Ideation may be one of the least understood elements of the creative process for people who don’t work in a creative industry.
Idea generation, brainstorming, or whatever you want to call it often brings to mind those impossible feats of enlightenment that we’ve seen time and again in books and movies. Our hero, faced with some challenge or problem, turns to a handy blackboard or stack of paper and proceeds to map out all of the possible solutions in an energetic moment of epiphany—conveniently truncated into an emotional montage set to inspirational background music.
But anyone who has ever participated in a brainstorming session in real life when trying to meet a business objective knows that coming up with an effective idea can be much more difficult than it seems—genius isn’t quite so quick to strike as it is in the movies.
But coming up with great ideas for your content marketing efforts doesn’t have to be difficult. All it takes to breathe new life into your creative process is to add some structure and intention to your ideation sessions.
Ideation, brainstorming, spitballing—we’ve come up with a load of different names for the idea generation process over the years. Likewise, we’ve also come up with a whole slew of methodologies and formats that are meant to encourage the healthy flow of ideas for a team. But which method will work best for your marketing team?
The first and most important idea to understand in answering this question is that no one format fits every group. From team size to individual personalities to the style of content you’re trying to create, there are an enormous number of factors that can affect how your team works together to ideate. To address these variations, it can be helpful to understand some of the overarching styles of brainstorming that are out there and how mixing and matching them can help encourage your creatives to produce the best ideas.
Most (if not all) idea generating techniques have two key attributes. The first is whether they’re practiced individually or in a group. This is a simple distinction, but a vitally important one. More often than not I see businesses sprinting towards group brainstorming like moths to a light bulb. The problem, however, is that group brainstorming is biased towards certain personality types and working styles over others; these arrangements benefit from a collection of ideas, but can be quickly taken over by strong leading attitudes or outgoing creatives.
“[Good brainstorming techniques] ensure that everyone can participate, and that everyone’s ideas receive equal consideration,” explains Skyword’s director of creative strategy, Forest Lee. “This is why the old-fashioned whiteboard brainstorm has declined in favor of silent ideation using Post-Its, followed by discussion.”
Conversely, individual brainstorming can suffer from a lack of diversity of thought. While quieter, more independent members of your team might get the space and time they need to articulate their ideas, they may be less open to new perspectives than if they’d bounced their ideas off someone else. A successful idea creation process should ideally try to find a sweet spot that gives at least some time to both styles of thinking.
Image attribution: Bruce Mars
The second attribute that affects brainstorming styles is whether they’re one-sided or two-sided. One-sided idea generation means that the thinker or thinkers involved do not have a central source of feedback or critique for their ideas. In group settings, people might discuss collectively what they think about ideas as they are presented, but there isn’t a formalized structure to provide feedback to each thinker. These methods tend to be great opening strategies to get a lot of ideas on the table, but might suffer from some lack of direction or specificity if not curated for the long run.
Two-sided idea creation, on the other hand, has structures built in for expected critique. These methods are great for encouraging discourse, challenging and growing your creatives, and overall cutting to the quick of your brainstorming session. The prior knowledge that these criticisms are coming, however, might discourage some of your thinkers from putting all their ideas on the table for fear of being shot down. Therefore this approach isn’t always the greatest when you need a high volume of topics or a completely unexpected angle rather than a select group of high-quality ideas to work with.
Multiple styles of ideation are meant to tackle some of the most difficult obstacles for creative teams. “The classic obstacle is just the tendency of people to say no to new ideas,” says Forest. “People who have spent months or years considering a subject often (sometimes without even realizing it) become very fixed in their thinking, and this can be very hard to overcome.”
An ideal process should try to balance all of these aspects against the particular needs of the team. This will take some trial and error to get to the right fit, but once you determine the best approach, your creative team should be clear.
Including a diverse mix of brainstorming techniques in your content creation doesn’t have to be a complex effort. Let’s dive into a handful of methods that can get your team’s creative juices flowing. To provide a clearer overview of how each technique works and which category of idea generation it falls under, reference this handy ideation matrix:
The useful thing about this visualization is that once you select a technique from any square, you can then select a complementary technique from the box diagonally across from it to produce a diversified creative process for your team. Here’s what each item on the matrix actually means.
