Innovation: Beyond Buzzwords

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Thinkstock

Out here in Silicon Valley, “innovation” is center square on buzzword bingo. Everybody talks about it. Everybody wants to be associated with it. Everybody claims to do it. But not all innovation is created equal. As we strive to become innovators in our industries, I’d like to offer a few practical tips for how to think about innovation in a way that breaks through the noise and delivers impact.

Necessity is the mother of invention
Step 1: Find a purpose.

Innovation is most useful when it’s in response to a clearly understood need. The more grounded we are in a precise, differentiated purpose, the more effective our ideas will be. Just last week, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner shared with a group of LinkedIn B2B Connect attendees that having a clear differentiated purpose is in fact the single most important determining factor in the success of any new LinkedIn feature or service.

For a professional services organization like Blanc & Otus, there are three primary needs to consider: helping our own people, helping our clients, and helping our profitability. And while all three are connected, helping our people is the most important. After all, we are our own product.

Whether we’re looking to improve our efficiency and automate tasks we’re already doing, or looking to improve our effectiveness with new services we’re not doing yet, or looking to improve our impact with data services that show the value of what we’re doing…helping unleash the full potential of our amazing tribe of consultants is, I believe, the best possible purpose behind any of our innovations.

Engage in a little creative destruction
Step 2: Blow some stuff up.

Not literally, of course, but conceptually. When imagining and engineering new ways to work, it’s extremely helpful to blow up old assumptions and outdated models to clear a path for fresh thinking. When Facebook first launched, it was a stated assumption of all Internet-driven businesses that it was bad to have “white space” on your web site. MySpace had set the standard, and it looked a teenager’s bedroom wall that had been over-run with fan posters. But Facebook challenged that assumption and believed that a social network was less about pushing media and more about pulling people together. And when it launched, it had the most minimalistic webpage anybody had ever seen. It defied convention. And it worked.

So, once you’re grounded in purpose, ask yourself what old assumptions you’re carrying around with you. Dump them. Create some conceptual white space in which to work. And have some fun while you’re doing it!

Innovation isn’t just about technology
Step 3: Be human.

Innovation is about way more than the latest shiny new gadget or app. Technology is but one of many forms of innovation. People, process and technology all have to work in tandem for a new idea to work. And of the three, people are usually the slowest moving component of any change. After all, a new technology doesn’t resist change when you upgrade it.

That’s why cultural innovation and changing the human operating system are as important, if not more important, than the technology operating systems we work with. Process innovation, and shifting the protocols by which we work together, is also a great way to reduce complexity and increase speed and scale. Even environmental innovation, and changing the space in which we work, can have a profound impact on our overall creativity and productivity. So, ask yourselves, how can we innovate the non-technical aspects of innovation and make a real impact?

Ingenuity is as valuable as innovation
Step 4: Use what you’ve got.

Innovation is the creation of something brand new, like a wheel. Ingenuity is the creative recombination of existing components to produce something useful, like when somebody took two wheels, ran a stick through the center of them, and put a box on top to make a cart. Ingenuity is particularly helpful in professional services firms where people are already resourceful and tenacious.

Looking again at Facebook as an example, ingenuity is what the company was all about. Mark Zuckerburg didn’t invent anything. He used existing technologies in a new and disruptive way. Same with LinkedIn. Same with Uber and Lyft. So, the question is, how can those of us in the professional services industry become models of ingenuity?

Co-Create Something Amazing
Step 5: Crowd-source your solution

Once you’ve found your purpose, blown up old assumptions, thought through the human implications of your innovation, and used your existing resources to full effect, now you’re ready to create something brand new. And in this final step, nothing is more important than tapping into the wisdom of the amazing tribe of people around you. And it’s important to reach beyond your immediate circle of employees and colleagues. Involve your customers and clients, partners, influencers and most especially your critics in your creative process. Collaborative co-creation yields so much more innovation because it brings together such a rich combination of complementary perspectives. And collaborative co-creation allows for more people to have a personal stake in the success of the innovation initiative you’re pursuing.

At B&O, we’re fortunate to have a tribe of digital natives who are in touch with the latest digital tools and techniques, and who are on the front lines of delivering value to our clients. Our Facebook, Instragram and LinkedIn programs were all started by our youngest employees. We recently aired one of our marketing summits on Periscope at the recommendation of our staff. By being open to experimentation and involving a broader group of people in the creative process, we’ve been able to embrace change in a way that brings us closer together as a team. 

What are your own pointers for embracing innovation? We’d love to co-create some professional service innovation with you, so join the conversation!

The New Norm: The Convergence of Strategy, Execution and Measurement

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Thinkstock

We all know that tech communications is evolving rapidly. But amidst the constantly changing technology, workflow and communication challenges we all face on a daily basis, the really interesting thing is that a new norm is slowly forming. Strategy, execution and measurement are beginning to converge. Old myths are being challenged. And a new playbook is forming around creative destruction, co-creation and authentic omni-channel storytelling.

