Is Experimentation Innovation?

Are experimentation and innovation one and the same? The two words were initially used interchangeably during MediaPost’s recent Brand Marketers Summit, until some panelists sorted it out.

Consider the description of the panel “Budgeting for Experimentation: How Much Money Does It Take to Not Be Left Behind?” It notes, “Many marketers probably wish they had spent just a little more money a few years ago to get in on the ground floor of something that became the next big thing.” This clearly implies that the discussion should focus on innovation. Yet it then says, “How do you make experimentation an ongoing part of your marketing efforts?” Are experimentation and innovation really synonymous?

For many marketers, one isn’t innovating until they’re trying something new. Trying something new is the essence of experimentation. Innovating and experimenting feel like they have a lot in common.

Yet experimenting doesn’t just mean doing something new. First, it means having a point of view. The hypothesis could be that when dropping a 10-pound ball and a 1-pound ball from a rooftop, both will reach the ground at the same time. Or it could be that adding paid media to a socially fueled earned media program will increase the entire program’s effectiveness. The experiment then provides results, which can of course be measured.

Innovation doesn’t have any of these requirements. It’s not always clear what’s innovative anyway. Something that’s never been done before isn’t necessarily better, nor is it necessarily significant. I could advise a client to post all their Facebook messages to Englis- speaking audiences in a Cyrillic font. It’s quite probable no brand targeting English speakers has done that before, as it’s a terrible idea. But the brand could say that it was the first to try to teach Americans how to read Russian against their will and get a bored reporter to write a feature story about it. Bad ideas are easy to come by, as any great brainstorming meeting will produce dozens of them. Nearly all of the rejected ideas are probably innovative in some way.

Experiments don’t need to be innovative. Target and Chase, for instance, both ran programs on Facebook where fans could choose which nonprofit organizations received donations. I don’t recall which did it first; both did it, and garnered much of their exposure from participating nonprofits promoting the programs. Each one had its own twists, but one had to have been at least somewhat derivative from the other. The second one, even if derivative, was still most likely an experiment for the marketer, with the success of the program far from assured.

Innovation is clearly more popular. A quick search of Google News yields 77,000 results for “experiment” and “experimentation” combined (a tally inflated by the Higgs Boson discovery), and 2.2 million results just for “innovation.” Innovation is largely a construct of marketing -- not that there’s anything wrong with that. More importantly, innovation is a construct of perception, so as long as there’s some alignment between a marketer and its audience, then it’s possible to pass off just about anything as innovation. The word “new” remains as powerful as ever.

Experiments can’t be sold so easily. There needs to be the hypothesis, the comparison of a variable to a control, and demonstrable results. Experiments can be done constantly by people at all levels of an organization. Experimentation is what really generates better and more effective marketing. On occasion, it even leads to innovation. As Encyclopedia Brown likes to say, “No case is too small.”

Thanks go to MediaPost’s panel of innovative experimenters who illustrated the differences between the two concepts. Keep an eye out for  Gizmo Beverages President Walter Apodaca, Something Massive Chief Creative Strategist Adam Broitman, Tremor Video CRO Randy Kilgore, Big Fuel Communications Director of Platform & Product Strategy Michoel Ogince, and Bulbstorm President & CEO Bart Steiner. There will be plenty of innovation coming from them, and more experimentation than any of us may realize.

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