Starting us off is mind mapping, a popular note-taking and brainstorming tool that “maps” out your thinking based on a central idea. To create a mind map, simply start with a bubble that has your central theme, idea, or topic inside it, and then create parent/child branches that flow from that topic into subtopics and eventually, specific ideas. The goal here is to understand how you individually organize and associate ideas related to a topic, and sort them from largest to smallest.
This is a great technique when you have a set high-level theme or keyword you’re trying to create content around.
Organic growth is a technique I learned at a writer’s workshop. Often times, creatives run into blocks because they have a single idea, scene, line, or other snippet of material that they really love, but they don’t know what it fits into. What’s the beginning, middle, and end that surrounds this idea to make it whole? Similar to mind mapping, organic growth begins with a bubble, but in this case that bubble represents an idea rather than a topic, starting small and working up to the big idea that houses it.
Organic growth is a great technique for creatives or content marketing managers who have a research study, event, piece of collateral, or some other piece of a story that really engages them, but they still need to discover the overarching story that it best belongs to.
Keeping with individually centered techniques, pitch and response is a very common two-sided idea generating process that we see throughout journalism and content marketing. In this approach, creatives pitch a number of ideas to an editor for review, who then critiques and curates those pitches in a feedback process.
This is a powerful way to keep ideas specific and tied to your production process, but it is often best employed alongside another brainstorming technique. For instance, an editorial team that meets with their creatives a couple of times a year to reconnect, debrief, and collect ideas as a group will often have healthier and more dynamic pitch and response.
Reverse storming is not a technique for the faint of heart, but it produces some of the most rock-solid ideas that can stand up to long-term scrutiny. Popularized by law schools and firms, reverse storming or “negative brainstorming“ is the act of examining an idea by considering and expounding on its opposite. I have found that this type of idea creation is typically best done in a call-and-response style format: One creative presents an idea, another presents as many opposites as they can come up with, and then the first party responds to the opposition. The responses at the end tend to make for great topics for articles, or arguments for a single piece. This doesn’t mean you should be too vehement in your counterpoints, however.
As Forest explains, “It might be a little counterintuitive, but it’s important to allow people to go a little bit off the rails.”
Reverse storming is a great technique if you want to develop thought leadership content in a highly contentious space. Be careful to ensure, however, that everyone involved understands it’s an exercise, not a practice in untethered critique.
Now that you have a selection of individual techniques on hand, it’s time to move to one of the most popular group brainstorming techniques around—word association. There are a ton of different ways to organize word association processes, but it all comes down to a central mechanic. Short words or phrases are thrown into a big jumble that’s organized later to have meaning. Personally, I’ve had success in sessions where a group throws out any words or phrases that seem to associate with whatever project is at hand, and then as a whole you work to curate the jumble down to between five and ten key phrases that will guide your processes moving forward. The key here is to ensure that everyone in the group has equal say in both presenting words and curating words.
Image attribution: Ari He
Word association exercises are great for kicking off new campaigns or projects when very little has been set in stone. Done right, it can also be a fun team-building experience for your creatives.
Our last technique takes its name from Frans Johansson’s famous 2004 book The Medici Effect. Johansson lays out an interesting case study of how professionals with diverse training and backgrounds can work together to create innovative ideas that they otherwise would never be able to come up with while isolated in their own working silos. To turn this theory into an effective idea generating process, gather a group of people related to your brand or project and split them into teams based on their professional skill sets. Have each team develop a word association or mind map related to the project you’re ideating for, and then make each group pass their plan to the team next to them. Continue this process until you have a handful of brainstorming pages that have been annotated by each team, and then discuss as a whole what patterns, themes, or interesting ideas they found while working together.
The methods we’ve laid out above are only a sampling of the numerous and exciting tricks that creatives have been developing for years to keep their ideas flowing. Regardless of which method you choose, the key is to always remember that no one technique will always be perfect for your creative mix. By diversifying the styles of ideation you employ, you can help account for the differences in work style and personality amongst your team.
What that unique creative mix truly looks like is hard to predict until you start using it. So the best way to find the right ideation structure for your team is to dive in, pay close attention to what you come up with, and keep iterating over time.
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Featured image attribution: Wang Xi