Mike Anthony @ engage consultants

Mike Anthony on Shopper Marketing

The secret behind creating quality shopper insights

with 16 comments

There is lots of talk about the power of insights in marketing. Most advice I read on shopper marketing talks about the importance of shopper insights driving shopper marketing initiatives. Insights are undoubtedly at the heart of any marketing, including shopper marketing, but a recent conversation made me realize that perhaps there are many people out there who might be struggling with exactly how to create insights, particularly really good ones.

In a recent workshop with a client, one of the participants came up to me during a break and asked, somewhat sheepishly, “How do you create an insight?”. Her manner was interesting, as though this was something she was scared to ask – as if this was something she was supposed to know.

My first instinct was to rattle off the process that we coach; whereby we search for hypotheses and then use data to build evidence to prove, or disprove the hypothesis, and then to understand the value behind it.

But I then anticipated the next (hidden question) – where do the hypotheses come from? I could have blandly rattled off that they come from experience, gut feeling, expert opinion, but I sensed that wouldn’t really help her.

Creating insights is one of those things that make marketing so interesting – a blend of magic and science that somehow enables people to be able to conjure simple brilliance from apparently nowhere.

So how do you create an insight?

  • Don’t go looking for them. Wait for them to find you. For this to work, you need to be always open to them. And that is the challenge; insights don’t always announce themselves. Some do – they slap you in the face in a big “aha” and one is left wondering why we didn’t think of that before!
  • Flood yourself in information. Read lots. Be always interested and aware of everything. Read everything you can find on your category, customer, market, competitors. Read unrelated stuff. Follow Twitter curators (@shopperexperts for example). Go to stores and just send time observing. Insights often come from making connections between apparently unrelated data.
  • Get to know the data. When you need to find insights, immersion is the name of the game Seriously. Dig in. Not just the latest report, but ANYTHING YOU CAN GET YOUR HANDS ON. Read. Know it backwards, forwards, upside down and back to front.
  • Stop and reflect. Once you’ve eye-balled all the data – Wait. Go and do something else. Think about something else. Allow the neurons in your head to fizz over this for a while. If a thought pops into your head, play with it and then let it go (but do write it down).  Insights don’t always enter the world fully formed with a big flashing label on them. Insights can be subtle at first – they sometimes need time to mature like a fine wine.
  • Write out hypotheses. Write out all of your ideas and hypotheses and thoughts. Turn them upside down. Look at the data in a different way? Ask “what ifs”. Invert the answer (if your first thought is “20 percent of shoppers do x” – consider what the 80% are doing.
  • Back to the data. Go back to the data, or go and get some more, to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
  • Size the Prize. An insight isn’t really interesting unless it is valuable and actionable. How much might it be worth? What needs to be done to implement it?


Insight creation is not an exact science, but there are lots that can be done to get more insights, more easily. If you have any other tips or tricks which help you create your killer insights drop them in the comments box, I’m sure we can all learn from each others methods.



Written by Mike Anthony

April 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Posted in shopper insights

16 Responses

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  1. Mike – this is really a wonderful piece – thank you. I think you’ve raised really all the issues that actually are being used to create a ‘Shopper smokescreen’ by numerous agencies and their planning departments. By saying that its not a precise science you leave the people who hide behind data, exposed. I’ve noticed that very few people are looking for that ‘Aha’ experience – you know – the kind that leaves you smiling.

    Kenan Nashat

    April 26, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    • Dear Kenan,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I love your “the kind that leaves you smiling” – I know exactly what you mean.

      Data only gets you part of the way – The magic of inspiration is the key!

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      All the best,


      Mike Anthony

      April 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm

  2. Mike,

    very interesting post! I totally agree. I think there is also a great difference between retailers, who are naturally used to watch shoppers and generate shopper insights, and manufacturers.

    Manufacturers have to get into the POS, observe their shoppers and partner up with retailers to close this knowledge gap.

    Looking forward reading more interesting posts!




    April 26, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    • Hi Johannes

      Interesting point. I guess the situation also varies from retailer to retailer, and manufacturer to manufacturer. Getting into teh POS, observing shoppers and partnering where appropriate are all good insight creation tactics for sure.

      All the best and thanks for taking the time to read and comment,

      All the best,


      Mike Anthony

      April 27, 2012 at 7:48 am

  3. Dear Mike:

    Your compelling article piqued my interest-especially as it related to creating and testing the hypothesis, total industry data immersion, and your comments on stop and reflect. I believe an important element to stopping and reflecting is to share preliminary data findings with internal and external customers, and to ask them to “beat up” your hypothesis, challenge your assumptions, and share their unique points-of-view.

