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Can Planners Really Find An Insight In An Hour?

Why the demand for ‘quick-turnaround insights’ devalues great Planning and what we can do about it.

In 2011, Richard Huntington wrote a presentation called: ‘What’s So Good About Trends?’ where he explained that a great insight is ‘a revelation’.

The opening slide from Richard’s presentation

Back in 2011, I was a qualitative researcher, and hadn’t yet made the leap from research into my first planning role. Reading Richard’s presentation and discovering the romance of finding a revelatory insight was one of the main reasons I moved from research into strategy. I found the idea of unearthing a golden nugget of an insight and creating a great campaign from it impossible to resist.

Two revelatory insights from Richard’s presentation that stayed with me were:

1. Pot Noodle is “the culinary equivalent of masturbation” (snigger, snigger).

2. The driving safety insight of: “If you hit a kid at 40mph there is around an 80% chance they’ll die. Hit them at 30mph, there is around an 80% chance they’ll live.”

Times have changed since 2011

In 2011, it felt like there was more time to find a meaningful insight that could help a brand achieve cut-through. But today, the pressure to ‘get an insight in (what feels like) an hour’ has never been greater.

So why is this happening? And what can be done about feeding the ‘always on’ content marketing machine?

Let’s explore.

Kale sucks and so does trying to come up with an insight in an hour

In some trendy vegan Soho haunt the other week, I was chatting with a Planning Director about the current state of planning. As we munched on salty kale chips (not that nice) and tenderstem broccoli (very nice), she told me the all-too-familiar story of increasingly short client turnaround times and demand for speedy creative responses.

Which means that the pressure to ‘find the insight fast’ has never been greater.

This is causing a problem: bulletproof thinking from Planners is not so bulletproof. Strategy and insight is reduced to a half-baked piece of thinking, based on Google research and the odd Mintel report.

The default alternative to this becomes a reliance on ‘gut instinct’ and do what the creative team ‘feels is right’.

And clients aren’t stupid – they spot half-baked thinking a mile off.

So, is there a way back?

I believe there is.

We need to take a bit of ‘back to basics’ advice from John Major

I think it starts with ‘going back to basics’ (as John Major once said). That is, stepping away from Google and finding the customer again.

If the strategist owns the customer, then they own the strategy.

And by customer, I don’t just mean a quantitative view of the customer (although this still helps). Instead, I mean a rich, qualitative one. One that you unearth from getting out from behind your desk and finding a handful of real people who are potential and existing customers.

Since shifting from my role in qual research, I’ve noticed that the best insights for a brief come from conversations with customers. Whether that’s a customer workshop, a focus group, a one-to-one interview or ethnographic research, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is allowing time and space for those serendipitous phrases that spill from a customer’s mouth. Phrases that reframe the problem and the solution in one go. Phrases that give you a ‘revelation’ (something that Google has yet to master).

I know it takes time to find a customer and talk to them face-to-face. Traditional ways (like focus groups) aren’t always quick, because recruiting respondents and finding venues all takes time.

Yes, there are online options and quant surveys that can be called upon last-minute to speed things up. But I’d argue that the most beneficial insights come from face-to-face research. There really is nothing that replaces actually being with someone and talking to them, seeing their body language, their reactions, responding to their tone, and then being able to sift through what is relevant and useful from the conversation.

That’s why I’ve decided to get out there, find some meaning and talk to the customer again face-to-face (and not rely on a glib Google Form questionnaire). I push agencies to always try to include time with a customer, however short their timescale.

If it’s not possible to meet customers in the flesh, I turn to a bit of modern tech to record one-to-one video conversations for 30-60 minutes (via Skype or similar) so I can still see them face-to-face. The meaning and insights I get from these conversations are like gold dust and can all be distilled into a vox pop edit and/or PowerPoint slides.

So can an insight be found in an hour?

It’s less likely if we use traditional methods (e.g. focus groups). But by using modern tech to our advantage, we can shortcut a lot of the time normally spent on logistics. So yes, this way, it can possibly be done in a day. Two or three days certainly.

Balancing the act of finding meaningful insight within shorter timescales means stepping away from Google searches, and being more creative about how we conduct research.

Ideally we need more space to dig, research, talk with and observe people in both an online and offline capacity. But the content-churning marketing machine is always on. If we are to retain the benefit and value of robust strategy and planning, then we must go back to basics and engage with and ‘own’ the customer by simply having a cuppa or a Skype chat with them. It’s where better revelations will happen.

Simon Lamey, Freelance Planner and Strategist

Simon Lamey is a freelance digital strategist who offers Commando Research to help agencies and client-side marketers get more meaningful insights in a shorter amount of time.

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