What Does It Take to Create a Good Communications Strategy for Innovation?

By Noelle Coleman |  March 11, 2024

2023 was not a good year for the innovation ecosystem. Over 100,000 tech workers were laid off, thanks to the threat of a looming recession and capital getting more expensive; venture investment dipped to its lowest point since 2018; and 3,200 startups shut down. Simultaneously, we saw a shift in the innovation strategy at many large global companies. They allocated investment and resources back into the business units, and away from centralized innovation teams — a common response to financial pressure. 

Noelle Coleman, Co-Founder, Mezzanine Advisors

A good communications strategy can be critical to demonstrating the value proposition at the enterprise level. After supporting the innovation and labs teams at Thomson Reuters as their comms partner and running marketing and communications for Citi Ventures, I learned what works and what doesn’t. Here are some suggested best practices.

  • Buy-in from the top. Without C-level support, it doesn’t matter how effective your communication is. You need a C-Level spokesperson to be the ambassador for your team, who has a seat at the table when talking about corporate strategy, investment, and budgeting. This person should also act as the spokesperson externally to evangelize the company’s achievements, helping to enhance the value of innovation for the brand.
  • It’s always about the client or customer. Innovation theater is useless, and while you may get a slight brand boost in the short-term, it doesn’t have longevity. Deeply understanding the needs of your clients or customers, and what’s changing in their worlds, is invaluable. Send a survey, embark on a listening tour, ask the sales team if you can join client meetings. It is estimated that over 300 billion emails go out every day. Clients will only open your newsletter or email update if the information is relevant and useful. Once you become a source of trusted information that is viewed as delivering value, you have succeeded.

Nothing will kill your ability to tell great stories faster than a lawyer with a grudge or a gatekeeper who doesn’t understand what you are working on.

Noelle Coleman
  • Build a homebase. No one likes to dig for information. Building a homepage on your intranet or an external facing website to keep all relevant information and announcements about innovative activities front and center is essential to helping key stakeholders understand your value and why investment is being made in your group. This living site should include product announcements and enhancements, tech upgrades, new partnership announcements, relevant hires and job openings, and thought leadership pieces. When everyone in the company has access to the data, stories, and projects you want to share, you build a network of brand ambassadors. Give them the tools to do the job and make it easy for them to tell the stories you want.
  • Get creative. People ingest and retain information in different ways. At Thomson Reuters we hosted demo days (science fair style) right in the cafeteria. Anyone could come and learn about and test out new products. We also made the list of projects in development available on the intranet so anyone could see what was being worked on and add value. At Citi, we partnered with Learning & Development to teach topics on everything from design thinking to trends in AI/ML, and sent out a monthly newsletter that bankers could forward to clients. We also created decks of cards with the latest data and trends we were seeing in the startup ecosystem. It was a fun way for people to easily digest valuable information and stats.
  • Make friends. Nothing will kill your ability to tell great stories faster than a lawyer with a grudge or a gatekeeper who doesn’t understand what you are working on. While innovation teams like to move fast, sometimes it’s important to slow down, meet with your key internal stakeholders, and ensure that everyone is up to speed on the latest news and activities happening within your team. While I love the ability to work remotely, these meetings are best when done face to face. It’s a lot harder to say “no” when having coffee together instead of firing off a quick email. Invest the time and energy into making everyone feel included in the process. This will also make it easier in the long-term to talk about your activities externally.
  • Don’t shy away from the spotlight. While there may be some projects that you can’t talk about externally for regulatory reasons, it’s important to talk about projects in-flight. Experimentation is good business practice, and your clients or customers will respect the fact that you understand and are testing out new solutions. While there can and should be some limitations to anything too forward-looking in an earnings script, for example, talking openly about product development and nascent technologies at industry events and with clients and peers is healthy. And it shows clients you are on top of the latest tech developments. Unfortunately, if you wait the obligatory 24 months for a proper launch with all the bells and whistles, you will likely find your brilliant idea is already dated in the market. 
  • Tailor your messages. Your messaging needs to adapt based on your audience and goal. Your board will want to know how innovation initiatives will help to fuel long-term growth. Your sales team will want to know the direct benefit to clients and what information they can use to close sales. Your employees will want to know how what new tools and systems will help them do their jobs more effectively. The CFO will want to know the ROI quarter over quarter. Make sure that everyone within the organization understands exactly how the benefits tie back to them.

In the end, what doesn’t work is keeping innovation activities shrouded in mystery and without a direct line into the business and key stakeholders. Innovation should be a value-add for the brand, the organization, and its customers. Communicating with clarity and consistency of message is tantamount to gaining support. Invest the time, energy, and resources to do this well, and it will yield tangible results.

Noelle Coleman is Co-Founder of Mezzanine Advisors, a boutique agency that specializes in strategic communications for growth-stage companies. She was most recently Chief Communications Officer at Wilbur Labs, a venture studio based in San Francisco. Prior to Wilbur Labs, Noelle was Head of Marketing and Communications at Citi Ventures and the Communications Lead for Innovation and Labs at Thomson Reuters.