    Oftentimes, markteting and sales partners, and retailers, provide complementary-and critical-insights into preliminary data findings generated by shopper insights and category development professionals. Together, we are able to generate more holistic findings, which then lead to more mutually-beneficial outcomes. What’s really rewarding and fun is to have a retailer engagement culminate in your customer telling you that “…WOW, you told me something about my shopper’s behavior that I didn’t know before, and how to capitalize on the opportunity…”.

    Mike, thank you for your continued thought leadership and collaboration with your articles. I am learning a lot, and enjoying reading everyone’s posts!




    April 26, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    • Dear Phil,

      Thanks for taking the time to write, your kind words, and your very valuable build.

      The concept of sharing preliminary findings both internally and externally is a good one – often creating more support, better honed insights, or new additional ones.

      All the best,


      Mike Anthony

      April 27, 2012 at 7:46 am

  4. Observations and Conclusions Masquerading as Insights

    I had lunch with a colleague recently, someone very experienced, and he said that it had been years since anyone surfaced a true insight about shopper behavior. He was exaggerating, but only a little.

    Most of the “insights” he saw were just common sense observations and conclusions made by someone who spent a little time looking at data. And those insights are almost always superficial, incomplete and pretty darn obvious. (That makes them safe though doesn’t it? If it’s obvious, the client will nod his head in agreement and your presentation will go over well.)

    Compounding the problem is the fact that everyone else in that category looks at the same data and comes to the same conclusions, which they all mistakenly call insights. And after a while, those half-baked insights harden into dogma. Thus when a true insight is eventually identified, it is met with skepticism. Because let’s face it, it’s so much easier to fall back on the easy, agreed-upon answer, even if it’s wrong.

    Bravo to the woman who asked Mike how to know what a real insight is. She saw the emperor’s clothes mentality that was holding sway.

    The Truth is Hard to Find

    Like anything truly valuable, insights are rare and hard to come by. So what is a dedicated insight-seeker supposed to do? Look to the basics of journalism for the answer. Remember the five “W’s?” Who, What, Where, When and Why. My journalism professor said that answering those five questions is the formula for getting the complete story on a subject. And isn’t that what we are seeking when we look for insights – the complete story of our shopper?

    Most research does a pretty good job revealing four the five “W’s.” We know who he/she is (but maybe not as much as we should), what she buys, where and when. But rarely does the data tell us why. Answering the question “why” is the key to a meaningful insight.

    Who is She Really, and Why Does She Do It?

    I know that some people think that using a typical survey will provide those answers, and they would be wrong. Any research that relies on self-reported data that is not corroborated by other sources has to be considered suspect. Not only are many surveys flawed in their construction, but they also assume that the respondent actually knows why he/she took a particular action. History (and psychology) have shown us that we, as a species, are not wise enough to truly know ourselves. And even if we are, we sometimes fill in the circle with the answer we wish were true. If you want real answers, you have to do the hard work of in-depth research.

    Back to this article. Mike provides several good suggestions for getting more from the research data/numbers. Follow his advice.

    But here is what will really help you find an insight: go native. You know, actually talk to the people you are researching. Mingle with them; get to know them. Would you ever hire an employee without meeting him/her, no matter how they look on paper? Of course not. You need both the facts and the feelings to take the measure of a man (or woman).

    Yes I am talking about adding some qualitative research to the task of finding insights.

    Please don’t call them focus groups, because that term does not apply anymore. I prefer “in-depth consumer insight study.” Whatever you call it, it’s a method for having a meaningful conversation with your customer that helps you understand how she thinks, what she likes, what repels her, what motivates her, and the steps in her decision-making process. Listen to her carefully, and watch her reactions. Ask her why. She may not be able to answer, but she’ll surface a variety of feelings, motivations and body language that will get you closer to the answer.

    There are a number of ways to do this: one-on-one interviews, off site or in her home. Group discussions and informal gatherings (yes gather your customer and her friends together, serve some wine and crackers, and let it fly). Go shopping with her; use customer intercepts. Hold online interviews and feedback sessions. Hire a “moderator” (insufficient term) to direct the study, evaluate the experience and author a report.

