When people think of an innovation ecosystem they generally think of companies like Amazon or AirBnB that practically created the market they now lead, but how did they get there? More importantly, how can you?
An innovation ecosystem understands a market opportunity profoundly, determining a specific need and providing a unique way to address it. It’s not a bullet-proof system; disrupting the market with an exclusive offer to meet a select group of demands is a calculated risk. Fortunately, this topic has been top-of-mind for several members and I’ve talked to CMOs from around the globe to leverage collective experiences and find seven basic actions all marketers must take to establish a successful innovation ecosystem.
This is a double-edged sword, as it can: a) keep you from trying to enter a niche currently dominated by another company and b) paralyze your team in the search for the complete and perfect solution. A healthy innovation ecosystem isn’t an end all be all, but rather something that will continue to grow and improve over time. An agile foundation needs to be put in place to readily allow for better ideas from various channels - users, customers, providers, other departments and more. Therefore, searching for that “perfect idea” is a goal that should guide your vision and keep it driving forward, but never overpower it.
Innovation must be planned; it just doesn’t “happen” and when it does, it’s hardly comprehensive. Once you’ve established a market opportunity with your team, sit down with them and figure out the different avenues that you can take to satisfy the needs you’ve noticed. Be as wild and imaginative as you can in this stage, since it will set the groundwork for the planning stage. We frequently talk about the benefits of letting any idea be heard from anywhere in the organization, and this is no exception to that rule. The wilder and more comprehensive the idea, the more opportunity for impressive and effective innovation.
The only advice that marketers give here is to not decide where it ends before you even begin. Open the process up to different points of view and frequent changes.
Present the problem to employees, your customers, other agencies, startups, universities and peer groups and see how they would approach it. Nurture the ecosystem with the different answers and come up with a unified and streamlined solution that encompasses the best and most ground-breaking ideas. Universities and startups are particularly suited for this planning stage because their ideas tend to be fresh and the motivation to prove themselves high. You and your team may be surprised at the unexpected outcomes.
Think about the best innovators, brands and companies that have made a difference in their fields and what made them successful. Amazon, a stand-out example, provided the platform that seamlessly brings buyers and customers together (frequently making these people one in the same), in a way that allows the users to drive their own experiences.
Conversely look at people with similar offers and platforms that didn’t make it. What made some succeed and some fail? Were they too soon or too late to market? Is there something you can enhance and do better? The smallest factor can be the determining one, so use their wins and failures as lessons to follow.
Sustainable innovation ecosystems frequently include technology, a specific business model, customer engagement, employee talent, storytelling, content distribution, a give-back program or platform and, if applicable, store design. From conception, you’ll need to always be thinking about finding or creating sustainable technology that clients will be able to interact with effectively. This will involve creating benchmarks and a complete business model that is specific to your organization and its goals. An innovation ecosystem is not an overnight process and will require multiple resources and several years of investment. Use this time to leverage customer stories and content and capitalize on employee talent to continuously improve your platform.
You can have the perfect platform and fail at telling your story, the technology may turn out to be prohibitive or perhaps the business model fails to scale up. Every single one of these factors is critical and must be included in your preliminary considerations in order to truly claim success.
You can’t task “innovation” because ideas will grow stale and subpar fast. No single department can be in charge of innovation, it simply doesn’t work like that. Instead, think of innovation - whether you plan to disrupt the market or simply launch a new service that builds on your current line - as the result of the collective knowledge and experience of your team members, participating organizations (think university partnerships) and customers. In the research stage all of these groups must be reviewed for potential game-changers. The opportunities exist, they just need to be found and given the space to grow.
Innovation should never dilute your company’s mission, focus or delivery. It’s critical that you stay on brand and on track; it’s easy to chase after a business model that looks profitable but diverges from your original or current message. You want your branding to stay cohesive and the innovation feel like the logical next step in your organization’s evolution. For many brands, this is easier said than done.
Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and dive deep into the customer journey for hidden insights or the slightest friction in customer experience. These are the places that hold the most opportunity for future growth.
Find issues your prospects encounter across five main areas and look for ways to eliminate them with sophisticated simplicity. Why five main areas? It broadens your range of action, opening your opportunities to solve real issues in areas of critical importance to your audience, in turn facilitating the planning stage for your ecosystem.
The simpler the solution the more likely it is to be adopted. A successful innovation ecosystem should function in the background of the customer experience, bridging the gap between customer pain point and solution in a clean and effective way.
Starting innovation ecosystem can be a daunting task, but if you look at it as an innovation project, then it’s an easier subject to broach with your team and board. If you look at these seven basic steps you can start to create a corporate culture that values and strives for innovation. Seek the help of your community to solve problems, interact with team members to find out-of-the-box ways to fix issues, listen to your customers to figure out what needs are yet to be met and then collate that data to plan for an ecosystem that profits from those solutions.
"Ideas can come from unexpected places or random, totally unrelated discussions. Being open to change makes one a stronger marketer because change is all around us."
Vasu is a passionate marketer who is fueled by strategy, team building and making an impact. Here's what she's learned during her career, and some of the reasons she loves being a marketer in today's fast-paced world.