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What does it actually mean to be innovative in B2B tech?

7 min read - by Jonathan Sedger - Innovation and Partnerships Director

For CMOs who want to innovate more – and innovate better – where do you start? With a problem to solve, says Jonathan Sedger, Innovation Director at Twogether, B2B Marketing Agency of the Year.  

According to a recent survey, 69% of B2B buyers are more likely to choose a vendor that's ‘digitally innovative’. But what does ‘digitally innovative’ mean? Buzzwords blast out of social media posts like the guitars of a screaming death metal band. Like so many of the instruments in the corporate vernacular, “innovation” is one that’s often played out of tune.

Let’s break it down into 5 steps for making innovation meaningful.

STEP 1: Define the value of innovation for your business (with a little help from your customers)

To some folks testing something new for their business is innovative, to others it’s something that’s new in their industry, the avantgarde might say it’s something new to the world – a high note to hit. But trying to define innovation on a spectrum of newness, is like a primary school rendition Three Blind Mice on the recorder – just noise.

The thing that makes something innovative is not how new it is. It’s the problem the innovation solves for your customers and a reason why it’s better than anything that was already available.

Enter stage left Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen, known for his work on the "Innovator's Dilemma," which explores how successful companies often stumble when faced with disruptive innovations. But for our purposes, the front row ticket is his lesser-known work, "Competing Against Luck".

In this book, Christensen introduces the Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) theory – a strategic framework that helps to better understand customer needs - why they "hire" (buy) products and services. Christensen’s teachings contain some compelling ideas around market research, segmentation and positioning that are sure to pique the interest of B2B tech marketers – they put true customer motivations at the heart of product innovation, brand development and journey optimisation:

  • Context over demographics: Instead of leaning on firmographics and personas, the JTBD framework zeroes in on the context or situation in which customers face problems that need solving
  • Problem-solving prowess: In place of focusing on features and benefits, the JTBD framework is focused on aligning to customers' specific problems and desired outcomes
  • A holistic approach: JTBD considers the functional, emotional, and social aspects of customer needs, moving beyond feature-based differentiation 
  • Uncovering hidden gems: By proactively identifying gaps between existing solutions and customer needs, JTBD can drive innovation and set you apart from the competition
  • Iterative, customer-driven development: The JTBD framework fosters an agile, adaptive approach through continuous validation, prototyping, and customer feedback

STEP 2: Recognise the value of pure experimentation

Buzzwords are not alone in their clamour – the decibels of technology hype emitting from posts and PDFs grow ever louder, and so too do the many heckles from marketing thought leaders urging us to double down on well-defined strategic imperatives. Advice that I’m sure the late Professor Christensen would have endorsed!

While it certainly pays to be a customer-centric innovator, simply knowing what the audience wants to hear doesn’t make you a great musician – you need to know how to play the instruments. So, there’s clearly value in learning about new technologies if you can avoid being distracted by them. Cue Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie who captured this thought perfectly:

“When radium was discovered, no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it.” 

Marie Curie paid the ultimate price for her pioneering experiments with unknown radioactive elements. Yet, her ground-breaking work also birthed the X-ray machine, which treated an estimated one million soldiers on the battlefields of WW1 and has saved countless lives since. The lesson here is not that you should heroically throw caution to the wind and chase dangerous experimentations until calamity strikes. Rather, we should seek a healthy balance where our focus on marketing fundamentals and well-hypothesised testing also leaves a little bandwidth for pure experimentation, so that we can spot opportunities to apply new technologies and techniques in a useful way.

STEP 3: Remove the fear of failure from your culture

The number one reason innovation bands flop? Stage fright! If your team thinks you are waiting with a big red buzzer to smash every time they miss a note, they will play it safe, and they will sing you the same old tunes, over, and over. When times are tougher it might feel like you can’t afford to fail, ever. But what’s the cost of a few failed tests vs wholesale stagnation of your marketing? The most innovative companies on the planet create cultures that embrace failure - this quote from a 2011 Netflix blog sums up this mindset perfectly:

“Innovation involves a lot of failure. If we’re never failing, we aren’t trying for something out on the edge from where we are today, in this regard, failure is perfectly acceptable at Netflix.”

