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In my internet wanderings, I came upon a Fast Company article from ancient history (2011) by design firm, Method. The article drew parallels between standup comedy and innovation. I like a good analogy article, but a few of their points resonated on their own. Specifically, they relate to the idea of data vs. insights:

  • Data Does Not Replace Insight

  • You Can’t Test Your Way to a Decision

  • Know Your Audience, Then Ignore Their Advice

In this era of marketing, poo-pooing the significance of data would be ridiculously old-timey. You’re not about to see that in this article. After all, collecting, organizing, and acting on consumer data are some of the key ways I help businesses. However, I strongly believe data don’t stand on their own. Human insight, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking are key. In short, well-managed data can give a good picture of “what” has happened. They can help predict “what” will happen. For very stable, patterned systems, this may be sufficient. Things like A/B testing the response to buttons on websites respond well to data-driven optimization, for example. “Stable” and “predictable” are not adjectives that apply to the overall behavior of consumers or markets, though.

Things like A/B testing the response to buttons on websites respond well to data-driven optimization, for example. “Stable” and “predictable” are not adjectives that apply to the overall behavior of consumers or markets, though.

For that reason, we need to dig a bit deeper. We must trust in things like creativity and observations. That means acknowledging people often don’t know or can’t articulate what they want from a brand. The product development world is littered with stories of products no one asked for, which arrived with a massive impact. They worked because their designers understood the “why” of consumer demand. They had a vision of how consumers might react to innovations outside their experience–and they were right. There is no magic formula for breakthroughs, but there are ways to systematize and bake insight into everyday marketing practices.

The first goes back to our old friend, data. Before “ignoring” what your audience wants, you must first understand them. So data collection and interpretation are still critical. But easily quantified or organized data aren’t the only kinds. A plan that includes some qualitative research (focus groups, interviews, surveys, etc.) is often an improvement, especially when the goal is to innovate. Learnings inside your category and outside of it are also often helpful. Analogy and metaphor often spark creativity. A broad media diet and an eye for connections often help. Finally, the ability to tie all these inputs together, find the key pieces of truth, and design a plan around them are key. These are all skills you and your business can develop.

When it comes to the question of data vs. insights, the best answer is usually both. For the best marketing and product ideas, “Why” matters.


This post originally appeared on John’s personal site and is republished here with the author’s permission.