Actionable Insights: Producing Client-centric Research That Cuts Through the Data Noise

By Nick Fisher

It’s not hard to come by data nowadays.

Businesses are awash in the stuff – oceans of consumer data intermingle with streams of web and social traffic. In some areas, there is so much information being captured that it is being shipped across the country in trucks. Forget terabytes, we’re heading into petabyte territory here.

Insights, on the other hand, are a bit harder to pin down.

In an article for Forbes, Brent Dykes points out what any researcher knows well: “Data, information and insights are not synonyms.” In the piece, Dykes constructs a pyramid hierarchy of information, with data as the base of the structure, information in the middle, and insights at the top. Well, almost the top. The pinnacle of the structure is claimed by much more refined creations – those coveted ‘actionable insights’.

As data becomes more and more plentiful, it is increasingly important that researchers think carefully about how they craft insights that help clients identify strategic opportunities and offer appealing pathways for development. Indeed, it is one of marketers’ biggest complaints when research fails to deliver this guidance.

As someone who has been in the insights game for a while now, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on the characteristics we at Hook Research consider the most important when crafting client-centric research.

Actionable Insights are Contextualised, Grounded, and Forward-Looking

Insights don’t exist in a vacuum – and the best debriefs manage to shed light on specific research issues while simultaneously highlighting their place within the broader industry tapestry.

It’s this connectivity – the threads that tie together macro-trends, cultural developments, and audience behaviours – that provides grounding for research projects, weaving together a stable foundation on which real-world strategy can be built.

However, supporting the decision-making process by delivering grounded, quality insights is only part of what it takes to be truly actionable. The clue is in the name: this research needs to help inspire ‘action’ as well.

In many ways, the research we produce is only as good as the decisions we inspire. As catalysts for change, it’s important that research takes these foundations and projects upon them a framework for development – pointing out exciting new opportunities and developments for the client.

Research That Gets to the Heart of Consumer Motivations

New tools and methodologies – such as social listening, Go Pro ethnographies, and tracking software – let us see the light and shade of consumer lives and the different components of their worlds. Yet actionable insights must also give life to these portraits – uncovering the motivations and desires that get consumers’ pulses racing and translating these impulses into business-minded guidance.

How do we do this?  I think it’s straight-forward: as researchers, we must make sure that we’re not overlooking the basic ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions lurking within each research query in the pursuit of an ever-shinier debrief. In the pursuit of innovative methodologies and beautiful visuals, it is vital that research doesn’t abandon its inquisitive soul.

Becoming ‘Architects of Familiar Surprise’

Of course, research needs to serve as a strategic pathfinder, providing a forward-looking perspective on brands, products, and their audiences. During this process, we – as researchers – would be lax if we did not point out developments in the industry. In most cases, a debrief that did not engage with new trends, ideas, or mindsets would be found lacking by all involved.

Blue-sky thinking certainly has its place in market research, but actionability requires a more considered contemplation of a company’s trajectory. Particularly, where is it coming from and where was it planning to go before your research was produced?

New insights that completely challenge this trajectory are powerful – but they need to be couched in achievable ways. Pivoting is a buzzword within smaller companies, but it is rarely the case that senior stakeholders are willing to embrace an abrupt strategic about-face – and they are particularly obstinate when these findings seem to come out of nowhere.

To create actionable insights, we must become what Derek Thompson refers to in Hit Makers as “architects of familiar surprise”:  researchers sharing insights that provide stakeholders with the fresh perspectives they crave, who simultaneously recognize the practical impediments of complete novelty and instead offer a more gradual gradient of positive change.

Moving Forward in a Data Rich World

As researchers, we are implicitly curious people.  We will always be on the lookout for new sources of data that can inform our understanding of consumers, brands, and the landscapes between them – and we should continually think about how these new sources can be integrated into our research offerings.

But amid this data flurry, we shouldn’t lose sight of our end goal: to produce actionable insights that help inform and guide the decision-making of our clients.

By Nick Fisher, Co-Founder, Hook Research

Hook Research is a media research and content development agency. We are proud to provide consumer insights and brand strategy to some of the biggest organisations across media, youth, and entertainment all over the world. Want to have a chat about how we can help your business? Get in touch at