Loomis Marketing Blog

Riffs on B2B Marketing

Insights: What they are and how to find them

Insights are the new black. 

Seems like every B2B company simply has to have them…or at least a department charged with collecting them.  But…

  • What are insights, really
  • How can you recognize them?
  • How can you get more of them?
  • What should we do with them?

To answer these questions, let’s turn to three people who ought to know: 

  • Dr. Abbie Griffin holds the Royal L. Garff Presidential Chair in Marketing at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah.  She also just happens to have coined the term “voice of customer” (VOC).
  • Liam Fahey is Executive Director of Leadership Forum, Inc. and Clinical Professor of Management at Babson College.  A native of Ireland, he is one of the foremost authorities on B2B competition, strategy and neuroscience. 
  • Robert Lurie is Vice President Corporate Strategy at Eastman Chemical and for many years was a partner at Monitor Group, originally founded by Michael Porter.  Bob is an expert on the application of insights within the B2B space.

I had the opportunity to visit with all three of these experts recently at the annual members meeting of the Institute for the Study of Business Markets (ISBM), the leading B2B marketing think tank located at Penn State University.

First, will the real VOC please stand up?

I asked Dr. Griffin if the world is using the VOC term the way she intended.  The answer, after a laugh, was a quick “not really.”  She recounted running into to someone who bragged about their outstanding VOC program:  net promoter score (NPS).  Well, since NPS is designed as a customer satisfaction monitoring program using a high-volume quantitative approach, it’s just about the polar opposite of how Griffin defines VOC.  When I asked for the real definition, she said it’s pretty simple: 

  • Voice of customer is learning about a customer’s challenges - in their entirety – and prioritizing them so they can be addressed through product improvements and innovation.

While this doesn’t sound particularly groundbreaking, the proper use of the term VOC and legitimate programs to capture it can be hard to find.  But find them we must…since they are the very foundation of gaining insights.  Without consulting customers, it’s pretty hard to get insight.

So, what are insights?  Literally not what you expect.

Let’s assume we manage to set up a successful voice-of-customer function featuring consistent processes that bring back just the information we need.  We might combine this qualitative input with macro trend analysis, quantitative research results and industry market size and share data.  And don’t forget, we’re not alone.  Our competitors have much of the same data.  Liam Fahey likes to say that everyone is looking at the same world.  But the winners?  They see something else.

What is Fahey’s definition of insight?  Here it is:

  • Insight is a new understanding of something…that makes a difference. 

It’s a unique perspective gained through interpretation of data.  But the perspective has to have impact.  It has to make difference.  The value of insight is to deliver better strategy.  And better strategy yields superior results. 

Think you have an insight?  Test it.  Then push harder.

Fahey has a new book coming out called The Insight Discipline.  In that book, he’ll outline some key characteristics of insights.  The point is that insights are not just regurgitated data, fancy charts or even ideas.  They are special...which is why not everyone has them and if can find them they’ll give you competitive advantage.  Consider the following: 

Insights…

  • Explain something – something not understood before
  • Are initially hidden – not obvious, but seem so once uncovered
  • Involve judgements – they are not about facts
  • Are novel – they are often counterintuitive
  • Are about the future – they are not about the past
  • Usually come from small data – not big data
  • Require a mindset shift – they challenge the status quo
  • Have a shelf life – they expire if not acted upon

The next time you’re handed a pile of data or you’re giving a presentation, use the above list and challenge yourself to include a few conclusions that pass the litmus test above.

Fahey claims there is a path to insight and warns not to settle for basic insights but to push for even higher-level insights.  He outlines the “4i Insight Diamond” in which:

  • Indicators represent the data analyzed
  • Inference is derived from the data
  • Insight comes from multiple inferences
  • Implications result

Many B2B marketers get excited at indicators and even stop at inference.  Even the most experienced among us might stop at a basic insight and not push harder for an even more unique, deeper understanding of a situation.  When in doubt, ring it out.

Tough to find insights?  Go low-tech and think small.

These days we’re tempted to throw Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet-of-Things (IoT) at absolutely every problem we face.  Need insights?  Hire a data scientist.  While there’s a role for these technologies and roles, it’s not the silver bullet we all seek.  In fact, Fahey contends the most elusive answers can be found by taking the opposite course.  Head back to basics.

Fahey offers a few practical suggestions on how to generate more insight within B2B companies:

  • Conduct whiteboard sessions:  more meaningful insights are uncovered from conversations between people than computer programs.
  • Invent a fake competitor:  imagine how a new entrant would attack your market if starting from scratch and then think how you might do the same – or protect against it.
  • Map out simple strategic alternatives:  just the consideration of different choices leads to more creativity, more ideas and more innovation.
  • Create healthy debate:  good insight almost always comes from properly managing the deliberations about the data rather than the analysis of the data.
  • Sell internally with diplomacy:  actions resulting from insights usually threaten established processes…and people.
  • Foster an insights culture:  create an ongoing process and encourage top leadership to ask questions that challenge teams to deliver insights, not just information.

A Cool Case Study

Robert Lurie, VP Corporate Strategy at Eastman Chemical, also presented at the recent ISBM meeting.  Bob described a past consulting assignment in which a single, powerful insight turned around a company’s sales growth.  The company made air conditioning systems for commercial buildings.  We’ll call them Acme Cooling.

An indicator

Acme Cooling’s sales force claimed they knew everything about their customers and their decision process.  But sales had been flat for years, so a VOC study was conducted to chart the buying process starting way back, beginning with the prospect’s realization of need.  One of the things they learned was that buyers started researching earlier than they thought and often engaged in informal discussions with a potential vendor in order to get smarter about new systems prior to writing and issuing an RFP.

An inference

They then tracked which products were selected across hundred of deals and determined a high correlation between the firms consulted initially and a final decision in their favor.

An insight

They then concluded that without changing anything about their product, they could increase sales simply by getting an early meeting with certain decision makers. This approach created something called downstream leverage.  An action early in the process tipped probability in favor of one company that influenced everything that followed. 

An Implication

Finally, the company shifted its main marketing objective from “sell the benefits of our product to the entire market” to “get an early meeting with key segments of the market.”   Marketing dollars were then disproportionately allocated to just a few segments with “high propensity to meet” and the marketing message shifted from the previous (and ineffective) “we’re better” to a behavior-change message of “please just meet with us.” 

Acme’s strategy was new, novel, hidden, radical and initially resisted by the organization.  But it worked.  And it came from small data, not big data.  It came from a foundation of good VOC.  And it came from real insight.

B2B organic growth:  To be or not to be?

There’s no shortage of data.  There is, however, a shortage of insight.  All B2B marketers need to push harder for new understandings that make a difference.  Because if we don’t shake things up, our competitors will.  Growth going forward won’t depend on thinking bigger, but on thinking smarter

But it won’t be simple.  It’s not easy to find the insights and it’s even harder to sell the implications internally.  At first, your colleagues might even think you’re crazy.  Liam Fahey mentioned one of his favorite books is Hamlet and, at one time, he could recite the entire play by heart.  I can almost imagine him thinking about insight, as he says in his lovely Irish brogue “Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.” 

Dave Loomis