The Power of Priming: Moving Towards Innovation

21 December 2012

Contrary to popular belief, groundbreaking ideas and products do not magnificently appear out of nowhere to instantly change the world forever. Innovation requires extensive planning. The creative act of brainstorming is really only a small part of the innovation process for individuals and businesses. Implementing an intelligent plan that injects change into inherently stable systems is the true goal. To reach that goal, you must pave the path through priming.

A Primer on Priming

Priming is the act of providing a stimulus to a subject or audience to improve the likelihood of a desired action on that subject’s part. Much in the same way that you would prime the pump on a lawnmower to inject fuel into the carburetor, priming an audience increases the likelihood of a connective spark. Priming happens to us everyday. All of the advertising associated with television, radio, or the Internet elicits an eventual “call to action” in marketing terms. This call to action might be as simple as clipping a coupon or entering an e-mail address for the audience. However, it can also spur more substantial actions like buying a new car or planning retirement funds with a specific investment group.

Priming is subtle in suggesting an action. It fosters a sense of engagement, but it is never an overt command or direct suggestion. Priming lays the groundwork for an eventual purchase or action. Companies utilize priming constantly through sound and images. Consider all those jingles you can’t get out of your head, including the famous McDonald’s Big Mac song. Rather than ever tell customers they should buy a Big Mac, the song simply lists the ingredients of the sandwich. McDonald’s, by using this subtle priming influence, sold incredible numbers of Big Macs based on the popularity of an advertising campaign that, in reality, only lasted 18 months.

Effectively Priming an Audience

A company seeking to influence its customers needs to understand the context in which a product or service is or will be used. Analyzing the context will enable that company to identify moments that influence an audience’s experience and expectations. Optimal priming converts these key moments into the subtle gold of suggestion.

Disney and its theme parks are a great example of near-total immersion priming. Customers spend hours in lines waiting for rides or attractions. However, Disney posts how much time customers will have to wait (which changes dramatically) and entertains the customers with characters, videos, and songs. The whole process becomes priming for the park itself. Perhaps, most importantly, Disney appeals to guests rather than customers. This immediately changes the tenor of the relationship. Employees become cast members and contribute to the overall show of the parks. Subtle methods of inclusion and awe create a memorable experience that encourages families to visit again.

We cannot avoid being primed. We are bombarded with so many media and social impressions each day that only complete isolation would reverse this process. Just think of how traffic signs communicate messages or your experiences in airports or hotels. A seasoned traveler could probably go through the rote steps of these experiences blindfolded. The process has become so engrained in our minds.

Priming has become a key to society’s customs. We can, however, become more aware of how we are being influenced and directed in our lives. The practice of understanding how messages are designed and delivered can make us more conversant and perceptive of priming’s effects on us, and also how we can use it in extremely positive and productive ways.

Priming to Promote and Sustain Innovation

Priming an organization for change can help it to effectively and efficiently embrace innovation. Often within a company, many factors might serve to prevent such a transition. An enterprise is built around the premise of delivering a set of existing products or services to a current set of customers. The system of delivery is predicated on a whole set of processes and protocols that serve to reinforce business as usual. The employees or members are rewarded for delivering the products to the market, and the management is tasked with the stewardship and assessment of that performance over time.  The setup can become static quickly, and the introduction of innovation tends to be rejected without priming.

Successful transitions benefit from sufficient preparation and priming. Organizational leaders should:

- Emphasize the capacity of the organization for embracing new ideas and behaviors. 

- Deploy and support the use of a consistent set of practices and language to support innovation that can be observed and reinforced within the organization over time.

- Focus on design thinking, specifically, human-centricity or the practice of identifying key needs and proposing solutions for those needs.

- Reward the risk-takers, even when they fail. This response sends a message of encouragement to employees to move and stretch beyond existing practices.

- Reinforce the inherent resilience of the organization. Failures do not break an enterprise. They serve to make it stronger by creating new opportunities to learn.

Priming is a powerful and necessary strategy to encourage awareness and promote change. Subtle and subliminal suggestions placed over a period of time have a more positive and long-lasting effect in embracing innovation. Rather than demand that perceptions and practices change at the drop of a dime, learn to prime your audience for innovation.

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