindset to bring them into focus. 

Become a contrarian. Be a skeptic of every research finding, and incessantly ask “why” like a curious child. (In fact, there’s a classic exercise strategists use called “The 5 Whys.” Ask yourself “why” five times in a row about whatever you see happening, and it forces you toward an insight.) 

It can be extremely valuable to have young strategists on your team, despite the conventional wisdom that you need life experience to be insightful, because they’re allowed to ask “why” freely and they aren’t battered by entrenched biases. You can also force yourself to interpret the results of research from a different perspective by role-playing. What would Elon Musk make of this data? How about Stalin? David Ogilvy? 

Become a connoisseur of tension. If you read case studies or creative briefs of famous campaigns from the Cannes Lions, Effies, 4A’s or ANA, you’ll notice they all present simple counter-narratives to conventional wisdom. “Everyone thinks X, but they really care about Y.” Find something you can flip on its head, and you’ll be getting close.

2. Diversify your inputs

So much fascinating research can be done quickly, cheaply and thoroughly now, the old excuse of forgoing research in favor of moving fast is starting to look irresponsible. Too often we rely on one person (or discipline) to look at research from one or two sources. “We’ll have Sam on the insights team look at site performance and dig up some secondary.” 

At Manifest, our audience discovery process involves multiple disciplines (brand strategy, analytics, performance and even editorial) looking at digital behavior, primary, secondary, trends and culture, and beyond. It forces observations through a gauntlet of perspectives, and it has been successful in triangulating insights. 

Get creative with where you hunt. Tools like GutCheck allow you to recruit consumers for virtual interviews in real time, at a low cost. Platforms like Pollfish let you screen consumers and field fairly sophisticated quant studies in minutes. Vendors like Savanta offer DIY survey tools as well but have also gotten lightning fast at creating custom studies. 

Social listening is great, but natural language processing can take linguistics to a different level. IBM’s Watson offers marketers a linguistics capability that can extract insights from nearly anywhere, including Tripadvisor and Yelp reviews, customer feedback, or your competitors’ blog posts or social forums. 

We should also cast a wider net by increasing the number of free, publicly available data sources that we look at for any given challenge. You can search Google Scholar or SSRN for academic papers on your topic. Sites like Reddit and IMDb have made their data available to everyone. Get the pulse on many segments of the population from the General Social Survey. Find random inspiration in places like The Upshot and Harper’s Index

3. Seek the anomaly

Let me address data analytics directly, since that has become such a focus of insight mining in the world of content. Too often, our reading of performance is too surface-level. We take the clear observations, anoint them as insights and call it a day. 

More likely, insights that lead to breakthrough work reside in the long tail of topics or articles that you don’t pay close attention to. There may be an anomaly, far from the center of the graph, that could be a hint about what might become mainstream in 12-plus months, or that represents a viable new path, were you just to try it out. 

More than anything, just fall in love with good ideas. Study them in marketing, art, culture and business. Get curious about how certain things came to be. Inevitably, some stroke of insight was behind them. Your brain (and those of the people around you) will start to calibrate for that kind of thinking, lighting up your content with fresh ideas.

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