How to Innovate by Solving Problems 146

Any successful blog or website must be innovative. If you’re not innovating, you’re not offering potential readers a worthwhile choice.

Solve the same problems and fulfill the same needs as a bigger site in your niche and readers will consistently give their attention to your more authoritative counterpart.

Innovation, on the other hand, will make you the only choice suited to solving the problems and fulfilling the needs of your target audience.

Innovation is only worthwhile when it’s useful. It needs to satisfy a need that currently isn’t being met (at least, not in the same way). That’s when you start to stand out.

In this post, I want to describe a simple exercise you can use to create innovative content by problem solving. Don’t worry — this kind of problem solving is a lot easier than the kind you might have done at school.

Starting with problems

A useful starting point for innovation is to list down all the shortcomings of your niche or, alternately, the shortcomings of the most popular site in your niche.

To illustrate how you might look at your niche I’ll complete this innovation exercise using the tech blogging niche as an example. Here are some of the key weaknesses of this niche:

  • The emphasis on breaking news first means the well-staffed and resourced sites with industry contacts dominate the exclusives.
  • The niche has been criticized for being too self-referential.
  • With so much news flowing from the main tech blogs each day it’s almost impossible to keep track of it all.
  • It has often been said that the focus lies too much on what technology means for the industry, rather than what it means for ordinary people.

The tech niche is not unique for its weaknesses. Every niche has weaknesses. What I want to stress is that most weaknesses for one person will be strengths to another.

Let’s say, for example, that the tech niche decided to focus on how technology impacts ordinary people, rather than its impact on the industry. Some would then point out its lack of industry focus as a weakness. It would then be innovative to write content with an industry focus.

No single website can satisfy the needs of an entire niche. Solving one problem creates others.

Focusing on analysis will create a problem for those who want news. Focusing on reflecting on developments after they occur will create problem for those who want up-to-the-minute information.

You can’t be all things to all people: what’s important is to solve different problems, or to solve the same problems in different ways.

Using problems as fuel for innovation

Here are solutions to the above problems. This is where the innovation starts to happen:

  • The big sites will always win at breaking news. What about analyzing what the news actually means?
  • Could you break out of the technology niche’s self-referential loop by sharing the implications of technology outside the niche?
  • With EngadgetGizmodo et al. updating dozens of times each day, could you simplify the key news down to one pithy, daily post?
  • Could you focus on what tech news means for everyday people?

A blog focusing on in-depth news analysis rather than news breaking, with a vision reaching outside the self-referential loop, a daily round-up designed to be an antidote to the constant information overload and an emphasis on people rather than industry would be innovative in the tech niche.

It’s possible that such a blog or website already exists (though I’ve not seen it), but it would certainly buck the dominant trend in tech blogging.

In just a few minutes, we’ve developed a model for innovative content in the tech niche. To further show that the same process can be repeated in any niche, I’ll use another, different example.

Nobody is perfect: an opportunity

Earlier I suggested brainstorming the potential shortcomings of the most popular site in your niche. I’ll demonstrate by using Lifehacker.com — the most popular site in the lifehacks niche.

The site essentially aggregates the best news and tips in the lifehacks niche, updating dozens of times a day. It’s a blog I really enjoy but can’t subscribe to because I find the number of updates overwhelming. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Already, we have a problem to start with:

  • Lifehacker updates so frequently that it’s hard to catch all the information without being subscribed to the blog’s feed. The feed raises another problem: it updates so frequently as to be overwhelming.

The key problem here is information overload. Let’s innovate by solving this problem with a daily digest of the lifehacks niche: one post, with links to the best tips, important news and downloads for that day. You could supplement this content with your own lifehacks. The essence of the blog is about providing you with information choice, rather than information overload.

On using this exercise

I’d suggest repeating this process with your niche as a whole, in addition to the most popular site in your niche. What are their main problems? What kind of solutions could you provide?

If you need any help with this process, we can use the comments section of this post to workshop some solutions.

A quick aside: If you have a Technorati account and a few seconds to spare, could you add Skelliewag as a favorite? I’ve been feeling sick the last few days and I think it would help put the spring back in my step. Thanks!