First, this convergence of strategy, execution and measurement has enormous implications for what the new norm looks like in technology marketing. Strategy and execution are merging as the stakes are raised for strategies to pay off quickly.

And they are not the only things. Measurement and strategy are converging, as well. We used to conduct marketing and communications measurement after the fact and ask ourselves, how did we do? What might we do differently next time? Realistically, we’d do this once a month, in some cases only once a quarter, just because we were so busy executing we had little time to measure. But now the data that’s available to us on the impact of our communications is everywhere, it’s instantaneous, and it’s imperative that we learn from it.

Meanwhile, execution and measurement are merging. Traditionally, measurement would rarely actually impact how we were executing, because we waited for the final results to show up before we bothered to look at the data. As we learn to filter out the signal from the noise and become more adept at reading data signals intelligently, we can stop doing marketing and communications in the rear-view mirror and start looking at our instrumentation as we’re driving forward, not after we’ve finished the trip. Then we can adjust both our strategy and our tactics in real time to change the outcomes we’re measuring.

And all this means that as a marketing and communications function, we have to converge, as well, and collaborate more closely and fearlessly than ever before. Drop the silos. Don’t let org charts and reporting structures get in the way. Strategists and planners, creative designers and developers, project managers, relationship managers, data analysts—the entire team needs to gather around the table and recognize that it’s all connected now, and sharing information and insights faster internally is more important than ever. All too often, it’s our own internal political and organizational friction that limits our success.

And when we do gather as a team and start thinking collectively, it becomes that much easier to see through some of the more unhelpful myths that are getting on our way:

  • Communication innovation isn’t always about inventing new words.
    Sometimes, technology companies get caught up in category creation and creating new must-haves and catch phrases that nobody has ever used before. This is actually a time-consuming and costly approach. With all the white noise that already plagues most technology categories, the wiser approach is to engage in a little creative destruction, rhetorically speaking. Challenge existing myths and hype, be the voice of reason in a crowded discussion, and create some space for new ways of thinking.
  • Thought leadership isn’t a dictatorship.
    The next myth is that thought leadership is all about educating an audience and telling them something. In fact, thought leadership is about curating a discussion and asking your audience to see a current problem or challenge from a new perspective. Once you’ve cleared your rhetorical space of the b.s. and hype that’s clouding people’s understanding, you can co-create a point of view with your audience through the use of viral questions and interactive content strategies across multiple channels.
  • It’s not all about gorgeous content and keywords.
    Nobody will deny that brilliantly designed content and engaging form factors such as videos and apps work wonders to capture people’s attention and imagination. And clearly the right SEO strategy will boost visibility. But unless those eye-popping experiences and keywords lead to a measurable shift in sales, stock price, talent recruitment or some other KPI that the CEO cares about, it’s hard to justify even the most conservative of invoices on creative content. What’s really needed is for content creators to converge their thinking with the business strategists and data analysts around the table and come up with the omni-channel narratives and experiences that also lead to cash.

This the new norm that we see, and it’s just part of what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming series on The New Norm. There are many other PR myths to explore, and new ways for technology communicators to work together. We’ll be taking a look at them more closely in our upcoming series, and we invite you to share your ideas with us, as well.

Don’t Be Content with Your Marketing Content

It’s a cliché that I personally dread, but in 2014, content certainly made a strong claim to the marketing throne. It was as if everyone that worked in any flavor of marketing job suddenly thought, we need more content in our lives. We need to produce more. And we need to talk about it more.

One problem. A lot of that content was…well, how can I put this? Not exactly worth sharing. This thing is, with so much content being produced by so many people every minute of every day – the stats are kind of crazy – the bar for what constitutes “good content” keeps rising. Mark Schaefer’s Content Shock concept analyzed the situation perfectly in what must have been one of the most talked about pieces of content on content of the year. And that post was from January 6, 2014.

"You don't need more content, Oliver. You need different content." (Thinkstock)
“You don’t need more content, Oliver. You need different content.” (Thinkstock)

Despite the obvious diminishing margins of return, marketers still wanted more. It was the key to unlocking the value of social media. It would transform SEO. It would engage audiences in new and exciting ways. It was very cool stuff and like Oliver Twist, all you needed was more. Except that wasn’t really the case.

Marketing content had already been increasing like crazy for years. It was just 2014 when it seemed to become vogue. But instead of looking for simply more content, brands should have been looking at things a different way. After all, simply writing more newsletters, automating social media feeds, producing more infographics or launching more company blogs/magazines/YouTube channels/LinkedIn profiles/Facebook pages/carrier pigeon programs (well, that one might work) was never going to be more than a very short-term solution.

So as we enter another content-full year, I wanted to share some thoughts on how we are helping our clients differentiate their content storytelling:

Targeted: Funny how we often miss the most obvious things. And while I know the obligatory goal of any piece of content is to go “viral,” you haven’t got a hope in hell if you start by targeting the masses. All too often sweeping statements are used to describe target audiences – “IT decision makers” and “the C-Suite” are classics – when in reality, we need to really invest the time to understand exactly who we are hoping to talk with. What are they interested in at work? What are their interests outside of work? Where do they go to find information? Who do they trust? What makes them laugh? By answering those kinds of questions, you suddenly have a wealth of information to inform your storytelling.

