Find actionable insights

By Allan Dib, SVP, Planning and Analytics, North America, MSLGROUP


Bigger house = bigger maintenance cost, bigger car = bigger fuel cost and bigger pay check = more things to buy.  Bigger does not equal better.  The same goes for “big data” (whatever bigger data actually means).

I am fascinated by the latest trend and obsession with big data.  There has never been a shortage of data.  What has happened is that there is new technology to collect it, manage it and make it available to more of us.  I see people making the same mistake with big data as they made with, well, small data. Data by itself has no value to anyone.  There I said it.  It is what you do with it (lots of bricks are not as useful as a small house made with a few bricks).

What we need is more actionable insights.

What is an actionable insight?

The ‘bigger is better’ mentality has to stop.  People are hiding behind numbers. It is time to focus on actionable insights. We need information that explains why people are doing what they do – or not doing? We need insights that will help us develop meaningful strategies.

Ready to be shocked?  Assuming a normal distribution of data, a base size of n=30 is all you need to give you the confidence to compare two groups (I normally err on the side of being safe and want at least n=75).

Over time researchers have moved from data to information to insights to actionable insights. There are many definitions of an actionable insight but the one I work towards is this:

A fundamental truth about our target that we can leverage to drive growth.

I like this because the definition includes two parts

  • The insight – “a fundamental truth about our target”
  • The evaluation of actionability – “that we can leverage to drive growth”

It is important that we can leverage it because otherwise it is simply an insight, a nice-to-know.  In our business it needs to be actionable.

It pains me that we need to include the word “truth” in the definition but we do.  Why? Some people try and pass a hypothesis as an insight.


Explore the 4 Cs to pursue actionable insights

The 4 Cs refer to the 4 areas we should be exploring in our pursuit of an actionable insight.  They are Consumer (aka target), Company, Communication and Culture.

  1. Consumer aka target

Our clients know (or should know) everything about the target as a consumer or employee or patient or shareholder.  Our goal is to know everything about them as a Human.  What does that mean? That means looking at all aspects of their life beyond just their interaction with the category; understanding what goes in their Head, in their Heart and what they do with their Hand.

    • Head: What do they think? What drives them?
    • Heart: What do the feel?  What motivates them?
    • Hand: What do they do in their life? What media/communication channels do they use?
  1. Company

We need to immerse ourselves in the company and understand the challenges the company is facing and what the opportunities for the company are.  Communication strategies need to be authentic and realistic for the company, not just the brand.

    • Company culture: What is the company’s vision? Its value? What does it believe?
    • Company performance: What is happening to the financial performance of the company?
  1. Culture

We are all impacted by the broader macro trends, no matter what vertical we are exploring and seeking to understand.  These trends provide us with an opportunity to capitalize on.  We should explore trends wide and far and not just category trends.

    • Category trends: What are the trends in the vertical we are exploring?
    • Demographics trends: What are the broader trends and how will they impact our target?
  1. Communications

Current and past communications will provide inspiration and uncover communications trends to either capitalize or avoid. It is important to assess communications not just on what is out there but to understand the performance of these creative trends.

  • Past communications: Understand the performance through ad testing and ad tracking.
  • Category communications: It is critical that our clients’ communication strategies are differentiated from clients.
  • Communications targeting your target: The target is bombarded with communications from not just our category but all categories.  Understand these as well.

So how do you come up with an Actionable Insight?
Be Wondrous.


There is not a magic way to come up with an actionable insight.  It is a mixture of art and science.  Having said that, there are some steps you can take to come up with actionable insight.

  • Keep asking why – Work the data hard.  The answer is never going to be on the surface.  You need to understand why people are saying/doing what they are doing.
  • Listen/look for strong emotion – An actionable insight is more often than not strongly associated with strong emotion.
  • Look for trends – An actionable insight is often the culmination of many different data points gathered from many different sources.
  • Identify a tension – We want to make our client a hero.  If we can identify a tension (either rationally or emotionally), we will be able to find a place for our client to become a hero.

There’s a world of Insights to explore, each can inform a brilliant idea

People tend to look for a consumer insight to exploit.  But there are many different types of insights that a brand can exploit for growth.

Some people think coming up with an insight is easy. It is not. And I don’t have an insight tree that I can go pick one off for you – so stop asking.  Give yourself time (and those requesting them – give us some time!). Also coming up with an actionable insight is not always associated with a ‘Eureka!’ moment.

My advice to you is to remain inquisitive and curious.  Keep asking – but why? But why?  And you will come up with that killer actionable insight.

And make sure that the actionable insight is carried right through the strategy and communications plan.  Otherwise – why bother?


This post is part of our People’s Insights report Data In. Data Out. Transforming Big Data into Smart Ideas.

People's Lab

People's Lab

People’s Lab is MSLGROUP’s proprietary crowdsourcing platform & approach that helps organizations tap into people’s insight for innovation & change.

One Response to “Find actionable insights”

  1. MSLGROUP Peoples Lab (@PeoplesLab)

    #Data by itself has no value to anyone – it’s what you do with it, says @diballan in Data In. Data Out.


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