How to Deliver Marketing Innovation When You’re Not Calling the Shots

By Liz Alton on December 11, 2018

For content marketers soaking up the latest info about marketing innovation, it's exciting to imagine the possibilities of transforming your brand. So what happens when your key decision makers are afraid to take risks or are less informed? Even worse, what do you do when your brand is demanding an innovative content marketing strategy at the highest levels, but the people in charge of execution won't pull the trigger?

It's a common problem, and one that I encounter far more frequently in my work as a consultant than you'd expect. Here's a closer look at what's driving this dynamic, and what steps mid-level marketers can take to deliver marketing innovation even when they're not calling the shots.

Innovation versus Inertia: What's Really Happening on the Ground?

Earlier this year, I worked on an annual content strategy for a Fortune 500's blog. It's an award-winning property, and I've been developing the strategy for years. But a new team had taken over management.

My main contact was a mid-level marketer who was very excited about the possibilities of content marketing. She was out there tracking trends, attending conferences, reading everything she could get her hands on, and keeping a pulse on who was pushing the envelope in creative ways. Her boss was much more conservative. He was unsure about how to go out on a limb in the ways that his CMO demanded while not putting his job on the line.

marketing innovation

Image attribution: Elijah O' Donnell 

It was clear that these two had difficulty communicating around this topic. He was feeling the pressure to innovate, but also felt uninformed and unwilling to risk a career of over ten years at a company he loved. She was increasingly frustrated as she took executive directives and turned them into smart campaign ideas, only to be shot down. In fact, the heart of the problem-innovation versus the security of tried-and-true strategies-was never explicitly articulated. As an outsider, it was easier to come in, diagnose the problem, and help explore what innovation looks like at all levels today.

The Mid-Level Marketers' Dilemma

If you're feeling this frustration, you're not alone. Today's content marketers are soaking up content on the latest cutting-edge trends. But then they're faced with a decision-maker who's not as up-to-date or less willing to take risks, and they can feel stuck. What options do you have to grow your brand, experiment, and bring innovation to the forefront of your digital marketing strategy when the people you report to are risk averse?

It helps to understand where risk aversion comes from. As the Harvard Business Review notes, things are changing so fast that leaders are trying to evaluate innovations with incomplete information. They say, "If you're dealing with innovations that have led to a dominant new business model in your industry, that advice is sound, as the leaders of Netflix and Blockbuster can tell you. But what if an innovation poses a threat, and you can't yet tell whether it has genuinely transformative potential? What are the costs and benefits of self-disruption at that uncertain stage?"

When you're in the position of trying to help a leader decide whether an innovation is a smart bet or an uncertain disruption, it's useful to understand what their concerns are. As McKinsey notes, it's important to address the role of fear that inhibits marketing innovation.

McKinsey suggests, "Another critical issue to address, in my opinion, is fear and its role in inhibiting innovation. Even the language we use needs to change. We need to stop talking about "rewarding failure". Thinking about failure creates fear. We need to learn from entrepreneurs and scientists. They think about experimenting, iterating, and learning. That's how they get to better solutions. That's the language and approach companies need to take if they truly want to become innovative."

If you're a marketer trying to diagnose the type of challenges you're dealing with on this front, here are some questions to consider with regard to how people react to your digital marketing strategy.

  • What is your company's culture around risk and innovation?
  • Is there fear around damaging marketing efforts that are already underway?
  • Have conservative marketing strategies worked well?
  • Are there big failures littering the path to future content marketing efforts?
  • Is there a concern around poor quality execution holding people back?
  • Would a clearly defined strategy help light the way forward?
  • Is a lack of data, use cases, or relevant industry examples contributing to concerns?

