Content Innovation: You’re Not Innovating, You’re Emulating

Innovation. A word so often used in business that it’s become a cliché: applied to everything we do, everything we create, every campaign and every department. We trumpet that we are continually “new and innovative” and that everything we do is with an eye toward being disruptive. That, my friends, is not innovation.

Webster defines “innovation” as the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices or methods. The operative word here is “new.” Not modified, or evolved. New.

Synonyms include: brainchild, coinage, concoction, contrivance, creation, invention, wrinkle. These words are specific in direction. They aren’t about systematic change of what one already has or is doing, but rather about creating something uniquely different for a world that doesn’t even understand it needs it yet. So adjusting your product’s handle thickness, while new to the product, is not innovation. Likewise, taking the fake sugar out of a soft drink is not innovation. Creating yet another spin-off of a “must see” series is not innovation. These are modifications, or variations on a theme. Innovation is much deeper and more illusive.

Examples of true innovation abound, from Apple’s innovation in cell phones (and the computer as a whole), to Dyson’s roller ball and bagless vacuum technologies. From airplanes built out of carbon fiber, to Amazon’s direct-to-consumer purchasing concepts, to virtual reality. Every industry has innovation. We hold these innovations up on pedestals as triumphs, yet most in each industry don’t look to innovate, they look to modify other’s innovations to help theirs. Some might call this copying, but we’ll be kinder here: some innovate, the rest emulate.

I have seen this in my world of content across many arenas: from my time in marketing where my company wanted me and my team to search for what our competitors did well and copy their approach, to my years in PR where we often looked to piggyback off other innovative programs to tout the success of our clients. In both instances, we were successful as we defined success, but we were not innovative. Truth be told, we didn’t allow for the return we could have had, had we really risked looking for unique ways to rethink our clients. We went for what we knew and what we were trained to do. We didn’t (and therefore our clients didn’t) go past the tried and true.

In media content, I have experienced this far too often. Several years ago, many networks with pedigrees in unique fields all started to drift toward a center, one in which everyone had the same basic series trying to capture the same basic viewer. At conferences, many networks were heard saying, “what’s my (version of) Duck Dynasty?” It became about emulating successful ideas and trying to grab other networks’ market share, rather than going after what was unique and differentiating in the first place. Risk aversion became a driver. For most, the result may have been success, but on someone else’s benchmarks versus what truly made them unique networks in the first place. Of course, we now see the pendulum swinging back to each saying, “how can I be unique?” For some, it is too late, as the audience that came to them for unique has already moved on.

Some blame diversification of content delivery for this move to the center. If eyeballs are growing more scarce due to a very competitive and broadening market, then all brands need to fight for their piece of the pie. But that argument is hollow because it only takes one new, totally unique and innovative entry for all to see that there is room. And this is as true for OTT (over-the-top) and pure digital content as it is for social media-based content or traditional linear content. So what to do?

Also on Content is (Not) King, Content is Currency

Don’t try to be the same.

If the pattern of “some innovate and the rest move to copy” is true, then we as content creators need to look for a new approach. This will require risk and this will require financial resources. The path isn’t new, but it feels new because it goes against how content is typically created.

As I noted in my article about Unicorns and Horses, content has traditionally been created by coming up with a great idea that you feel is revolutionary and innovative, then figuring out how to distribute that content to those you call your “audience.” As a final result, you hope that the content provides a favorable return, result or impact:

Content (What) > Delivery (How) > Audience (Who) > Result (Why)

Your success becomes about proving that you got your money’s worth on a particular piece of content. If you have a ton of viewers or “likes,” that gives you a sense of being innovative. If you get some buzzy press, you might call yourself disruptive. But if it truly is innovative yet doesn’t gain traction, you are a failure. And if you fail, you force your team to rely ever more on what is tried and true, and the advise of your agency or marketing team.

However, in this new space, we don’t look to an agency, and we don’t look to a marketing team. We look only to our audience, because of the following “disruptor” statement:

It doesn’t matter what you as a company thinks is important. It only matters what your audience thinks is important.

While developing a content plan and implementing it across platforms makes sense, it is not a way to become innovative. Nor is it a way to effectively grow your audience. When you create and then say, “now what?” you are playing into the same approach you have been using for far too long.

If you truly want to innovate, do not think with the content-first approach. Rather, focus on taking away the blind spots by taking content out of the first position in the equation. As you may have gathered in recent articles, this reverse engineering approach is one I strongly believe in.

Below, I will end this article with a few questions related to your current approach to development:

  1. Do you allocate time, talent and funds to new concept development outside of your normal scope of work? What percentage of that development are you willing to be purely R&D without financial outcome?
  2. Do you pay for your team to grow and train in new strengths outside their current scope? How do you fill holes (and expand skills) within the team?
  3. Which department(s) are in control of content creation? Content distribution? Communication with your core audience?
  4. How many of your competitors do you follow on social media? Other means? Do you dissect their content? Do you dissect your content?
  5. Where do you look for innovative thought?
  6. How much time do you invest on client/end-user outcomes and what else they are focused on?

An additional important question: if you consider yourself innovative, why? What are you doing that can be defined as new and inventive?

We’ll address all of this and much more as we make a case for reverse engineering. How’s that for a cliffhanger tease?


Patrick Jager is CEO of strategic advisory firm CORE Innovation Group and a thought leader in media, communications and business development.

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