1 Difference between marketing research and customer insights

Learning objectives

By the end of this chapter, students must be able to:

  • recognise the emergence of the concept of customer insights over the years
  • understand the key differences between marketing research and customer insights
  • identify existing forms of data for analysis.

The emergence of customer insights

Traditionally, marketers have used tools such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups to undertake marketing research. While these tools are still very important, they have some inherent limitations. For a start, to get good quality data from these tools a key assumption is that respondents will accurately respond to research questions. In many cases, these respondents are expected to recall a previous experience and report on it. In other situations, customers are presented with scenarios and asked to predict the likelihood of them undertaking a certain behaviour (e.g., purchase). Therefore, the key to good quality data depends on respondents’ engagement with, ability, and willingness to provide all necessary information.

Another limitation of the traditional marketing research methods is the bias that can creep in as per the wording or presentation of a question. It is well-known that responses to a question can vary depending on who is asking the question, how it is being asked, and perhaps, even the time when it is asked. Moreover, survey questions are pre-determined and offer little flexibility to bring in new ideas. Respondents are usually restricted in the way they can respond. Similarly, generating good data in an interview usually requires a good rapport between the interviewer and the participant. Not all researchers are skilled in this area.

Moreover, traditional data collection methods – such as surveys and focus groups – require time for survey design, data collection, and analysis. Marketers require information immediately which is often not available while using such tools. There is also the possibility of ‘social desirability bias’ creeping in. Respondents may have an unconscious bias to please the researcher, especially when the researcher is physically present. Such bias will affect the participant’s responses[1].

Finally, marketing research methods are not inexpensive. It takes resources – both money and expertise – to design a survey, an interview, or a focus group. Many small and medium-sized enterprises are usually not able to employ traditional tools effectively to gather information.

The current world is making use of digital technologies. With the use of smart wallets, smartphones, smart appliances, streaming services, and social media platforms instantaneous information is being generated. This creates an ever-growing repository of ‘Big Data’ which – logically speaking – should be mined to gain insights into consumer behaviour. While the traditional marketing research methods are still useful, these need to be supplemented by other forms of data which is being created and stored on a regular basis.

Many organisations have developed ‘Insights Teams’ which consist of staff members from a variety of backgrounds. As opposed to a market research department, the task of the Insights Team is to be able to ‘synthesise’ the massive amounts of data being generated. Team members play the role of aggregators, interpreters, and disseminators. It is not sufficient to only present ‘findings’ to survey questions. As an Insights specialist, the critical role is to be able to aggregate different pieces of information, interpret the data by collaborating with colleagues from other departments and be able to suggest key action points for future growth.


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Marketing Research Customer Insights
Greater academic focus Industry term
Definition: the practice of collecting and analysing data to answer distinct business questions. Consumer Insights is the practice of using available data to derive a deeper understanding of customers which helps in effective business decision-making
Tools employed: surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc. Available data: internal data, social media, online data, etc.
Focus is on findings Focus is on findings and their reasons; recommendations
Focus on the original question/research goal Focus is on using the information to understand customer attitudes & behaviour
Analyse data from each stream individually Integrate multiple data streams
Factual information/data is summarised and forms the basis of a recommendation Data is delivered as a story or a narrative
Focus on quantitative, qualitative, mixed methods Has a multi-disciplinary focus
Delivers on research objectives. Used to answer specific questions. Multi-disciplinary recommendations
Delivers data to marketing but is not involved in meetings with clients Marketing is a business partner. Insights Team participates in client staff meetings
More popular in economies heavily reliant on manufacturing like China, Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Poland, and South Korea More commonly used in service-based economies like the USA, Brazil, Bermuda, UK, Greece,  Australia, Singapore
Build the research database Give access to dashboards etc

Table: What is the difference between Marketing Research and Customer Insights[2]?

Use of existing data to gain insights

The concept behind ‘customer insights’ is not to gather information through traditional sources of data collection, but to mine the existing sources which generate data continuously. Some of these sources which may provide useful insights are discussed below:

Internal sales data

Organisations have a wealth of internal data being collected in various forms. Every time a transaction is made there is a record generated.  Analysis of such sales data, revenue per customer, time, and place of sale may generate useful information for making decisions.

Customer queries and complaints

Every time a customer reaches out to make a query (or a complaint), a piece of data is being created. Many companies have learned that by analysing customers’ queries and complaints a wealth of information can be mined. This includes analysing customers’ chat transcripts or emails or voice mails.

Website analytics

In today’s online world, customer interest in a company’s offering can be judged by web traffic and interactions. Tapping into relevant metrics may help to explain various aspects of visitors’ online behaviours (e.g., time spent on the website) as well as their interest

Previous marketing research data

While some managers may toss away old research as ‘obsolete’, it is quite possible that some of the findings could prove to be useful. Qualitative data may hold some interesting insights and quantitative data could be ‘sliced and diced’ in a number of ways.

Social media analytics

It is expected that there will be over 4 billion social media users by the year 2025. This is more than half of the world’s population of 7.9 billion (2021). Ignoring social media is not affordable. While many organisations aim to have some presence on social media, small companies with a limited budget are still recommended to monitor – at the very least – conversations taking place on various social media platforms. Online communities, though different from Facebook and Instagram are also known to have discussions that could be vital for managers to follow.

Wearable technologies and smart devices

Fitbit helps to generate wellbeing-related data while apps and smartphones can store a wealth of information. Integrating such data with other pieces of information collected is known to be helpful to marketers.

Third-party sources of information

Some information is shared by stakeholders across the network, while other types of information may also be available for sale. Getting consumer data, for instance from a credit card company may assist a manager in gaining a useful understanding of customers’ purchases.


A company’s own employees are generally the first point of face-to-face contact with a customer. Employees can provide firsthand information about the customer. There could be a wealth of information already present within a company that could be explored to better understand the customer.



  1. Macdonald, EK, Wilson, HN & Konus, U 2012, Better customer insight—in real time, Harvard Business Review, <https://hbr.org/2012/09/better-customer-insight-in-real-time>.
  2. Purcell, M 2021, What's the difference between consumer insights and marketing research?, Greenbook, viewed 28 February 2022, <https://www.greenbook.org/mr/market-research-news/whats-the-difference-between-consumer-insights-and-market-research>.


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Customer Insights Copyright © 2023 by Aila Khan, Munir Hossain and Sabreena Amin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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