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Innovation Inspiration: 5 Unconventional Ways to Find Compelling Insights
Jul 07th, 2015

Insights are what I refer to as the “secret sauce” in the upfront innovation process. A new, provocative or compelling insight around human behavior, pain points, social or industry trends, or even new business models is typically the springboard for which most successful new products, new services and new businesses are created.

Yet, as critical as great insights are to the future success of any business, the majority of companies continue to bet the future of their business on traditional consumer-based research methods – like focus groups, web surveys, panels, etc. – expecting to learn something new, evolutionary or even revolutionary from the same customer demographic or lifestyle/behavior segments.

Albert Einstein referred to this repetitive activity in his famous quote:

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Einstein

And I have to wholeheartedly agree with him given that the majority of new product introductions tend to be lackluster at best. These incremental innovations are rampant in many categories, but more so in the personal care category where you will discover a new toothpaste or mouthwash flavor or a new shampoo scent versus a truly new product benefit being offered. Jay Samit, a serial entrepreneur in the digital media space, said it best, "In today's business climate, incremental innovation is like walking on quicksand -- it will keep you busy, but you won't get very far."

Personally, I believe that you have to “shake things up” by doing things unconventional in both the ways you are finding new insights AND in the way you are evaluating those more revolutionary ideas for the market. Sometimes it is simply impossible to ask potential customers if this is something they want or would purchase. I’m reminded of the Starbucks concept. If Howard Schulz had evaluated his new business concept with traditional research, I’m betting that consumers would have been interested in a customized coffee beverage, but I seriously doubt they would have been willing to pay $3.45 or higher for a cup of flavored coffee given that most coffee at restaurants sold for $.35 a cup back in the 70’s when Starbucks began in Seattle.

Times are definitely changing, and therefore, we too must change and experiment with other ways of discovering deeper insights to identify opportunities that are more emotionally relevant to our customers if we are going to have highly competitive offerings in the marketplace. We can no longer sit at our desks and expect a eureka! moment to happen. We need to get in touch with our business, our customers, and our retailers at a very basic and personal level.

Finding new insights is always a time investment, but I’ve found that you get more for less with unconventional approaches. These methods are more agile, less expensive, and can be completed in compressed timeframes. What is needed is a personal commitment that involves rolling up your sleeves and being fully immersed in the process to help identify the rich, robust insights necessary to truly lead the market. These impactful insights rarely jump off the pages of a research report while sitting at your desk. You need to carefully plan and embark on an insights journey. As I said before, this is not going to be a quick 15-minute exercise. It’s going to take time, your time. But, it will definitely be time well-spent as it will pay-off in a return on insights (ROI) in the form of a return on investment (ROI).

When you take the time to observe, learn and discover, you will make unlikely connections with the various pieces of information. These connections between your traditional and non-traditional information will allow your brain to make “collision points” – the intersection where new ideas develop that will fill your pipeline with profitable business solutions. 

While there are many new ways to gather insights, I’ll share 5 (of my many) unconventional ways I personally use when working on innovation projects:

#1: Browse boutiques and specialty stores

As shoppers, we are influenced by marketing messages and displays at various retailers. In fact, one in four shoppers find out about new products by browsing in-store1. Boutique stores tend to be more visually stimulating, boldly depicting the latest fashion, ingredient and technology trends. They work harder at this versus your traditional mass channel stores, so this is a great place to explore and observe. Take note of what they are promoting, how they are promoting it, and the technology or ingredients that are highlighted. Often, it is the small nuances like a unique delivery system, bottle shape, or how a product is actually packaged (i.e. seasonal gift box versus standard clear clam-style packaging) that make all the difference in the perception of the efficacy of the product.

#2: Scan magazines

Your traditional research methods have probably identified the top magazines that interest your customers. And if not, then ask someone that is or would be a potential customer which magazines they frequently buy or have subscriptions to and pick up a few of them next time you’re at the store. Flip through them and check out the content and the ads.

Get an easel pad, scissors, and some tape and begin to cut out article titles, key words from the ads, symbols and other imagery to create a large collage board. It doesn’t matter where you place the items on the paper.

When you get through all the magazines, step back and take a look at what you’ve created. You will begin to see patterns to help identify your customer’s primary interests, needs and desires. What new insights can you identify from the content - are they foodies, weekend warriors, gamers, germaphobes? Do they have Netflix, an iPhone? Are they Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest users? What are your customers’ needs, aspirations, hopes, and dreams? What does this mean about your customer (hypothesize some theories) and how can your brand capitalize on this? How could your brand (or a new product) fit into their world (if it doesn’t already), or fill their needs better? What would they love your product to do, but they just don’t know it yet?

#3: Coffee Klatch

Deep conversations happen best over a hot cup of coffee. Grab someone that uses your product or your competitor’s product in your category and take them down the street for a cup of Joe. Have them tell you about their product experience. To help manage your time and keep your conversation productive, try using some of the prompts below:

-          How did you start buy it?

-          What were you hoping it would do for you?

-          What do you like about it?

-          What do you dislike about it?

-          What would it need to do for you to rave about it to a friend?

-          Have you tried any other products like that? If so, have them tell you what’s different about each product experience.

From my experience, questions lead to more questions, so don’t hesitate to ask additional questions, but make sure you get all core questions answered. Also, ideas may naturally pop into your head. Keep track of them and then get some reaction to them towards the end of your time together. It may be beneficial to have your interviewee sign a confidentiality agreement if you are sharing some proprietary ideas.

