“If I can Google it, it’s not insight”: The Information Advantage in New Corporate Ventures
There is a difference between information and insight. Today, most customer research falls into the former category, and it’s a leading result of new venture failure.
Insight is probably the most over-used and under-appreciated word in the innovation and consulting canon. You, as the buyer, buy us because you believe we’re going to contribute it, and we, as the agency, spend 90% of our time trying to find it.
And yet, in my experience, many new ventures die, often with gross over-investment, because they did not build on real insight. They asked people what they wanted, built it, and then were surprised when those same people didn’t become, well, paying customers.
Why does this happen? Because most of the time we gather data and information, but not insight. Whilst our abilities to design and deliver have been transformed over the last few years, most ‘insight gathering’ is still conducted with a phone and a clipboard. But to understand how we might improve our chances of finding insight, we first have to revisit why it is we’re doing so in the first place…
Disclaimer: There are many forms of ‘insight’, each covering fundamental aspects of a competitive business — customer (something about customers that no one else knows), technical (a technical method that no one else knows), operational (an ability to deliver in a way that no one else knows). Here we’ll be dealing with customer insight.
Why are we looking for insight?
Put simply, for competitive advantage — specifically, competitive advantage from information exclusivity. We want to find something that no one else knows, or that everyone else believes to be untrue. That, for me, is the benchmark of true insight. Because that’s competitive advantage; even more so when we generally believe the information to be ubiquitous today.
Cue quote stream:
‘Tell me something that’s true that nobody agrees with you on.’ — Peter Thiel’s favorite interview question.
‘The consensus is built into the price…so in order to be successful you’re betting against the consensus, and you have to be right.’ — Ray Dalio on successful investment philosophy.
‘You need to find, I believe, a contrarian idea that is true.’ — Bill Gross on having ideas.
So, if I can Google it, it’s probably not a competitive advantage. After all, Google’s stated intent is to organise the world’s information, not its insight.
In venture or new business development, only one thing really matters when everything shakes out: people have this problem and they will pay you to make it go away. I’ll put the caveat aside that ‘enough’ people have the problem often ‘enough’ and will pay ‘enough’. For most successful new businesses, there’s probably only one piece of insight at its core that you need to build on to find this. A single, tiny piece of grit for you to take and develop a pearl around.
An example. When I was a child — there were two rules: never get into a car with strangers, and don’t meet up with people you’ve only met on the internet. Uber found that, actually, people will get into cars with strangers that they’d met with people on the internet for a mobile, on-demand, payment embedded, (cheaper) taxi service. Similarly for AirBnB — the insight was that regular people were willing to host strangers in their homes, and people were willing to pay them to do so. Something that few other folks knew or assumed to be untrue at the time.
So if I can’t Google it, how do I get it?
You need to spend time with customers and understand them *yawn*. But bringing customers into a lab environment and asking them a set of questions that you could probably put into a survey doth not insight make.
As a customer, I can stare you straight in the face and tell you ‘yeah, I really like your idea’ with no intention to do anything about it. It’s surprisingly easy to do when you’ve been paid £50 to be there, are being beamed at by 2–3 people in the Scandinavian uniform of the ‘agency-type’ and have been lavished with free coffee and light refreshments.
Yes Tom, but we do insight better because we ask really good questions.
Sure, you might be The Mentalist of customer research, but you’ve still only proven what I say I do. And I rarely do that. Principally because I don’t have a clue what I’m doing most of the time. I refer you to ‘The Father of Advertising’, David Ogilvy:
“The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.”
How you use or consider something in the lab doesn’t accurately reflect how you act or feel when waiting for the bus, getting the kids into the car, or trying to use the ‘incredibly cybersecure’ office wifi network. (Speed Kills, people).
So how else?
I’m not saying that depth interviews or focus groups are a complete waste of time and money. The first and easiest thing you can do is have a conversation with customers. But whilst they may be necessary but are absolutely not sufficient. You need to bring some ‘realness’ back into the equation. We need to find ways of injecting that non-linear, illogical human behaviour back into our inquiry if we want a chance of finding that one golden nugget of contradiction. For me, there are four ways we can do this.
1. Get the problem yourself. Sometimes easier said than done. I wouldn’t say that this necessarily provides you with any answers — after all, you’re a cohort of one (and I don’t mean just because your mother says you’re special). But it helps you ask better questions of others because you’ve moved past the first level of superficial understanding.
2. Spend time with people in their environment (a.k.a. contextual inquiry and Ethnography). Getting realness takes time here, because you have to become a familiar object in the environment. Like Jack Sparrow found with his turtles, at first your subject will alter their behaviour to accommodate your presence. Eventually, they will revert to the norm through familiarity and you can explore the inconsistencies and contradiction in their world. Even on a shorter timeframe, simply interacting with folks in their natural environments helps dig into a deeper level of understanding. It might be fictionalised, but I think this comparison between the Leave and Remain Brexit campaigns speaks volumes (See Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War).
3. Digital Listening. This is the digital equivalent of ‘contextual inquiry’ — standing out on the high street and watching people do what they do. Realness is achieved here through invisibility — we all are kinda aware that we’re being watched online, but not enough to dramatically alter our behaviour. Watching people move, search, browse, tab-toggle and interact across the web provides an incredible window into their travails and intents. For example, how people search provides you with an incredibly rich view: consider the difference in frustration or confusion between typing ‘lennox no more I love yous’ and ‘what is the song that starts with do be do be do do do — ah?’ into Google.
4. Launch stuff at them. Simply observing the world, as if it were a fine piece of art or machinery only gets you so far. The world and societies we live in are incredibly dynamic — full of action and reaction. And most of this defies conventional scientific logic (Neil deGrasse Tyson). So once we’ve understood what the pond looks like, let’s chuck a rock in it to see how things react. Stimulating and provoking customers into decisions and actions uncovers more about them than asking them to self-reflect. It helps you understand the dynamics of the world you’re exploring, how it reacts to change, and how it changes over time.