We’ve been jamming about innovation lately: Why you should innovate with your content marketing, what that actually means, and how to go about it.

But today I want to give you a bit of a warning. A caveat.

Innovation for innovation’s sake can be a distraction.

Wait, wait, wait. Hold up, Lacy. You just got done telling us we MUST innovate. And now you’re going to tell us it might be a bad idea?

Here’s the thing:

Innovation is good. Right now, it’s essential if you want to get your message out there and heard.

But not all innovation is created equal. You have to decide whether this experiment or that one will yield better dividends. Because we have to remember all the time that we are running a business. Therefore, every decision has to be based on whether or not we think trying this new thing will improve our business.

And the other half of this equation is that you have to be ready and willing to fail.

A tale of an experiment that failed

For those of you who have been following me for a while, you might remember that last year I started a podcast called P.S. You Got This with two other entrepreneurial ladies.

It started as one of those awesome ideas over lunch that gets in your brain and won’t let go. A mentor had told my friend that she should start a podcast, but she thought it would be a lot of work to do alone. I said I’d be interested in co-hosting, and it went from there.

We talked about goals. We talked about building our individual lists and a podcast list. We talked about monetizing with sponsors and eventually doing an event. We had big dreams.

The problem was that once we got into the experiment, it was waaaay more work than we thought, and it had negative ROI.

Because all of us are busy bosses, we hired a producer — which was a pretty hefty monthly expense. We did all the things he told us to in order to promote it, we recorded “commercials” for ourselves to try to drive opt-ins, we created a Facebook group for listeners…

And it sort of worked. We quickly got to where we were getting 1,000+ downloads a month (which, as far as I know, is pretty good for a brand-new podcast). People were excited about it.

But those download numbers were just a vanity metric in this case. We weren’t seeing any real movement for our businesses: no one was seeing an increase in opt-ins, and definitely none of us was making any money yet. But we had collectively paid thousands of dollars to make this happen, not to mention our time.

It started to become more work than it was worth. One week, someone wouldn’t have her interview ready because her paying business had to take priority. Another week, another of us wouldn’t make the social media graphics for the same reason. It fell to the bottom of all of our to-do lists.

And, after about 9 months, we canceled the experiment. Objectively, this attempt at innovation in our content marketing failed.

Avoiding failure (as much as you can)

What could we have done differently? Well, a lot of things. But there are some very specific questions you can ask yourself as a litmus test to determine if the experiment you want to try has the potential to be successful:

The most important question you can ask in your business is: How can I align my (and my team’s) efforts to accomplish our most important goals?

Tara Gentile calls your most important goal your Chief Initiative, but it doesn’t matter what you call it; it’s the one driving force that’s going to move your business forward. And when you define it, it makes choosing which tactics to execute on much, much easier.

You just ask yourself: Does this move me closer to my goal?

That’s it.

Want to start a podcast? Great. Does it move you closer to your goal or is it a distraction?

Think you ought to blog every day? Amazing! Does it move you closer to your goal or is it a distraction?

Want to cut back your blogging to once a month? That’s legit. But does it move you closer to your goal or is it a distraction?

For our podcast, the answer was… maybe. The thing is, if we assume that all of us were interested in making more money in our individual businesses, the podcast might have eventually helped with that… But not anytime soon. Which brings us to our second question.

Next, you want to ask yourself: What is the rate of return on this experiment?

What I mean by rate of return is, how quickly will you see results?

Podcasts, in particular, are a long game. You can absolutely build up your level of expertise, build an audience, gather leads, and make more sales — but it all takes time. If your goal is to get leads in order to make more sales on your next launch in a month, a podcast’s rate of return is too slow.

That was our problem with the podcast; maybe if we’d been willing and able to keep it up for several years/seasons, we could have started to see a better return, but we weren’t prepared for that. Which brings us to our final question…

What is the potential return on investment?

For this, you have to really think about what your investment is. Is it money? Is it time? Is it other resources?

Don’t forget that your time is worth money. Think about how much money you can earn for your business in an hour. Obviously, you’re not billing every hour of every day that you work — but when you choose to spend your time on something else, that is (theoretically) taking away from hours you could be billing and making money.

Also, don’t forget about resources. Will you need to invest in new programs, apps, gear, professional help, etc. to get your project off the ground?

In our podcast experiment, we committed both a significant amount of money (thousands of dollars each) and a significant amount of time to the project. If we had really sat down and done the math, we probably would have realized that the ROI wasn’t worth the outlay, at least in the short term. Let’s say I spent $1,000 on the producer, and two hours per episode of my time, which I bill at $300/hr. For 6 episodes, that’s almost $3,000. How many leads would I have to garner from the exercise to make it worth my time?

It may seem weird to boil it all down to math like this, but math doesn’t lie. I could convince myself that it would be fun, that it would be profitable in other ways, etc. And those things might be true. But I should have asked myself if they were worth as much as the time and money I would put in to earn them.

…But don’t talk yourself out of it!

My last caveat is that you can talk yourself into believing anything is a distraction — and talk yourself out of trying anything at all.

But that leaves you stuck where you are right now: doing the safe thing and not getting seen, noticed, or recognized.

There’s a cost/benefit analysis that has to be done — but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any cost at all! Of course, things worth doing are going to cost time, money, energy. And there’s no guarantee of success.

But that’s true of anything in life — including following the crowd and doing the “safe” thing.