It’s a word that is used often these days. Often it is connected to technology. We are students, teachers, or beneficiaries of innovation — or all of the above. But is it more than technology?

That’s a question I asked.

To get a broader view of innovation within the news media industry, I spoke with Nancy Lane, executive director of the Local Media Association. Nancy has organised so-called Innovation Tours; one visited Silicon Valley and another was in Chicago. They dropped in on Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Groupon, Sprout Social, and many more.

She told me about three common ingredients of innovative companies.

  1. Culture must be No. 1. We’ve all heard about the swank, and often times disruptive, floor plan and furnishings at Google’s offices: video games, beer bars, nap stations, and banks of work spaces instead of traditional offices. But aesthetics are just the beginning. A successful innovative culture is quite intentional. It is driven by transparency from the CEO down.

    At Google, engineers work alongside sales teams. The CEO of LinkedIn is visible while he works in the same open environment as the rest of the staff.

    Ideas give birth to more ideas. Find your way to continuously manufacture new ideas, products, and methods. The disruptors say, “Fail fast!” Maybe your way is to host a monthly Innovation Lunch and Learn with your team or company. Or perhaps an idea board is a constant reminder of the premium your company places on innovation.

    Strategy is not enough. Culture wins. Culture is what your employees do when nobody’s watching.  

  2. Strong commitment to social media. Your company executives must be engaged with social media. Without this, you probably won’t succeed at No. 1 above. The ROI of social media for your business will still be here in five years, according to Erik Qualman, author of “Socialnomics” and “What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube.”

    For those of us in the media business, I believe social media is vital to our survival. One of our greatest assets is audience. Think how social media actually builds audience and how social media has democratised the creation and sharing of, well, stuff. In fact, social media is the No. 1 online activity.

    Drive your brand’s message into the social sphere and grow engagement. Of course, we hope to monetise all of our audiences, but ignoring the audience found via social media is not much different than writing off other media channels. The key is to build sizeable audiences that are engaged with your social media channels. Keep brand at the forefront.

    So now what? You’ve built up 10,000, 20,000, or maybe 30,000 audience members on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others. Good work. Now it’s time to engage that audience. Engagement is a lower funnel activity. It requires planning and discipline to convert audience members into valuable units.

    We’ve all heard the question, “What is your social media strategy?” If you have a well-articulated, written strategy, congratulations. Here’s mine: Create content that our social audiences love and engage the audience in such a way to encourage a visit or return visit to our site. Not all our social content is news. And not all of it isn’t, either.

    So how do you know if it’s working? The proof is in your analytics. Pay special attention to referring domain reporting. That will give you insight into just how engaging your social strategy is.

    Finally, analyse your content. Every bit of it, if possible. That includes both your social content and your content on your dot com.

    Do you understand what plays well, who is reading it, during what time of day and day of week?

    Some organisations hire analysts to find pockets of content that play well, and thus are clues about current and future content changes. How does your news content perform versus your evergreen content, such as in blogs? How does your arts and entertainment do on Mondays versus Thursdays?

    We are a 20,000 daily and currently do not budget for a content analyst position, but somebody on your team should be watching the numbers. Perhaps it’s the audience manager or the digital content coordinator. 

  3. Become consumer centric. Do you get up every morning and go to work to help a customer, Web user, or reader? If you do, you are consumer centric.

    We hear a lot about our lost classified revenue and how if only it came back, it would solve all our problems. I don’t believe this is consumer-centric thinking.

    Further, we may have lost a huge amount of traditional revenue simply because it no longer solved a problem or served as an alternative solution. It is very likely that the alternative solution was born out of innovation and an intense “consumer first” focus.

    The mission has to be all about “helping others” rather than “helping us.”

    LinkedIn did not begin as the planet’s largest business-to-business referral, networking, and recruiting site. It was really started by a few folks wanting to help people do their jobs better. It took a few years to become profitable.

    Most of what we know about the LinkedIn brand today came about three years later. Today it is barely a decade old, and it all started with an idea of helping people by doing something better.

It’s a race, but the market won’t wait forever.

Ready: Listen to your customers. You have all kinds: readers, advertisers, social media engagers, and Web users.

Set: Focus intently on what your customers are doing. Use social media and your owned media to communicate with them, solving problems, and making their lives easier, fuller, and more enjoyable.

Go: Build or disrupt your own culture! Get buy-in from the top. Develop separate work teams, if possible. In the end, it will be the helpful, dedicated, customer-first cultures that win.

In a word, that’s innovation.