Real: I was going to call this authentic, but that in itself felt a little fake. As if the aim of your content is to engage an audience in some way or another (in other words, the aim of 99.999% of all content marketing), then it has to be like a real conversation. That means the content won’t have marketing messages masquerading as stories. It could reference interesting data/insights your competitors have shared. It will be designed for the real world rather than your executive suite and it may not even refer to your company, product or service at all. Crazy? Maybe. Interesting, different and shareable? Definitely.

Visual: I might be dipping back into clichés, but simply put, a picture tells a thousand words. You can no longer afford to ignore video and other visual assets. In an increasingly mobile and social world where your story might have a solid five inches of real estate, they are now the price of admission. And don’t just think infographics. Think instead about the cool content you share with your friends – everything from gifs and Vine/Instagram videos to video-embedded content and video storytelling. A couple of great examples are GE’s cool #6secondscience and #GravityDay campaigns and the YouTube Rewind series.

Integrated: Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s simpler. Yes, it’s faster. But just producing standalone pieces of content is, in most cases, a waste of time. Content now needs to not only integrate visual and written assets, but also be a fully integrated part of your social, SEO, PR and advertising strategies. Don’t just think in terms of “one-offs” and instead take a leaf out of the HBO or Showtime book and think of entire series. That gives your audience something they can rely on, a reason to come back. And what’s more, developing content should be a core part of your team’s skills, because with so much integration required, outsourcing content to separate departments or teams is counter intuitive at best.

Part of It: Don’t be the person that walks into the bar and immediately tries to change the conversation. Listen, watch, care and ask. We have talked a lot about the power of the right question, but great content is about more than just that. It needs to be in the right voice, be relevant to popular culture, timely and something that people not only find helpful, but also enjoy. A tough ask, but we now have the listening and measurement tools that give us unprecedented insights into our audience’s likes and dislikes. By using that information correctly, content can be constantly fine-tuned.

That’s right. It’s a lot of work. But when we get it right, the payback is huge. And of course, telling a story that gets people talking is the really fun part about our jobs, and with all the changes that have taken place in PR, we now have more opportunity to do that than ever before. So rather than just focusing on “more” content in 2015, think bigger and look at how you can produce “different” content. It will lead to a very different year.

Holmes Report Innovator 25: A Thank You

I’d like to take a moment to thank the Holmes Report for including me in their list of Top 25 PR Innovators. It feels awesome to be included in such inspiring company, and I’d also like to take a moment to commend my friends and colleagues who’ve been recognized as fellow innovators in PR. In particular, I’d like to say congratulations to my friend Charlene Li for also making the list, and for inspiring so many of the ideas that many of us have been putting into practice this year.

What strikes me about the list this year is to what extent the people on this are passionate about their own particular vision for communications and content. Whether or not we “made the list,” that’s something all of us in PR share—we are all in service of telling somebody’s story, and we are all in service of innovating new ways to tell that story. And that involves a fair amount of “creative destruction”—which in PR takes the form of blowing up old processes and form factors to make way for more useful ones. As a troublemaker at heart, I have to admit to enjoying the destructive aspect of the creative process, and I’m curious how many of my colleagues on this list share my penchant for rhetorical demolition.

At B&O, the creative destruction in 2014 has been all around storytelling. If anything, my inclusion on this year’s innovators list is a nod to the hard work the entire B&O team has put into advancing our shared vision for Viral Storytelling. Our storytelling model, which like many other successful story models is based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, is pre-engineered to generate the positive word of mouth that drives sales, reputation, talent retention and brand engagement. And it’s a storytelling model we use in each and every one of our accounts.

What’s best about this story model is that it’s based on authenticity. We find what is most true about our clients. We help them discover the most compelling way to evangelize themselves and attach themselves to the trends that make them the most relevant. And we help them articulate their purpose and mission in a way that gets their audiences to want to see them succeed. It’s amazing what storytelling can do when it’s authentic and not all about yourself, as I had a chance to discuss in a recent speech at LinkedIn TechConnect 14.

It’s been fun to blog about storytelling and essentially open-source our Viral Storytelling model to the industry. We believe that smart innovations are worth sharing. And we’re just getting started. In the coming months, the broader bench here at B&O will be sharing even more inspiration and insight into innovative trends in communications, including:

  • The power of human connections and community uprising
  • Social and multichannel messaging
  • Brand journalism
  • Research tools, analytics and the power of big data in PR
  • Focusing our storytelling on the human impact of new technologies

Again, my thanks to Aarti Shah, Paul Holmes and the Holmes Report for including me as a Top 25 PR Innovator. And perhaps most importantly, on behalf of my B&O teammates and myself, I’d like to express our deep appreciation to our clients who’ve had the curiosity and courage to creatively destroy a few old models and co-create some high-impact stories with us this year.