Rules to plan by: how to make sure your insight is more robust at any level 

By Emma Chaplin
28/04/2023

Whether you have the luxury of ‘proper planning’ or need to do something ‘quick and dirty’, there are certain principles that anyone doing some planning should follow. 

Last year, the DC planning team went to an immersive APG session with The&Partnership’s Head of Innovation, Oli Feldwick, on ‘Gonzo research’. Oli focused the session on the ‘indicative’ end of the research scale, sharing tips and techniques to gather solid insight when you have limited time and resources. 

What struck me, was that regardless of how limited you are, there are some principles in planning that just make good sense. Inspired by Oli, I wanted to write about the lessons I have learnt as a planner. So here are some of the things that are just good practice, whether we’ve been given realistic budgets and time to gather research, or just a couple of days, a wing and a prayer. 

First and foremost: debunking the myth of ‘an insight’ 

For a long time, I believed a good insight was supposed to make you audibly gasp; it was described as the ‘aha’ moment or a golden nugget, something worthy of an Indiana Jones-style glowing reveal. In reality, this almost never happens and instead it creates the impression that you mustn’t be a very good planner if you don’t provoke an earth-shattering response. 

The more I’ve learnt, the more I understand that a good insight is about providing a new and useful perspective to solve a problem. It needs to be true, and above all else, it needs to be useful.

Acknowledge your bias, and other people’s

It’s easy (lazy) to presume that other people think a certain way just because you do. So speaking to your intended audience in a qualitative way – whether it’s off-the-cuff vox pops or carefully curated in-depths – is a no-brainer. 

But, there’s also the added challenge of deciphering between what your audience claims to think, versus how they actually think or behave (here’s more on the ‘say-do gap’ to see this in action). That’s why in interviews or focus groups, we also use indirect, projective techniques to elicit less conscious answers. ‘Imagine brand x is a person, how do they speak?’ It’s also why we conduct ethnography research projects, which look to observe people’s behaviours and habits. Or why, during campaign evaluations, we measure actual impacted behaviour as well as claimed behaviour, perceptions or attitudes. 

Shit in = shit out 

When it comes to ‘doing some quant’ i.e. writing a survey or questionnaire, it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking to understand or measure. Even with the most rigorous, extensive process, the data in your survey results aren’t going to magically give you the answer to your problem or tell you what to do. It’s often a good idea to have a hypothesis to test, so that you have something to validate or disprove, rather than expecting something to be conjured up from the numbers. 

That being said, be wary of manipulating questions to get the answer you, or others, are looking for. Sometimes, you don’t have a hypothesis at all, and the research is exploratory; a chance to discover something totally new. Questions posed – typically in qualitative research – need to be neutral in order to get a true response. So no leading questions: ‘Why do you think this brand is too expensive for people like you?' Instead, frame them more openly: ‘How do you feel this brand is priced in comparison to other brands?’ You want to find out someone else’s views, not validate your own. 

It’s not just the way you ask questions either, the order in which you ask them is crucial. You’ll never get an opportunity to get an unprovoked response on something once you’ve revealed the brand or the topic. Make sure you ask broader/unbranded questions upfront. 

Have a POV

As we established, an insight doesn’t have to be a golden nugget, but remember that your role as a planner is ultimately to have a viewpoint on the world around you. You’re not there to just describe something back to people. Much of the hard yards of planning come from the interpretation; if you had a hypothesis, how did the research measure up? What new or unexpected thing did you learn? What are the implications? 

Anyone can regurgitate a stat, or a quote from somebody else, but it’s our job as planners to frame information in a compelling way. If in doubt, treat it as a story to tell.