Innovation Can't Be Bought -- It Must Be Built

When you go to college, anything is possible. We as universities tell students this, but in our own digital communications efforts, we know this isn't actually the case. Given the realities of limited budgets and resources, anything and everything is not possible.

But that doesn't prevent us from setting extremely high expectations for our digital content -- not necessarily with a corresponding increase in available resources.

Yet, our need to advance is understandable. The pressure to compete, to differentiate, and to succeed has never been higher. So it may seem as if there's only one course of action.

"We have to be innovative," said every director or VP of communications ever.

But what does that mean? Are GIFs innovative? How about videos? Should we replace our main comprehensive site with a series of distinct microsites? What about making our homepage 100 percent social content? And responsive web design -- that's innovative, right?

Sounds great! Let's do it. Because being innovative means doing new things, right?

Not so fast.

Innovation, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama told BusinessWeek in 2007, is "the creation of something that improves the way we live our lives." But more often than not, we seem to measure innovation simply by the creation or conceptualization of a product, not necessarily by the delivery of results. We buy "cutting-edge solutions" without integrating them into a process and a system whereby they are managed sustainably and planned strategically. Remember, it's only a solution if you've truly identified the problem.

Results, though, are what turn a great idea into a real solution. Today's everyday conveniences were at some point yesterday's innovations -- they were just the innovations that made the most meaningful difference in people's lives by solving their problems.

So, how do we get better results? How can we innovate without breaking the bank?

First, we need to move away from the idea that innovation equals flashy. Flashy is what costs big bucks and makes innovation feel out of reach for our modest higher ed budgets. But innovation is really just the illusion of flashiness. Think about magicians. Magicians do not possess special powers. They have simply learned to master their environment and manipulate their audience in a way that lets them control a situation. And when you control a situation, you have incredible sway to achieve any desired effect.

Innovation is about process, not pizzazz.

Put the Focus on the Users

Innovation is in the eye of the beholder. And in our case, the beholder is our user. But how much of our communications is focused on talking about our organization as opposed to addressing our users' needs? If we structure our websites around internal org charts and write copy without consideration for tone, context, or empathy, we will leave our users cold.

The more we orient content around users' concerns, questions, and journeys, the more they will engage with it, and engagement yields results.

That means we need to know more about what those needs and questions are. User testing, surveys, focus groups, and stakeholder interviews are all tactics that can be used to talk to users directly. You can also gauge analytics to see where people gravitate, where they get hung up, and where they give up altogether.

These tactics will help us learn the true opportunities for innovation. For example, just how do people find out about events on campus -- are they using that expensive events calendar, or are they just reading emails and social media? How are internal audiences using the website -- what information or services are they looking for, what labels do they use, and how can we make the website more usable for them? Does your financial aid section do a good job of answering questions and relieving anxiety, in turn easing the burden on the folks working the phones in the office?

Doing this kind of research and analysis takes the guesswork out of content planning and creation. It can also help mitigate pressure to do "cool" things that users will "love" and instead reinforces the need to create relevant content that will delight, inform, and engage them -- in turn supporting a meaningful shift in user behavior.

Build Your Community

The adage goes, "all of us are smarter than one of us." The more you bring people across campus together to share information and experiences, collaborate on projects, and present ideas, the more interesting outcomes you will see.

That means that instead of commencement coverage happening in 38 different pockets across the institution, you can have a more comprehensive and complete digital representation of the event. You can avoid redundant content by sharing story ideas and editorial calendars so the alumni office and news office don't both profile the same noteworthy alumna, and the physics department has a heads up about their graduate's accomplishments. Content owners across campus for whom content is not a full time job can fulfill their role more effectively by learning from peers who share the same challenges.

Of course, that's easier said than done. It takes more than a form, a meeting, or an email address. Building an internal community of content managers requires intentional cultural change, active and ongoing engagement, and creating a structure to harness the energy of that community toward desired outcomes.

Innovation can happen when you bring people with different perspectives and knowledge to bear on shared challenges. That's when the really interesting ideas emerge. And with the right process in place, those ideas can become reality.

