The Key to Innovation Is to Make It Customer-Centric [3 Case Studies]

Customer-Centric Innovation Case Studies | Sterling Woods Group

Innovation in content companies is hard. While there are many factors that prevent publishers from pursuing content evolution and product development, a major roadblock is that they simply lose sight of what matters most: the needs of their customers. In fact, a study by Harvard Business School showed that in the US, 85% of new product launches failed due to poor market segmentation.

With that in mind, I interviewed three publication leaders from across industries to explore how their companies encourage innovation on their team while keeping their focus on the customers. I noticed several recurring themes in our discussions.

Risk aversion is common.

Getting the ball rolling can be the toughest part. Employees at all levels can be pretty resistant to change with an, “If it ain’t broke…” attitude. Finding a way to foster continuous improvement is critical to making innovation a part of your publication’s growth.

Customer-centric doesn’t mean customer-only.

As you’ll read, product development requires a delicate balancing act between the wants and needs of your audience and your company’s capacity for growth. When you focus on the customer but neglect to weigh your plan against your budget or forecast, your initiative will likely fail.

Innovation is about evolution.

If you’ve read the news, over the last several years, you’ve probably seen article after article decrying how millennials are killing everything from cereal to democracy. But what these (slightly apocalyptic) articles actually typify is the danger in getting too comfortable with your business’s product offering. At its very core, innovation is about actively listening to the market around you and responding in kind to bolster your business’s success.

To learn more about how to focus your product development on your audience, listen as fellow publishers from H3.Group, CW Research, and PSMJ share the ways their companies have embraced customer-centric innovation.

Elizabeth Petersen, H3.Group

Elizabeth Petersen, H3.Group, Talks Customer-Centric InnovationThe team at H3.Group empowers today’s healthcare professionals with solution-focused information to guide their healthcare organizations’ efforts to achieve compliance, financial performance, leadership, and organizational excellence. Their President, Elizabeth Petersen, shares what structures they have put into place to foster well-thought-out customer initiatives.

“[A] common danger is forgetting to involve the customer in innovation. It’s hard to keep a finger on the pulse of the industries we serve. But, if we’re not regularly speaking and spending time with customers, developing new solutions that will resonate in the market is nearly impossible.”

Talk to Your Customers About Their Unique Needs

“At the H3.Group, we’ve got a pretty well-established process for new product development. Our process requires our team to speak with at least 10 customers before we will even consider launching a product. The customer conversations help define our offering, or, in some cases, abandon the idea all together.”

We’ve spoken extensively about digital transformations for publishers, but as Petersen has learned, it’s important to look closely at your market and make sure the move is the best thing for your audience: “A few years ago, we tried to force a transition of many print subscribers to a digital platform. Our electronic solution was robust and truly provided our customers with significantly more content and functional resources than their monthly paper newsletter did.

“However, many of our customers simply placed a higher value on consuming content via print. For us, I think the lesson was the importance of extensive customer interviewing and putting our own biases aside.”

Create a Formal Process for Exploring New Ideas

Of the leaders we talked to, it’s Petersen’s team who has the most formal process for innovative initiatives. In addition to having to speak to nearly a dozen customers about a new project, there are forms to complete, departments to consult with, and approval meetings to be had.

“Our new product process has existed for years and is part of every editor/product manager and marketer’s responsibility. Before we commit any resources to a new product, we require staff to complete a multi-page document that addresses the unique value proposition, market opportunity, customer feedback, marketing and sales plans, and revenue/cost projections. While our product team is primarily responsible for the form, the process requires input from a number of different corporate stakeholders, including operations, sales, and marketing.

“Once a week, we hold a ‘New Products Meeting,’ during which the team will present their idea to the senior management group. The project may be greenlit on the spot, or we may ask for additional diligence. Regardless of the outcome, these meetings force a certain diligence when it comes to innovation and allows staff to share ideas with one another and learn more about corporate expectations for product development.”

Julian Rose, CW Research

Julian Rose, CW Research, talks Customer-Centric InnovationCW Research, online publisher of Chemical Watch, gathers the latest developments on chemical legislation around the world and summarizes them for subscribers. Co-founder Julian Rose has maximized customer-centric innovation by expanding the company’s knowledge base globally in order to cover as much news and reach as many subscribers as possible. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.

As he explains it, “When you have an established product in a stable or growing market, innovation can seem reckless. Why jeopardize something that works well? It’s hard to get buy-in to the idea that we’re missing opportunities to add value.