Strategies for Innovations

Once you've defined what's behind the organizational inertia you're dealing with, here are a few strategies that can help you encourage innovation:

The Power Pitch

If you're dealing with a marketing innovation-resistant boss, it's important to up your game. The way to overcome risk-averse thinking is to provide the data that shows your ideas can work. Some ways to build this case include:

  • Look for data on ROI and investment.
  • Find data that explores specific results, such as a lift in conversions or a higher AOV after specific campaigns; increase the impact of your data by focusing on the bottom line.
  • Identify use cases where other brands in your industry have had success.
  • Outline the opportunities and risks your company is currently facing.
  • Build a storyline that maps the data to your potential success and quantifies the cost of not moving forward.

Nothing will better assuage your director's concerns about going in a new direction than if you come to them first with carefully observed insights that support why that direction is the right one. Before setting a meeting to go over plans for a new content strategy, marketers need to gather the data that lends credibility to their creative vision.


Running a pilot project can let you test the waters without overinvesting or raising the risk profile too high. For example, one agribusiness brand I worked with wanted to create a series of video customer testimonials. A marketing associate had the idea and felt that it would help the brand connect more effectively with a younger buying audience. It's a great strategy in today's video-driven market, but the company had a long history of successful case studies in a set written format.

marketing innovation

Image attribution: Blake Guidry

"Our existing case studies haven't failed us in twenty years," the marketing director said in a meeting.

Eventually, after looking at the data, the marketing director agreed to a test case. Three case studies, produced in video and in writing. The costs were kept low by choosing local clients and using an affordable but high quality production company. The sales and marketing departments then loaded up specific campaigns with this content-and found that the video case studies outperformed the written ones in conversions by two-to-one. Today, the company has started launching a dual strategy to produce their client stories in both formats and is more effectively reaching a larger audience.

Use Cases

Specific use cases can sometimes justify experimenting with new approaches to marketing. Typically, use cases explore the different ways an end user engages with a product or service. For example, if you're developing use cases for project management software, a software team and an HR department might use the product in different ways. Rolling out a content marketing strategy or initiative to support a specific use case can be an effective test. It doesn't influence your standing in the market overall, but can help you speak to the needs of certain segments.

An Innovation Architecture

One of the easiest ways to take the risk out of innovation is by creating an infrastructure to support it. On the surface, a risk-averse manager isn't going to approve spending on technology, staff, or other expenses associated with an initiative she doesn't believe in. Yet the reality is that when the execution needs of an initiative are strategic, they can be acted on in a way that minimizes risk to the investment.

Let me give you another example. One very large company I work with owns a number of brands. A recently acquired brand was very resistant to launching a content marketing initiative. The marketing director for the holding company asked me to attend a meeting. It turned out that the brand's GM had been asked to launch a blog. The plan that had been presented to him involved asking his already overworked staff to take on content, and assigning an admin with no marketing background to handle publishing. He saw the very likely end result of a low-quality, languishing property and decided to pass.

We discussed an alternate plan: it would cost him money, but assure a good end product. I'd develop the strategy for the brand and give them several months of topic runway. A writer who worked with the holding company's in-house studio and knew the brand would be assigned two articles per week. Graphics support and editing would be provided by the marketing team. It's been about two years now, and in a recent meeting with the GM, he noted that their blog has become one of the sales team's most important sources of leads. The risk here wasn't that he didn't believe in trying a blog. The risk was what would happen to his carefully crafted image if things went wrong. By investing in a delivery infrastructure, he eliminated the risk and moved the needle forward on his marketing.

When you're a mid-level marketer and you're trying to empower your organization to embrace marketing innovation, it's helpful to understand where risk aversion comes from. With that in mind, you can explore different solutions to achieve your goals. Ultimately, look at this as a challenge to your skills. As a content marketer, your ability to tell a great story, use data to build a case, create individual pieces that persuade buyers to take action, and ultimately make a conversion is your stock-in-trade. Turn your attention to your colleagues, and help them see the value of a well-thought-out content marketing strategy to your long-term marketing efforts.

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Featured image attribution: Jim Beaudoin


Liz Alton

Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.