Recombinant Innovation: Why B2B Marketing Collaboration Is Worth The Effort

If you’re a fan, like me, of Matthew Syed’s podcast series, Sideways, then you may have heard about the power of “recombinant innovation”. If you’re not in the know then here’s a swift introduction.

Recombinant innovation says that dramatic innovation (breakthroughs or leaps forward) comes from combining previously discrete ideas. Not from incremental improvements within a niche.

In the episode “Top of the Pops” we learn that scientific or technical teams are three or four times more likely to drive significant innovation than individuals working by themselves.

Since the 50s, the number of projects deploying formal team structures have grown both in raw numbers and diversity. It’s now a very established and deliberate process.

Is it easy? Hell no. 

It’s the project management equivalent of a trip to the dentist. Leaving your comfort zone and embracing different ways to think and work can be uncomfortable and even painful.

But the results are hard to argue with. 

How Pop music found harmony in diversity

Syed tells the story of Max Martin of Chevron Records in Stockholm.

Martin was the producer behind the “Swedish Music Miracle” of 1990s mega hits from acts like the  Backstreet Boys (‘I Wanna Be With You’) and Britney Spears (‘Baby One More Time’).

But at the turn of the Millenium, people began to tire of the  trademark Cheiron sound. Suddenly, Martin couldn’t buy a hit. He’d lost his relevance. 

The problem was limited collaboration — he was only writing with partners within the Stockholm collective. Cheiron Records soon closed down.

Martin decided to break out of his tight knit Stockholm community and traveled to the US to immerse himself in the New York club scene. 

He grew a network of new collaborators with club, rap, grime,  classical and even metal backgrounds.

Revitalized by new (and diverse) creative relationships, Martin used recombination techniques to deliver a string of hits for artists like Kelly Clarkson (Since U Been Gone), Pink (Cuz I Can), Katy Perry (I Kissed a Girl) and a frankly obscene number of others.

Today, pop music runs on genre-bending recombinant innovation. Martin’s acceptance speech for the 2016 Polar Music Prize probably puts it best: “Success is about leaving your ego at the door and letting people’s talents from diverse spaces touch you”.

So how can we, as B2B marketers, learn from this and put the power of recombinant innovation into place?

A recombinant innovation example at Velocity: Making creative and data play nice together

The problem

B2B marketing faces a challenge. 

In Stan’s recent piece, ‘The evolution of B2B marketing and why yours isn’t working’, he argues that the Sales and Marketing infrastructure of inbound marketing has calcified into a linear and siloed buying experience.

This experience has fallen far behind the increasingly non-linear and multi-channel buying behaviors of modern customers. 

A big part of this issue is the rift between creativity and data-driven content. 

Creatives aim for engaging, visually stunning content, while data specialists focus on practical, informative material which has utility. 

It’s a messy middle ground where customers either get fun, creative content with little utility, or hard, business-like content with no mojo to cut through the noise.

It’s trying to sell the predictable, stale Swedish Musical Miracle after the sound of the 90s has already changed.

So how can recombinant innovation provide a cure for this conundrum?

The solution

I (being a data head) have long been obsessed with making marketing more measurable and data-driven. 

And we’ve long been keen to run data analysis of the work we do, so that we can see exactly how we can better serve audiences.

But also, our creative team is shit hot, and I love their stuff.

And they’re obsessed with making marketing stand out — meaning they always deliver engaging content that gets to the heart of what people care about.

We want the same thing, we just needed to find the right vessel to share our expertise.

Enter graders.

How we used recombinant innovation to make our best grader yet

Graders are survey-like experiences that ask prospects questions about their performance in a given area and score them based on the results. 

We’ve made a bunch of them. And in the past they’ve been more creative than data-driven – slick interactive digital experiences backed up by (to be honest) pretty abstract scoring logic.

I always felt that arbitrary scoring models left the value proposition a little underbaked — what does getting a “D+” in supply chain efficiency mean for users?

Especially when that “D+” is given to you by a company wanting to sell you a supply chain efficiency tool. The utility for a customer is practically zero.

So here’s what we did when we made a grader for our client, Tebra.

Correlated survey questions and peer benchmarking

We created a survey for a group of X people who resembled the demographic of our target audience (XXX). In it, we asked the same (or similar) questions as the finished grader would have.

We then used those responses to create an industry peer benchmark, so that people taking the grader could compare their results to others in the market.

This not only based the results of the grader on sound statistical research, but greatly increased the utility. The grader is no longer just a company trying to tell you to buy its products — it’s an insight into your competitive landscape.

You can even take the results to someone in the C-suite of your company as a business case to invest in xxx.

Organizing on quartiles

Instead of the vague letter or number-based results graders usually tend to give you, we grouped participants into quartiles of how advanced they were (so top 25% to lowest 25%)

This helped people understand their position in the market more easily.

Set up for a future content stream

With the results from our grader, we now have a decent database of statistically valid data that we can build new content out of.

For example, say we discovered that 75% of participants ranked below average. We can use that as a prompt for a whole campaign. Why is this? How can we change it? What are the best solutions?

Data begets more data.

It’s crucial to add, we’re not losing any entertainment value from this recombinant approach. The copy, design and dev are still great (and fun). The baseline of what we do hasn’t changed.

But we’ve injected utility in the form of statistical context, and brought this in with user experience in mind.

The result was harder to produce — because it involved merging creative and data skill sets. (Sometimes you look into each other’s eyes and you can hear them say “why are you making my life so complicated?”)

But the value proposition is a million times more compelling

It’s about leaving any preconceived ideas (and egos) at the door to explore something that’s a bit different in how it’s assembled and how it’s delivered.

It’s a small step in the direction of what we’re trying to do here, but what’s not to like? As Martin said when picking up the prestigious music award.

“Collaboration is the key to success. I leave my ego at the door, take a step back and ask others what they can do.”

The fact is that great creative ideas will always work. You just need to keep working on them (together).

So our advice is this…

Changing things for the better requires you to step outside your comfort zone and learn from something new. It always has.

The idea of recombinant innovation can be more than a fancy term you read in a marketing blog if you just go and try it.

You will probably fail a few times, because it’s hard. But is that the point? Yes, absolutely.

This blog explores the ‘why?’ of why B2B marketing needs to think differently.

The next blog in this series, ‘When the marketing playbook is the problem: Thinking critically about Awareness, Acquisition, Engagement, and Conversion hurdles’, explores the ‘how?’ of thinking differently about marketing at each stage in the funnel.

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