By Marcia Riefer Johnston published December 22, 2016

Stop Trying to Innovate With Your Content

stop-trying-to-innovate-with-content

“Innovate! Disrupt! Your company’s future depends on it!” To me, this ubiquitous advice has always sounded as doable as, “Leap that tall building in a single bound!”

What a relief, then, to hear someone widely recognized as one of the most important voices in content strategy say, “Stop trying to innovate.” Kristina Halvorson wove that message into her talk at Content Marketing World. Instead of aiming for innovation, here’s what Kristina advises marketers to do:

Improve on what you’re already doing with your content. Then improve on it again. That’s where your competitive advantage lies. That’s where your success lies.

Listen. Improve. Repeat.

Now there’s something a mortal marketer can do.

How do you decide which content-related improvements to make? And how do you track your progress as you make one improvement after another? The rest of this article explores those two questions.

Look for ‘adjacent possibilities’ for improvement

Kristina’s message isn’t new. Product designers and manufacturers have followed the principles of continual improvement (popularly but less accurately called continuous improvement) for decades. The idea is that innovation comes not from striving for breakthroughs but from making one incremental change after another.

Expressing this idea in a memorable way in a talk at the Delight conference for user-experience designers in 2014, Forrester Research vice president James McQuivey said:

Don’t try to build the future. Build an adjacent possibility. Build the next thing people need. Let the future find you.

Don’t try to build the future . . .Build the next thing people need says @jmcquivey. Click To Tweet

Adjacent possibilities. In two words, James pegs innovation as an evolutionary process. In fact, in an article in Harvard Business Review, he points out that the man who coined the term was an evolutionary biologist.

In the same article, James gives business strategists this advice:

Direct your team to obsess about today’s adjacent possibilities, not tomorrow’s distant improbabilities … There is no way you will anticipate all the adjacent possibilities that will have to combine (over the long term) to accurately predict what products you will sell or how you will sell them that far out. That’s not for lack of intelligence on your part. It’s because most of those adjacent possibilities on which you will ultimately depend have yet to emerge from the combination of other adjacencies on which they will depend.

In his intro to a recent This Old Marketing podcast, discussing the difficulty of making long-term predictions, CMI Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose said something similar:

Instead of looking out for (what’s) coming over the horizon … we can succeed more by really getting good at identifying … trends that are here. Because then you’re not standing in the intersection trying to predict what’s the next kind of truck that will come around the corner and mow you down in the street. You’re looking at what’s in front of you and to either side and becoming better at crossing the street.

Ignore the horizon. Look at what’s in front of you and to either side says ‪@Robert_Rose‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ Click To Tweet

What kind of adjacent possibilities – possibilities right “in front of you and to either side” – might you explore today to improve your content processes? Kristina essentially answered that question when she suggested that marketers identify content strategy activities that haven’t been done yet or that need more attention, prioritize those activities, and pick something to improve.

Pick a next thing to do, and do it.

What kind of activities might you pick from? When Kristina talks about “content strategy activities,” she’s talking about activities related to planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content – her frequently quoted definition of content strategy. She mentions the following examples:

Consider the activities that your team might benefit from. Then pick one – one possibility that’s adjacent to what you’re already doing – one activity that could help address your biggest content-related pain point. Start there.

Let’s say that someone created personas years ago, but no one ever mentions them in your editorial meetings, your blog authors say that the old personas don’t help them, your audience rarely shares or comments on your blog posts, and your blog subscription rates are disappointing. You might do a new round of user research and then refine your personas to convey more-relevant insights into your audience’s questions and struggles.

Listen. Improve. Repeat.

Don’t innovate. Improve again and again says Kristina @Halvorson at #CMWorld Click To Tweet

Now that we’ve looked at how to decide which activities to improve, let’s turn to how to track your progress.

Track the progress of your improvements

As you improve the elements of your strategy, you might find it helpful to track your progress. One approach would be to create an at-a-glance chart that indicates the status of various content strategy tools your team is using or plans to use. In her Content Marketing World workshop, Content Strategy 101, Laura Creekmore handed out one such chart, which I share here with her permission.

Click the image below to download Laura’s chart as a customizable Google sheet. (Go to File > Download As.)

track-your-progress

Customize this chart as you like, adding or deleting tools in the far-left column so that the list fits your team. “You might not need all these things,” Laura told workshop attendees. “Ask yourself where your opportunities are.”