#4: Review social media and blogs

Facebook, blogs and other social media outlets give everyone the opportunity to have their candid opinions not only heard, but reacted to. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs, community sites, forums and bulletin boards consumers relentlessly share their views, experiences, complaints and opinions about products, brands and companies. And that can mean gold to you as a marketer and innovator when you are looking for insights.

Take the time to watch a few sites or blogs over the course of one or two weeks for common themes and insights that can provide a great source of fresh, consumer-inspired ideas for your innovation pipeline.

#5: Google search for global competitive products

Google is an amazing tool that allows you to search the world for other products in your category. Yes, there are paid subscription services like Mintel that could provide a report of all the new products being introduced globally, but these services can be expensive. If you don’t have access to this type of resource, Google is the next best thing. In fact, even if you have a service like Mintel, I believe you should still go through this exercise to identify interesting products in your category that aren’t made by the larger corporate manufacturers.

In the search bar, type in the specific product category and the country you are interested in. When it comes to items like anti-aging or cellulite products, I would search for products in Japan, India and a few European countries to get a good look at the product landscape. And don’t forget to look at category adjacencies – i.e. if you are looking at toothpaste, make sure to look at all oral care products like floss, toothbrushes, mouthwash, teeth whitening, etc. Most likely Alibaba.com will come up in the search. It’s also beneficial to check out this website as they have an extensive product list from across the globe. I also check out the Google images that come up in case I find a specific product that I would like to investigate further.

Don’t underestimate the information you can find simply by devoting a few hours of time a day to these various insight discovery methods. Keep a running list as you go through each method and identify your insights. You’ll begin to identify patterns and connections, but it’s no fun to do this on your own. Get a few team members together, brief them on your findings, and begin to kick some preliminary ideas around. You’ll be surprised where these insights will take you – more than likely into some unlikely, unusual and unchartered areas that your customers would actually find exciting. And isn’t that what innovation is all about – creating new products and services that excite and motivate your customers to buy? In my book, that’s a big YES!

Are you looking for rich, robust insights to drive your innovation process? We are always identifying unique and productive ways to get you to new ideas. Let us put a ½-day workshop together to train your team in developing a culture of insights. For more information on our workshop, click here. Or, we’d be happy to complete this task for your next project – just call us to discuss your next RFP!

1 Global Young Shopper Survey conducted by GFK

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Comments (4)
Posted by: Richard Haasnoot  (President  at Innovate2Grow Experts ) on Aug 18th, 2015

 Sandie,  you make some very good points and I have some additional ones for your consideration. The kinds of valuable insights that you referr to are most beneficial in disruptive innovation work and less so in the evolutionary innovation work that includes line extensions and product improvements.   Having said that, the kinds of insights you refer to are like nuggets of gold. They often do, in my experience, also come out of traditional research, especially anthropological research where you gain first-hand observation and insights from actual consumers. The five suggestions you make are all good ones. From the perspective of the quantum idea generating work (a process that consistently generates at least 12 X ideas when brainstorming), this is a great source of stimulus – one of the four elements contributing to the 12 X more ideas than brainstorming. You may want to  listen to the free Innovation Best Practices podcast – episodes P1-P6 (i2ge.com/podcast and  a free Innovation Best Practices android and iPhone/iPad app). In these podcasts, I detail the kinds of stimulus we use at i2ge.com This stimulus played a key role in developing multiple $100 million year one sales products plus one  $1B new business.

Sandie Glass replied to Richard Haasnoot  on Aug 19th, 2015

 Thanks Dick - I will definitely check out the podcast. I'm intrigued with the 12X ideas and the stimulus used. Thanks for sharing.
Posted by: John Holcombe  (Founder  at Wellspring Insights & Innovation, Inc. ) on Jul 08th, 2015

Hi Sandie. Thanks for posting this. There are many great qualitative methods for gathering data and observations subsumed under the broader anthropological approach and some of yours are quite exciting and thoughtful. I would love to hear in part 2 how, when you get back from the ethnography, you start to synthesize all of qual data, observations and artefacts from the field that you have collected into knowledge that can be turned into insight. 
Posted by: Kunal Bhat  (Principal Consulant (Innovation & Strategy)  at Independent ) on Jul 07th, 2015

 With products undergoing vast innovations, I agree that the methods to search for and reach out to the customer base too needs to undergo a similar evolution. Some of these insights I can relate to very well - now that I am jumping onto the eCommerce bandwagon. I realize that there is a major need for 'fresh' thought and a revamped perspective if one has to make it across the channel. Your insights are very interesting. I liked the first one in particular.
Sandie Glass replied to Kunal Bhat  on Jul 07th, 2015

 Thanks for your thoughts Kunal. I love looking for insights that can drive real change in the category. You mentioned you liked #1 and so do many of my clients. I put together what I call an Idea Safari where I map out small teams to go into boutique and specialty stores with a journal to capture thoughts and insights. We do this for 2-3 hours then return and share info with the large group to springboard into new ideas/solutions. It is invigorating for the team and so highly productive in a condensed amount of time. I think that's why clients love it!
Posted by: Arthur Fox  (Founder And Chief Innovation Leader  at Innovation Global Network ) on Jul 07th, 2015

Those are excellent tips for generating potentially new insights and stimulating the creation of new ideas by catalyzing the connections of those with existing validated insights.  Coupled with good insights validation and dissemination systems and processes for capturing new ideas that are inspired among employees, an organization's innovation program can benefit greatly.
Sandie Glass replied to Arthur Fox  on Jul 07th, 2015

 Thanks Arthur! I will definitely have to start thinking about putting together a "Part 2" to this post!
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