Human Insights vs. Consumer Insights: What’s the Difference?

Victoria Fiorini
4 mins
market researcher with tablet interviews customer with human insights approach

If you are in the insights business, you have likely noted a shift in language from consumer insights to human insights. The trend has gained traction to the point that we are seeing it reflected in changing job titles. Does this mean consumers are out and humans are in? What would that even mean? What is the difference between consumer insights and human insights?

Transactions vs. Connections

Savvy marketers have long recognized that they are not merely selling products and services, but experiences— and that brand loyalty is essentially an emotional relationship. Successful brands forge a connection with the consumer and sustain that connection indefinitely.

Understanding how to connect begins with exploring how consumers interact with a product, a category, or a brand by examining transactions. We count and measure, analyzing patterns to understand who buys what, when, where, and how often. We monitor satisfaction levels, detect shifts in brand preference, price sensitivity, and shopping venues, and test responses to new product concepts and messaging.

But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. They give us the what but not the why. Why does a consumer prefer one shampoo over another? Why does she buy any toothbrush that is on sale and make an extra stop to find a specific brand of toothpaste? Surveys can test hypotheses about these behaviors, but that only skims the surface, at best. It does not yield deep, complete, accurate insights about why people make the choices they do.

What’s missing is the human part of the equation. Consumers’ choices don’t happen in a vacuum; they are shaped by each person’s lived experience. The transaction is our way in toward understanding how a consumer experiences a product or a brand. But focusing exclusively on the transaction is a bit like receiving an invitation to a party and instead of attending, staying home and analyzing the invitation. We miss the best part—the part where people connect with the brand (or the product or the messaging) and it becomes part of their experience.

To understand those connections—when they happen and when they don’t and, most importantly, why—we need to look beyond transactions and understand the consumer as a person whose many-faceted life happens to include buying and using shampoo. Her choices and experiences around shampoo are shaped by what else is going on in her life, her values and priorities, current needs, and past experiences. That is where we can find and understand the why that drives the what.

Marrying Numbers With Narratives

Continuing advances in AI and big data have enabled us to scale up and accelerate the pace of examining consumer activities to a remarkable extent. What we can do in terms of capturing, analyzing, and interpreting data was unimaginable to market research teams less than a generation ago. And the migration—or at least, expansion—of so many aspects of daily life into digital realms has also helped drive the increasing sophistication and speed of consumer research.

At the same time, the app economy has reduced and even eliminated a lot of the human-to-human interactions that once helped companies stay in touch with how their customers experienced brands. Streaming transaction data directly into analytics platforms lets us observe shifts in consumer behavior almost in real time, but a dashboard can only show us the consumer depicted by numbers. To see the whole person and understand how the brand plugs into their life (or doesn’t), we need to capture the narrative that complements the numbers.

Who Are These People and What Do They Really Want?

Consumer insights approaches tend to focus on brands and products and the transactions surrounding them. Questions about creative—advertising, labeling, packaging—are evaluative. Queries around purchase decisions examine the shopping and buying process in isolation from whatever else is going on in the person’s life and running through their mind.

A human insights approach looks beyond the transaction and explores the person: who they want to be, what the brand represents to them in the context of their life—not just an isolated choice they make while standing in front of the dairy case.

Voice of the Customer-as-a-Human-Being

For instance, Voice of the Customer (VoC) programs traditionally capture feedback from customers about their expectations and experiences with a company’s products or services. Data gathering is often transaction-driven, and customers answer questions about a specific purchase or store visit. While the scope may include comparisons with other purchases or visits and/or other brands, the focus is on the consumer and not the whole person.

Approaching VoC from a human insights perspective leads to different questions, ones that explore the customer’s identity and aspirations. What is their life like and how do they feel about it? How does the product, service or brand fit into who they are? Who they want to be? Understanding the contextual factors that surround and influence their experiences and choices pertaining to the product or brand in question illuminates how they connect with it.

Taking a Cue From Behavioral Insights

A recent development in the discipline of behavioral insights is incorporating a human-centered design approach. Two aspects of this orientation offer promise for human insights research. One is a focus on exploring people’s needs and goals, rather than beginning with a target behavior. Another is granting more weight to people’s own interpretations of their behaviors and the beliefs and feelings that drive them.

Gaining a Holistic View of the Customer

With the shift toward human insights in research we are seeing, more than ever, a need to integrate numbers with narrative to see the whole picture when it comes to customers. This means curating various types of data from a range of sources and ensuring people can easily discover and access all the information relevant to their query or project. A knowledge management platform provides the infrastructure to place all your organization’s insights data into a searchable base, putting both the numbers and the narratives at stakeholders’ fingertips so they can make customer-centric decisions.

November 18, 2021

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