“When we launched a new product, CW+ AsiaHub, covering the regulatory scene in Asia, the challenge felt daunting because it’s so difficult to acquire reliable intelligence from governments and regulatory bodies in these countries; yet this was precisely the reason we had a market opportunity… We drew up a communications plan so that our staff could explain to customers why the launch of the new Asia product would not undermine the content of their existing CW Research subscription (which addresses the global regulatory scene). Our approach was to include quality coverage of Asia within CW Research while signaling to readers that additional news, analysis, and other resources were available on the specialist product.”

Test Initiatives With Your Audience Early On

CW Research launches new products in a low budget capacity and uses their subscribers as a focus group, which worked when it came time to promote CW+ AsiaHub. They watch, listen, and learn, and only then make an effort to expand the initiatives with potential.

Successful innovation may begin and end with the customer—but that doesn’t mean they should be the only consideration. Rose explains how his team learned this the hard way with the launch of their online courses.

“The low budget approach also worked very well when we launched our first eLearning product in 2015… It was put together with the enthusiasm and spare time (i.e. long hours) of a small determined team. Sales were spectacular as the eLearning was very well received in the market. However, having demonstrated the market potential, we then spectacularly failed to invest in the capacity required to develop the subsequent suite of a dozen or so eLearning products we now wanted to launch. With hindsight, we were guilty of wishful thinking in which you write a business plan with targets but fail to think through the resource requirements. We’ve lost a couple of years in the process but at least now we understand what’s required to get it back on track.”

Get Leadership Involved, Too

Rose’s final takeaway? “ I firmly believe that innovation requires strong leadership. It’s no use encouraging the generation of ideas from within a team if the people in leadership roles do not take ownership of these ideas. This means that the CEO must live and breathe innovation and be prepared to challenge his/her team.”

Not only must you examine customer-centric innovation from all angles, it needs to operate at every level of an organization.

Gregory Hart, PSMJ

Greg Hart, PSMJ, talks Customer-Centric Innovation

When PSMJ launched over 40 years ago, most architecture and engineering firm leaders weren’t talking to each other about their business performance. As a result, firms were missing opportunities for growth. With the launch of its first publication, PSMJ quickly became the go-to publisher, education provider, and advisor on architecture and engineering business management.

PSMJ Director of Marketing Gregory Hart shares how the publication’s customers drive all activities at the company, leading to more innovative product development.

“One of the biggest challenges that we have today is, as we grow, staying close enough to our customers to clearly see potential new product or service ideas that hit on a need. We overcome this by constantly holding each other accountable to hit growth targets (through innovative or traditional growth), staying plugged in with our customers by asking a lot of questions, and sharing insight internally on emerging challenges or trends that are on our customers’ minds. That is just in our DNA to think and act like that—and we hire people with that same instinct of curiosity and a bias towards action.”

Remember Who You Serve

“Innovation fails when it is the end rather than the means to an end. That is, we innovate to satisfy our own ego or other self-serving desires rather than to solve the challenges of our customers. It also fails when we try to outsmart the marketplace (e.g. we think we know our customers better than they know themselves). This is often the case when we skip over the market research and vetting and go directly to product development.

“Our failures have a lot in common. We moved too fast, got too excited, and didn’t listen to the marketplace. When we run into specific obstacles, it is also usually because we drifted away from our core value of staying close to our customers.”

Consider Your Business Outcomes

Even so, a customer-centric approach still needs to balance that focus with smart business decisions and a company’s capacity for growth.

“We certainly try to foster a culture of undying client and customer focus. We want to be right on top of the challenges that hold them back and deliver solutions. But, particularly as we grow, we also need some level of process for managing product development. As such, that distinction between process and culture is really important. Culture drives us to want to tackle and problem and process drives how we fix it: things like forecasts and budgets and knowing when to walk away.”

Perhaps most important of all—you need to check and recheck product development initiatives against the end goal: serving customers.

“It is important to remember that innovation is not the ultimate objective. Nobody should wake up wondering how to make it an innovative day. Rather, we all need to get so close to our clients and customers that we understand their biggest challenges very clearly. Then, we step back and find a content-based solution to that challenge.”

The Key to Innovation

Change may be tough, but it’s critical if you want to meet your audience’s needs. They aren’t the same people they were last year (or even last week!). By listening to their pain points and working to create content products that answer those challenges in ways and formats they’ll find most useful, your content business can continue to publish the kind of work your audience will always consume. Create a formal process for developing new ideas, and start innovating today!

How Sterling Woods Can Help

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About the Author

Rob Ristagno, Founder and CEO of Sterling Woods, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. He started his career as a consultant at McKinsey. Ristagno holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.

Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors: A Proven Method for Making More Money Online, set to be published in 2018. He regularly speaks at key media conferences, including at Niche Media events, Specialized Information Publishers Association meetings, and the Business Information and Media Summit.