No company embodies the spirit of innovation quite like the rock(et)stars at SpaceX, who—after pumping a cool $2bn+ into their new Starship program— clapped and cheered when the first rocket went kaboom mid-flight. Sure, they'd have thrown some screens out the window if the second stage separated as planned, and the rocket zipped around the globe, but these rocketeers are realists - they knew they might blow the speakers on the first sound test. Three minutes of flight time and one big boom later, they've got oodles of data to tweak their setup for test number two. After all, it's taken them one step closer to realising their vision - putting people on Mars! What is your marketing equivalent of the Red Planet?

Steven Bartlett (of Dragons' Den stardom) gave the SpaceX team a decent write up in a recent LinkedIn post where he described failure as “feedback” and said “there's a lesson here for all business leaders, CEOs, and managers who want to create truly innovative things—you cannot do that without a culture that seeks out and then celebrates failure. Incentives drive behaviour.”

STEP 4: Get buy-in from your leadership

It's crucial that your leadership team don’t just give the thumbs up. They need to be committed to actively communicating the importance of innovation. Businesses like Netflix and SpaceX are not built purely on the eccentric genius of a soloist, they have risen on an ethos that encourages the whole band to jam together and experiment across their organisations, where experimental failure is treated as an opportunity to learn and is clearly separated from negligence. 

So to get a record deal for innovation you need to bring your management on the tour, you will need meaningful innovation KPIs that directly link to your marketing and business objectives so you can monitor the effectiveness of your efforts, demonstrate progress, and identify where adjustments to your strategy are needed. 

  • a clearly defined Innovation Strategy that demonstrates the unmet customer needs you are innovating for
  • the business value it will create when you succeed
  • how much you will invest
  • a clear plan for the things you need to do to make a hit. 

STEP 5: Organise for innovation

Playing a gig outside your hometown of known marketing practices and processes can seem scary. Equally, if you don’t set ground rules things on tour can get a little crazy! You have to decide how much you are willing to invest in innovation and at what levels.

At Twogether we use the 70/20/10 model:
•    70% Brilliant Basics - the resource we focus on rocking the fundamentals
•    20% Test & Learn - testing new sounds for us and our clients 
•    10% Experimentation - going Ziggy Stardust with revolutionary technology and techniques to identify moonshot opportunities

The percentage split you choose should be unique to you – based on your marketing maturity and the risk appetite of your business. Just make sure you don’t tune out testing and experimentation completely, the royalties from your greatest hits will keep the lights on but a new sound might take you to the top of the chart.

One of our recent 10% releases was an instant hit – it used augmented reality (AR) to solve a sustainability challenge and brought the creative of a demand generation campaign to life in an unexpected way, doubling the client’s average digital dwell time and delivering an healthy 1:34 ROI.

To summarise

If you want innovation that adoring fans will scream for, take these steps:

  1. Understand what your audience wants and why they want it
  2. Make time to jam with your colleagues using new instruments
  3. Create an innovation movement in your company
  4. Make sure the label (leadership) digs your sound
  5. Organise your tour bus and don’t let things get too wild

And five bonus tracks to get your team innovating:

  • Implement processes to capture, evaluate, and prioritize ideas. This may include using suggestion boxes, brainstorming sessions, or digital platforms
  • Provide training and development opportunities to enhance their skills and knowledge in innovation and problem-solving
  • Develop a recognition and reward system to acknowledge and celebrate innovative efforts and successes. This will motivate employees to continue innovating
  • Create innovation champions within your marketing team – being innovative should be everyone’s responsibility but it’s crucial to have key advocates that can help you organise and inspire everyone
  • Collaborate with external partners, such as start-ups, research institutions, and specialists, to gain access to new ideas, technologies, and market insights