5 Questions on Innovation

Last week, I made a mistake that I won’t be able to correct for almost seven months.

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania invited me to participate in a panel discussion entitled, “Innovation in Cyberspace: Mining the value of blogs, search engines and insights from front-line innovators.”

The other panelists included: Betsy Book, the director of product management at Makena Technologies, creators of the virtual world There; Ed Keller, CEO of the Keller Fay Group, and co-author of The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy; Brian Lusk, manager of customer communication at Southwest Airlines and corporate editor of the Nuts About Southwest blog; and Steve Rubel, senior VP in Edelman’s me2revolution practice, who also writes the Micro Persuasion blog and a weekly column for Advertising Age Digital.

The two-hour panel discussion was just part of a three-day Wharton Executive Education Program entitled “Full-Spectrum Innovation: Driving Organic Growth.” I was also offered a seat in the program, which was held at the Steinberg Conference Center in Philadelphia. (I should disclose that the Wharton School is a client.)

I correctly accepted the two-hour “speaking opportunity” on Monday afternoon, June 25, but incorrectly declined the three-day “listening opportunity” which ran June 25-27. That was a big mistake, because this innovative three-day workshop won’t be repeated again until January 28-30, 2008.

Nevertheless, I did get something out of the panel discussion. On Friday, June 22, the moderator of our panel, Professor Peter Fader, e-mailed the panelists “five questions that should generate a healthy discussion.” He asked us to “contemplate this list over the weekend and have some insightful (and/or provocative) answers ready for Monday afternoon.”

The five questions were:

  1. Earlier this year, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the publisher and chairman of the New York Times Company, told an interviewer, “I really don’t know whether we’ll be printing The Times in five years, and you know what? I don’t care.” Will the newspaper as we know it be dead by 2012?
  2. The topic of the session is cyberspace, and mining the value of cyberspace. Clearly there is considerable growth in word of mouth that can be attributed to the internet and digital media, and many marketers today assume that word of mouth = online media. Is it true that “all the action” for marketers interested in growing word of mouth and customer advocacy for their brands takes place online, or is there a need to consider offline word of mouth strategies as well?
  3. Besides using new media to “push out” ideas, how about the use of these new communication channels to tap into audience opinions and insights. To what extent does each of you use new media channels to tap into innovative ideas from your customers?
  4. Nothing epitomizes recent innovations in media better than the blog. But like any communication tool, the blog is evolving. It seems that when the blogosphere was young, there were strict definitions of a blog. How has the growth of blogging changed these definitions as well as the role of the blog in the media world (and society as a whole)?
  5. A few months ago, the Project for Excellence in Journalism said, “With audiences splintering across ever more platforms, nearly every metric for measuring audience is now under challenge as either flawed or obsolete – from circulation in print, to ratings in TV, to page views and unique visitors online.” How should we measure audiences and which metrics are beyond challenge?

Now, I normally speak at industry conferences, where the audience can learn a lot by listening to the answers from the panelists. But, this was an executive education program, where the panelists could learn a lot by listening to the questions from the audience – because the so-called “students” in this workshop were “front-line innovators” in their organizations.

And their organizations included: AstraZeneca, Caterpillar, The Coca-Cola Company, Computer Sciences Corporation, Disney Consumer Products, DuPont, Ericsson, GE Plastics, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, LexisNexis, Merrill Lynch, Shell Petroleum, Sony, Schick-Wilkinson Sword, and Tyco Electronics, among others.

They had brought their current challenges and opportunities to Wharton – to explore them with thought leaders such as Professors George Day and Paul Schoemaker, who co-authored the ground-breaking book, Peripheral Vision: Detecting the Weak Signals that Can Make or Break Your Company. Part of the program included new innovation frameworks from Larry Huston, the VP of innovation at Procter & Gamble and the creator of the company’s much-celebrated Connect and Develop innovation strategy. But, I didn’t participate in that part of the program.

I participated in the panel – and quickly learned that I wasn’t one of five speakers; I was one of about 50 participants in a discussion that included virtually everyone in the classroom. After short introductory remarks by the panelists, the Q&A started almost immediately at 4:30 and didn’t end at 6:30 p.m. The discussion continued over dinner from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m., and was followed by an informal “Wine and Conversation” session from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Part-way through the process, I realized that I had entered a parallel universe – like Episode 4 in Season 2 of Star Trek – where marketing had been replaced by learning and focus had been replace by peripheral vision. And I kicked myself for not accepting a seat in the full program when it had been offered.

So, all I can share with you today are the five questions about blogs and search engines that I was asked to contemplate before the program started. I mistakenly thought that I had some insightful (and/or provocative) answers until I realized that the five faculty and 40 students in the program had many more and even better questions.

Greg Jarboe is the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, a search engine optimization firm and public relations agency. He is also the news search, blog search and PR correspondent for the Search Engine Watch Blog.

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