Successful products don’t just fall out of the sky, and if they are created in a bubble or (heaven help us) in a boardroom, that is exactly where they will stay.
At Audience, we’ve been carving quite an exciting furrow recently in both the UK and Ireland. We’ve been focussing on building new products with charities, and in a lot of instances, training internal teams up to be able to develop products and propositions in-house longer term.
There has been a bit of a switch to working in partnership with charities not just to create ‘a thing’ but to change mindsets, to upskill, provide frameworks and help teams develop new ways of thinking. The natural bi product of this is the innovative products and propositions. Then we help them get those products to market, where the real work begins. Exciting.
There seems to be a real drive for product development in the sector at the moment, and quite right too. It’s been interesting looking back on the briefs we have received, and it’s really made us think about what an approach to product/proposition development should (and importantly) shouldn’t be:
What a new product/proposition isn’t:
- The saviour of your fundraising. Many charities think, “Fundraising income is going down, traditional channels aren’t working, we need someone externally to come up with a shiny new thing, because our old shiny thing isn’t working.” Guess what, you’ll need another shiny new thing very soon too. Never stops, does it?
- A channel. “Everyone is doing experiential stuff, so we want to do it too.” “We need something digital like all the stuff in the fundraising press.” Maybe you do, but interesting the blank looks we get when we ask the simple question, “Why?”
- A strapline or even worse, a sub-logo. “You know, we want that NSPCC ‘Full Stop’ thing, or Save the Children ‘No Child Born to Die’. Can you do one of them for us?” There is a lot of foundational stuff that you need to do before you get to that stage. See previous blog Have you made a cake, or just a cherry? if you are getting pressure from your board to do just that.
- A case for support. You need one of these, but it’s not a product or proposition. Your case for support is your condensed story, the reason you exist, how you are going to achieve your vision and mission, and how people can help be part of that.
- Cheap. “Can we commission you for a morning to come up with a new product/proposition?” We can brainstorm ideas, get buy in and direction of travel, talk about agile frameworks, what’s working well in the sector etc, but I doubt we’ll crack it in a morning. Sorry.
But it’s not all bad. From really interrogating these briefs, and getting to the crux of what the real issue is, (which is kind of what we do at Audience) we’ve come up with some pretty good pointers on what product/proposition development is:
What a new product/proposition is:
- A way to connect your strategic objectives with key audiences in a cohesive and exciting way. Whenever we are asked to work on a new product, I always ask for the organisational strategy. After all, the role of a new product should be to help deliver those objectives, no? Frightening how many times I’ve heard, “I’m not sure we have one of those documents.”
- A commitment to a new way of working. One that doesn’t focus on doing the same thing over and over again to diminishing returns. The journey is more important than the destination in many cases. Embracing product development as an essential is also an internal commitment to take full or part ownership of it too, long-term.
- A way to unify internal comms silos under a single, focussed banner. Siloed working has got the sector into a real pickle, and product development has the ability to really break this cycle. Fundraising and comms. Fundraising, campaigning and comms. Fundraising, campaigning, advocacy and comms. How about service delivery too? Now we’re talking…
- An opportunity for internal staff to think externally, commercially and in an entrepreneurial way. This is perhaps the most important facet of product development. If this is something that an agency does to a team, rather than with a team, your product will have an extremely short shelf life, because you didn’t help build it. You know that old adage about how a brand new car loses value as soon as you drive it off the forecourt? Same goes for new product development. Make sure that your internal team think like engineers, rather than sales people.
So what do we need to do?
To survive, charities need a adopt a fresh approach to connect with current and future audiences. One that isn’t based on just looking back, but one that also faces on looking forward, and taking a calculated leap into a void. Products and propositions are key to this, but more importantly is having an internal culture that drives innovation and constant product development.
It’s great that charities are thinking about new products. But before you even launch your first product, you should already be thinking about the next one. That’s the step-change that the sector needs to make.
It’s not about stepping off the treadmill for a few days and creating a new thing. It’s about understanding that new things are going to be constantly required, and you need an infrastructure, and culture to be able to continually develop, adapt and innovate.
Product development is not just about products. It’s about bravery, leadership, and culture.
In a nutshell, I’d go as far as to say that successful product development is more about people than it is about products. Get the structure right, and the products will come.
This doesn’t mean just hiring an ‘Innovation Manager/Special Projects Manager’. Doing that doesn’t solve the problem, it highlights that you haven’t addressed it properly in the first place. It also may mean that you are trying to paper over the cracks.
Build teams that have product development at their heart, and importantly in their job descriptions. Give them the tools, capacity and support to enable them to own it. Don’t add it onto the workloads of already overloaded staff or silo it off to an innovation team.
You’ll need external help to do that, and you’ll still need the expertise of agency professionals to hone creative execution, but let’s start turning the problem on its head.
Let’s stop writing briefs that say, “we need a shiny new thing” and start writing briefs that say, “we need to upskill, develop and support our teams to build lots of shiny new things”.