Change the tool names, too, if you like. “The content police are not coming to get you,” says Scott Kubie, a content strategist and designer who works with Kristina at Brain Traffic. In his blog post Put the Work Before the Words, Scott goes on to say:

If stakeholders are confused by a term like ‘content audit’ – maybe auditing makes them tense up with thoughts of the IRS or SEC – just call it something else. Call it a content review. Call it a website analysis. Call it voice QA. Call it Steven. (OK, maybe not that last one.)

In other words, track your progress in a way that works for your team.

Listen. Improve. Repeat.

Conclusion

The pressure is off: You can stop trying to innovate with your content. Instead, improve something. Pick an adjacent possibility – something close to what you’re doing already. Do that.

Stop trying to innovate with your #content. Instead, improve something says @marciarjohnston. Click To Tweet

Listen. Improve. You know.

Track your progress. Eventually, you may look back and realize that you’ve accomplished something innovative after all. You’ve made it over that tall building by taking the stairs.

How do you and your content team improve your processes? How do you track your improvements? Please let us know in a comment.

If you are serious about putting content to work in your business, you won’t want to miss the Intelligent Content Conference March 28 – 30, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Register today and use promo code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

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  • Daniel Tiernan

    I think that some of that advice about innovation isn’t so much about figuring out the next big thing, but is pointing towards providing real value by being different or at least somewhat original. There’s too much duplicate content and repetitive advice. Maybe you don’t need to innovate, but you’ve got be looking to create content that is unique.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Right on, Daniel.

  • p_dorfman

    Oh lord what a relief to read something like this.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      I feel the same way. My friend Joe Pairman summed this sentiment up beautifully: “We don’t have to strain our eyes and necks by neurotically peering over the horizon.” Right before I saw your comment here, I responded to him, “Isn’t that a relief (and a profound opportunity to create the future in a way that we have access to—based on what we see today).”

  • http://www.BeVisibleAssociates.com Betsy Kent – BeVisible

    Thanks, Marcia, Great article! In spite of being a one person show and not an org, much of this advice sung to me. It certainly is much easier to look inside for adjacent possibilities and build on successes than looking outside and trying to predict the future.

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Betsy, It sure seems that way to me—and heaven knows there are plenty of adjacent possibilities to explore if we listen to customers!

      • http://www.BeVisibleAssociates.com Betsy Kent – BeVisible

        You and I must be cut from the same cloth!

        • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

          🙂

  • Greg Verdino

    While not all improvement is an innovation, every (successful) innovation must be an improvement… if not for your company, certainly for your customer. And when you strip away the “disrupt! disrupt!” rhetoric, the vast majority of real innovation happening in real companies (yeh, even at companies like Google) focuses specifically on adjacencies; very little focuses on moon shots even if it’s the moon shots everyone buzzes about.

    I also once had a smart client who broke innovation into three simple buckets — there’s “new to the world”, “new to the industry”, and “just new to you”. New to you would certainly include getting into content for the first time, refining your approach to content, tweaking your voice, your topics, your formats, your process, or even your team. Are these improvements? Hope so! Are they innovations? If they’re new to you, then by all means YES.

    I guess this is a long way of saying, I don’t necessarily see anyone saying “don’t innovate” — I see them saying “make sure your innovations are practical.”

    • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks for the insight, Greg.

  • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Jon, excellent example of adjacent possibility in content. Thanks.

    • https://www.vidyard.com/ Jon @ Vidyard

      Thanks for putting together this great post! It’s something we’re trying to practice in 2017, so it’s good to hear we’re not alone 🙂

      • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

        Jon, I’d like to hear how this goes for you.

  • http://howtowriteeverything.com/ Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Steve, Thanks for taking time to comment. I can see how it could be possible to read this article as saying “Don’t shoot for the moon.” That’s not the way I interpret Kristina Halvorson’s original message, which I aimed to echo. I’m thinking about people who feel pressured by the expectation of getting to the moon in an unfathomable leap; they may love the idea but may feel defeated from the start. When, instead, they feel empowered by the opportunities all around them, making improvement after improvement and adjusting course each time, they just may get to the moon after all.

  • http://www.MakeYourSoftware.com/ Amit Jain

    Repurposing the old content for new needs , Interesting

  • chrliechaz

    I love this! We have so much “innovation” at my company we are having trouble focusing on making that innovation successful and substantive. Definitely the time to focus on return and value.

  • ronellsmith

    Amen, Marcia. I like to say review, revise, repeat. That’s the “shortcut.”

    RS