Test, Measure, Share -- Rinse, Repeat

Knowledge is power. And sometimes, the knowledge we need most is to simply know what our content does once we put it out into the world. But the time to begin asking that question comes long before you hit "publish."

As always, it starts with the goals you set for your content. What outcomes do you hope this content will support? What should people feel or understand upon encountering it? What are the calls-to-action?

Once you establish the goals, you can pinpoint the metrics that will tell you whether or not you are hitting them. By structuring your website in a way that allows you to track user behavior (through campaign tagging, for instance) and building your goals and metrics into a regular dashboard for reference, you create an engine for gauging innovation.

That gives you the knowledge and information to then share with others in order to gain buy-in with key stakeholders, share your outcomes with chosen audiences, or make the case for more resources. You'll know just how people are using your homepage slider--if they're using it all. You can tell whether or not your new student video profiles are effectively driving traffic to the admissions section. And you'll be able to trace the path a user takes to an academic program page and see where they go from there.

Taking a quantitative approach also allows you to try out new and experimental content ideas and determining whether or not they are truly innovative, meaning they made a measureable advancement toward achieving your objectives, or just something different.

Repurpose Content (Thoughtfully)

How can less truly be more? That happens when you have a plan for thoughtfully repurposing content across your website and varied digital platforms. Some examples:

  • A well-structured taxonomy allows you to tag events or news stories against appropriate topics, enabling you to pull that content onto relevant pages

  • If you take video of a lecture on campus, you can crop a 15-second highlight trailer for Instagram
  • Take advantage of traditionally siloed (and often not even properly digitized) content like your magazine or newsletter to flood your digital properties with relevant (when properly tagged) content
  • Collect thought leadership on specific, high-value topics (whether it's news stories or speech transcripts from a top administrator or prominent faculty member) into an ebook
  • Speaking of transcripts, transcribing video content not only addresses accessibility concerns, it creates new text-based content that can be broken down and pulled into other areas.
  • Pull feeds or favorite content from social media platforms (like blogs or Twitter accounts) onto relevant webpages
  • With this kind of planning and structure, you can create previously unimaginable content experiences that support the growth and visibility of your brand and the usability and comprehension of your content.

    Find Efficiencies in Your Process

    What is your process for determining topics for news stories? Or creating academic program content? Or how about getting approvals for homepage images? Processes are muscle memory for organizations, but what if something in the culture or climate changes? The muscles may need to learn new behaviors.

    That's why it's important to revisit your processes (or perhaps introduce one for the first time) to identify blockers, unclog bottlenecks, find opportunities for greater efficiency, and clarify anything that is confusing or ambiguous. How do you know where to start? Usually, looking where you experience the most pain is a good start. What can be addressed by changing roles and responsibilities, or introducing or revisiting a workflow? What partnerships (internally or with a third-party) or tools might make this process easier?

    To sustain the newfound efficiency in your process, it helps to standardize it. Create and disseminate templates and written guidelines that codify and give structure to your content processes. Maybe that's a content template to guide page-level content creation, or a project brief at the outset of an effort to align on goals and audiences.

    With a standardized, more efficient approach, the process in question will likely yield more consistent, effective results -- specifically, higher-quality, more timely content.

    The Secret

    Here's the thing: if it is something different that gives you positive results that you didn't have yesterday, that's innovation. It's really not as mysterious as we make it sound.

    By planning against actual needs and goals, creating tools and processes designed to better support those efforts, and then measuring the outcomes of those actions, we can transform our digital communications in ways that allows us to excel in all the ways that this changing industry of higher education is demanding that we do.

    Your end user may never actually notice your greatest innovation. But when you make better things happen behind the scenes, they will certainly feel the difference.

    Georgy Cohen is Associate Creative Director of Content Strategy at OHO Interactive and cofounder of Meet Content, a blog and resource on content strategy in higher education. She'll be co-presenting a workshop on content planning at Confab Higher Ed this November.