Innovation Is More Than Technology
“That's what happens when you study men: you find mare's nests. I happen to believe that you can't study men, you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” — C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
In this exciting era of constant technological advancement, it’s common to understand innovation to be a function of technology.
But if you have to choose between technology-driven innovation and audience-driven innovation, you should choose the latter. Every time.
And that’s good news. Because not every ministry can afford to invest a lot in technology. But every organization can learn to deeply know their audience and create opportunities and experiences they’ll love.
You can’t really know your audience without meeting them.
Of course you meet with your major donors, the top percent of your supporter base.
But do you meet with the general donors — the other 99% — to understand how they think, what they feel, what might fire their imaginations such that they upgrade into dramatically heightened levels of involvement?
You almost certainly don’t.
I spent a decade heading up general donor fundraising for a sizable, sophisticated ministry and never once met with any of my 200,000 donors.
I never met them face to face, spent time with them, or got to know them.
Sure, I looked at data analyses about them. I commissioned research about them. But I never met them face to face, spent time with them, or got to know them. Instead, I merely studied them.
In his important book The Game-Changer (Currency, 2008), renowned Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley tells the story of why P&G declined and how he led them back: “What it was not doing well enough, often enough, was seeing customers as active participants in innovation. Their role was essentially passive: responding to stimuli in experiment after experiment to provide ‘quantitative research data’ — numbers that could be crunched — instead of being sources of innovation and inspirational partners in innovation.”
Get to Know Them
I ran into a similar situation on a recent new audience development project. The quantitative research commissioned by the ministry was expertly done and truly valuable in capturing key data about the new audience — we’ll call them “Next Gen Idealists” — the organization wishes to win.
This research report recommended that, given the younger, politically-activated nature of this audience, the ministry should engage them with advocacy opportunities. This seemed sensible.
But, as we met with Next Gen Idealists, we discovered that they believe that political advocacy is “the old way” that “doesn’t work.” Instead, what got them excited was the organization’s grassroots ministry. While that core ministry seems routine within the organization, to the new audience it was “new and fresh.”
Without getting to know these audience members as whole people, we’d have missed the insight most crucial for attracting them.
Listen to Them
Or consider our work with Mission Aviation Fellowship in co-creating their amazing sustainer program Flight Crew. In our very first audience member interview with “Bryce,” he told us how he and his son play a friendly game whenever a plane flies over. They see who can guess the number of engines, the specific aircraft type, and even the airline operating it. I asked, “How do you know who is right? Do you run outside and look up?” He answered, “No, we use a flight tracker app.”
Nearly everyone we interviewed after Bryce uses flight tracker apps on their phones too. Not for practical and utilitarian reasons — but just because they enjoy them.
This led us on a journey to give Bryce and others a mobile experience they would love. The result was the “Free Virtual Flight” encounter showcased by Flight Crew.
Now, is this virtual flight experience an innovation that relies upon technology? Absolutely. But it started with knowing the audience to understand what they would love.
In this unparalleled age of data availability, it’s tempting to think that we succeed by studying the audience instead of getting to know them.
That’s a huge mistake.
You can get to know your audience and gain insights that inform new opportunities.
And it’s a mistake you don’t need to make. You can get to know your audience and gain insights that inform new opportunities.
As human-centered design practitioners, my innovation colleagues and I use several rounds of deep interviews. You might simply start with a 20-minute phone call.
I promise you’ll learn something you can use in creating experiences they’ll love.
They’ll probably even love the phone call.
Allen Thornburgh loves developing new audiences and new experiences for bold Christian organizations. Allen leads Strategic Innovation at Masterworks and believes that we are in the early days of a revolution in nonprofit growth strategies. This revolution balances out the long-established focuses on data, analytics and channels with an equally robust focus on artistry, experiences and audience members.
Allen Thornburgh will co-lead a Resource Development workshop at Christian Leadership Alliance’s Outcomes Conference in Chicago, March 28-30, 2023. Register to attend.