    This next step is important: Put your moderator/qualitative team in a room with your analysts and their data, and challenge them all to work together and surface something unique and meaningful: an insight.

    Does this cost money? Yes. But in the scheme of things it’s pretty cheap; less than half the cost of a 1/2-page ad in a popular magazine. One you might not need to buy, if you have the right insights.

    Maureen H. Colley

    May 8, 2012 at 2:13 am

    • Dear Maureen,

      Firstly thanks so much for taking the time to read my piece, and then to write such a detailed and considered response. Much appreciated.

      Your point about the missing “why” question is spot on (I was thinking of it for a future blog but maybe I won’t bother now!). They “why” question has always been the one that got forgotten; and in the shopper arena with its oceans of POS data it has been forgotten even more. Insights teams in large organizations are rapidly become analysis teams, and people forget the difference between analysis and insight. POS data gives us loads on “what” and “when”; loyalty cards add “who” (I made this point in ): and it appears that as more of this data becomes available the “why” question is forgotten even more frequently. I agree an infusion of good qualitative understanding would help balance this database devotion.

      In addition to the “why” – we like to turn it around and ask “why not” – understanding why a shopper does not do what he might be expected to do is often where we find the real gems.

      Your comments on the scarcity of insights are well-made – to be honest I avoided addressing “what makes an insight an insight” as I didn’t want to lose focus on the heart of my article. For me, obvious is OK (hindsight is one of those things), and sometimes insights can feel like common sense (although they are anything but)… The key is, as you say, that if everyone has drawn the same conclusions, then they have little value, whether we call them insights or not.

      All the best and thanks again for your contribution,

      All the best,


      Mike Anthony

      May 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

  5. Dear Mike,
    Reading your article makes me smile for a while. The content (and reply from others) are very interesting and truthful. The focus of finding (I usually avoid “Creating”) true insights is extremely rare. I don’t think its not out there, but the truth are often hard to swallow for most marketers (especially if it does not drive the right behaviour or actions on their part).

    As a retailer, we are often bombarded with “insight” which are merely common sense and these are often copied from another country. It is extremely rare to see an insight that creates an “Aha” moment. I do wait for days when I am presented by my suppliers on insights that encompass your method of finding the truth. I am also impressed by the method Maureen have presented in her belief as well and I could not agree more. Data do not provide insights. Understanding your customers/ consumers is and should be the way forward. Aspirations, intentions and subconscious decision making (and not just another decision tree!) is the key to find the truth.

    If we could only understand the behavioural portion in the decision making, I believe that the opportunity that creates is truly limitless. The greatest barrier I believe is still to accept the truth. At times, I do believe that only the blind see the truth, the able see what they want to see.


    Kenneth Chuah

    May 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    • Dear Kenneth,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read, and to comment on my blog. I’m glad it made you smile – that in itself is reward enough for me!

      It is also interesting to here your perspective from a retail point of view – that so much of what you see is common sense, and often not this is copied, or biased in some way. Still – if you saw awesome insights every day I guess they wouldn’t be that special! I agree that getting into shopper behavior – really understanding how shoppers behave and most importantly why they do what they do, is what is so important. Shopping is a subconsciously driven activity and therefore the data, no matter how it is obtained, will only ever give you half of the story. the rest of the story comes from lots of other sources – often simple intuition.

      I remember a boss of mine a long time ago who said that research was merely a crutch for weak marketers. Whilst perhaps a little extreme, there is some truth in it. If we rely on a report from an agency to tell us what is really going on then we will miss out on so much. As marketers – whether retailer or manufacturer – we need to have courage and with that we will find treasures!

      Thanks so much again,

      All the best,


      Mike Anthony

      May 16, 2012 at 6:03 pm

  6. […] raised lots of questions, lots of comments, but still much of the feedback  focused on how hard people felt it was to actually  dig out an […]

  7. Mike,

    I just published a post on “What is a Shopper Insight”. The article first defines shopper insights and then shows examples of different forms.

    It might be interesting to you and your readers!

    Keep up the excellent work!




    June 26, 2012 at 5:21 am

  8. […] aside compliance (discussed at length before) there are many barriers that will prevent a purchase. One that we’ve started to uncover more and […]

  9. […] aside compliance (discussed at length before) there are many barriers that will prevent a purchase. One that we’ve started to uncover more and […]

  10. […] time – Staring at charts and tables is an essential part of the insight process  – but so is NOT staring at the data. Crunch data to a deadline for sure, but allow insight time […]

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