reverse engineering

Content Innovation: Making a Case for Reverse Engineering

In the first article of this content innovation series, I made a pretty strong argument: that most companies are not innovating in their content or their programming, they are emulating. Emulation means that you are following someone else’s lead, innovation or ideas. If you are Samsung and you are copying Apple’s music sharing and app store, you can emulate successfully because you have the ability to be aggressive in staking out your unique territory with a very large consumer base that wants equal capabilities. But let’s face it: you are not Samsung. What Samsung hasn’t tried to emulate is the way their content is marketed. They have staked out unique ways to communicate with their consumers, and they have vast marketing budgets to push that communication out. While not innovating the idea, they remain true to their DNA in how they promote it.

For the rest of us, we have to be much more focused on our content strategy. As noted in the previous article, the content strategy traditionally used is one in which companies dream up good ideas and then figure out how to push them out to their consumers in hopes of achieving the desired outcome. In this scenario, they lead with content. In other words: dream big and then hope not to fail.

As Percolate founder Noah Brier recently noted:

“More channels, and specifically, the growth of mobile is another big change marketers are facing,” Brier said. “Back in the ’70s, you could reach most of America through four networks and a couple of magazines. Today, everyone has a device you can communicate with them through. And mobile is just one slice of a channel you can reach people through.”

Shorthand: in today’s ever diversifying content world (one in which people are fixated on authentic engagement in smaller and smaller communities) the idea that great content should be based on a top/down approach is not thinking about the end user or outcomes. It is arrogant to think that your content is so smart that it can hit people where they are, when they are, in a way that feels authentic.

The shift? To a focus where content is the last step in the chain versus the lead. My friend Dirk Shaw refers to this as “defensible creative,” letting data (the end result you want to achieve) lead the process. His argument is that data helps develop the “why” and the “what outcome” you want to achieve. Knowing that means content is shaped with the right outcome in mind. Marriott’s David Beebe is a proponent of this “lead with the why” philosophy:

“A lot of brands understand the need to change, and they get the value of content and storytelling but don’t know why they are doing it. My advice is to stop and go back to the beginning to figure out the why and how you will manage it,” Beebe said.

reverse engineering

This model of reverse engineering looks like this: why (what effect do we want to have), who (end user), how (what distribution mediums resonate best with them), what (what is the content that best achieves this). The change in mindset is disruptive and innovative. It means you don’t suggest content out the gate because it “sounds sexy or cool,” but rather look to be a strategic conduit through which you hit the right people by figuring out exactly what to do and where.

Not every piece of content has to go through the reverse engineering funnel. I am not saying that it is right for everyone. Why? Because reverse engineering doesn’t come quickly or simply. This mindset shift takes true planning and leadership, and it means you have to rethink how you work with your agencies, your marketing and communications teams, and all that touch content development. More on how to successfully transition coming in part three of this series.


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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