We spend a lot of time working with our Kindling customers to help them build sustainable innovation programs. And no matter how creative or how forward-thinking the organizations we work with prove to be, time and time again we see that the single biggest predictor of success is management’s active commitment to the program.
Active commitment can be best demonstrated by actively making decisions around participants’ contributions. And we’ve found that by communicating these decisions is the best marketing for the program itself.
Show and Tell
We always emphasize that an internal marketing effort can make a huge difference for the program. On a basic level, this means selecting a name for the program, establishing a visual language, creating posters and other giveaways, and offering encouragement and rewards. The goal for this generalized marketing of the innovation program is to make sure that the participants, who are invariably super-busy, know that the program exists and what the goals and expectations are for participating. We think of this as the broadcasting of a mass message, or as general advertising for your program.
For several years, the predominant trend in marketing has been towards content marketing. The idea is that providing useful content that users want to consume is a better hook than, say, a billboard. In most cases, content marketing takes the shape of dynamic, useful, practical information. In addition to providing the user with something they want, it works to prove that you know your space. Show that you wield expertise on the issues that face your potential customers, and they’ll naturally want to share with others. They’ll spread your message for you because the thing you want them to share is inherently useful, and the source of that information earns their trust.
Decisions as Marketing
What would a content-marketing approach look like if you were marketing an innovation program to your employees? What dynamic, useful information would best demonstrate that the program is real and worth their time? And how do you establish their trust?
Imagine that you are an employee of a 500-person international group. Your manager has called upon you to contribute your ideas to help the company move forward by emailing them to a designated innovation program inbox. It’s in your best interest, and you have a lot to offer—so you submit an idea to the blind email suggestion box and, in many cases, that’s the end of it. You never hear anything back. Would you submit the insights of your next light-bulb moment? Of course not.
As a manager, that’s your moment to offer useful content, in the form of feedback. A “yes” is great. “Yes, this idea is awesome. Let’s move forward.” The employee is ecstatic. They’ll tell their coworkers, marshal all their creative resources, and submit again. But surprisingly, we’ve found that the “no” is just as valuable. “Intriguing idea, but off the mark for x or y reason.” A transparent window into your thought process gives a clear indication that you took the time to seriously consider the idea, and although it didn’t work out, you genuinely debated the possibility of moving on the suggestion. And the reasons for rejecting the idea can steer the person in a productive direction. All in all, it’s a signal to the employee that the people in charge legitimately value their employees’ contributions.
And guess who else is watching? Other program participants see that management’s promises made on that poster are being upheld. They read along when one idea is approved and celebrated and another is turned away thoughtfully and transparently. They learn about what management believes are actionable ideas, and they’re motivated to participate.
Anyone running an innovation program will recognize that the decision is vital to progress, as it is a necessary step towards validating or rejecting the hypothesis. But to continue courting employee engagement, broadcasting decision-making, its values, and its rationales is equally vital. In fact, it’s the best marketing possible for the program.
For a PR agency, an ebook full of tips about how to get press is great content marketing because it shows that the agency not only knows, but cares about the press-courting process, to the extent that they inherently want to help you do it. It makes you want to go to them when you need press. For the employee that wants to innovate, a transparent decision-making process does the same thing. It shows that you know how to evaluate an idea, and how to execute if that idea is workable.
As a manager in charge of an innovation program, the decision is the best content marketing you can offer. Encouragement—posters and giveaways—are great. They’re ways to say, “We’re listening.” But to prove to your team that you not only value their contributions but need them, showing that you know how to evaluate ideas and execute if possible, will solicit more contributions than any poster ever could. By communicating your decisions you are showing that “We’re listening.” And that’s commitment.