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Of Innovation and Snake Oil



By Jason Anderson

For several years now, the insights industry has been talking about innovation – in fact, I struggle to remember what people were talking about before. Mobile, crowdsourcing, prediction markets. Wearable tech, gamification, communities. Collaborative, sharing, big data economies. Virtual reality, market simulations. Social media monitoring. DIY. All while still plodding forward with surveys, interviews, panels, and focus groups.

Before taking the plunge and starting a business on the front lines of one of these innovations, I was a corporate client that tried pretty hard to incorporate new technology and techniques into our research portfolio. Success was rare. Most of the time, my internal clients looked for answers to problems they knew could be addressed through well-known methods. When business decisions land on a research desk, the business has already identified it as a risk; adding risk by using an “innovation” is difficult to defend.

That risk-aversion is probably the right answer most of the time. Innovative only means something new or different, and nothing guarantees that an innovation will have any value. At the same time, our industry (like all others) feels compelled to try. Too many titans have died, simply by not adapting to changes in technology and society.

Which brings us to the current crossroads: surrounded by the language of innovation, struggling to figure out how much of it to employ, where to buy it, where to sell it, and whether any of these new tools and methods are worth all of the headaches and stress. And change.

Here are a few self-serving thoughts about how to turn all of this innovation talk into action.

How to Buy Innovation

Early adopters have already figured out many of the tricks to working with smaller innovation-driven suppliers, which I’ve briefly described below.

  1. Start small, but start. Pick an innovation category, seek out suppliers in the category, and do it. Most companies who are developing new solutions would value your feedback and relationship as much as they value the revenue opportunity, and only with repeated experience can their offer be optimized for you. Without your participation, most of these ideas will die of starvation.
  2. Iterate. Most current research innovations are technology-driven. If you’ve never been a technologist, I assure you that technology can move much faster than you think. If you find something that you like but want to modify, just ask for it. Yes, eventually the service offering will mature and become less agile, but now is not that time. Dozens of new companies form every year, desperately trying to build services that are relevant and valuable to you.
  3. Share. Discuss with colleagues, both inside and outside of your organization. Publicly endorse the ones that are doing something special. Any advantage from hiding a “secret weapon” from your competitors is short-lived. Besides, the real benefits come from the innovation itself, not its monopolization. Sharing builds awareness, which makes it easier for the winners to rise and easier to persuade internal audiences about the validity of your experimental desires.
  4. Prepare to be nimble. For any newly developed service, speed will be one of its core capabilities. Speed is important because it makes it easier to iterate, but it can also diminish the value of the service if you’re not prepared to react quickly to the results.

Selling Snake Oil

When it comes to investing research budget in something new, the greatest fear is being stuck with a pantry full of snake oil. (And there is snake oil out there.) Your success as an innovator depends on persuading skeptics that your offer isn’t one of them.

Assuming that your innovation actually is of value, here are several things to keep in mind when approaching that prospect.

  1. Are you an aspirin or a vitamin? Do you firmly understand what problem your innovation solves? Or are you just a convenience? I’ll always buy a painkiller if it truly resolves my pain, but vitamins and flavor enhancers offer only short-term satisfaction.
  2. Trial is key. You have your eyes on that six-figure annual contract, and you believe in the great things you can do for the client. That can work in situations where you’re replacing an existing large contract, but it’s a rare win. It’s much more important to provide options at a lower cost of entry that naturally build up to a higher level of service.
  3. Outbound marketing is hard. During the years that I managed client-side consumer insights, not a week would go by without an introduction from a new company interested in our research business. That approach is not terribly innovative, and rarely caught my attention. Much more important was to provide ample self-serve information that educated me about a company’s capabilities at a time and pace that meshed with my schedule.
  4. Eat your own dog food. If you’re building software, you should be using your software every month to run research studies. Nothing communicates a solution’s value like seeing it solve things, and it provides a constant stream of content for marketing and sales support.
  5. Respect the client’s time. If you’ve been given a spot on someone’s calendar, treat it like a gift. Don’t drown them in follow-up emails, understand the tempo of their work cycle. This is a slow-moving industry on many levels, so your communication and planning should be patient.

So Who’s Buying All This Innovation?

At Insights Meta, we’ve been grinding away and working to sell research gamification services and software for nearly two years now. Before sending you off to the Internet to find your own wells of innovation, I’d like to compare some of the characteristics of the companies that have worked with us with those who have not. Let’s call them the early adopters and the status quos.

Early adopters appear in every client industry we’ve spoken with. They have all had an internal champion, either formally or informally, with the political capital to make such a decision. They have budgets large and small, teams of one person or dozens. Their primary common characteristic is simply that our offer addressed a current problem. (They also all became repeat clients – when you’re actually solving a problem, selling turns out to be a pretty easy affair.) There are also some very strong early adopters out there for whom we just haven’t crafted a product that’s a fit for their current problems, but I’m confident they would happily evaluate such an offer. We’ve also had the good fortune of speaking to many more potential clients – the status quos. For these companies, the rough edges that often accompany brand-new tech were too great a barrier.

The biggest difference between the innovators and the followers, though, is more about attitude. The innovators see creativity and opportunity, the followers see risk and change. They see snake oil.

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2 responses to “Of Innovation and Snake Oil

  1. Jason a fabulous summary of the whole “snake oil” … ooops new technology industry. The unsaid in much of the prognostications about the disruptive potential of new technologies is simply barriers at the buying end. No amount of young and eager MR people meeting at conferences and salivating over the new, new thing will ever ensure the rubber meets the road in terms of applications.

    You summed it up beautifully …

    “Most of the time, my internal clients looked for answers to problems they knew could be addressed through well-known methods. When business decisions land on a research desk, the business has already identified it as a risk; adding risk by using an “innovation” is difficult to defend”.

    And at the end of the day if something can be solved by standard measures why take the risk on a technology that may or may not be delivering real value to the marketing mix?

    I have just been looking at some interesting work done on emotional testing of ads based on facial analysis and for the life of me cannot think how I would ever get the findings past a hardened Marketing Director. This research showed very negative responses in emotional terms to advertising. The conclusion, perhaps correct, is that even negative response can be excellent for advertising effectiveness, but can you see some 20 year plus veteran of hard-nosed marketing ever accepting those findings? I think both the internal researcher and the agency would be turfed off the premises.

    My question – is a lot of this just navel-gazing? Does it hand on heart really deliver the insights we think are out there for the innovative. Its certainly an exciting time, but trolling through some of the stuff coming out of ILEX makes me wonder about applications usefulness and corporate acceptance.

    I think we sometimes need to be reminded that market research is an expense item like everything else in the marketing budget and directing funds to try marginal innovations can be a big ask. Jason’s article is a timely reminder to put aside all the hubris and think practically about the potential for innovation, One of the most insightful articles on this subject in a long time!

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