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Science-Backed Strategies for Giving Effective Feedback on Creative Projects

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Getting effective feedback is critical. Creative professionals need it to develop winning marketing campaigns and compelling content. Recently, I was developing a full content strategy for an international creative brand taking their software products to a new vertical. The strategy had to balance a variety of internal needs that focused on the company’s goals, upcoming milestones for the product brands, and input from the vertical teams that the content would ultimately support. There was also feedback from the master brand and marketing teams, the content department, and the agency I was working with. In other words, it was content marketing chaos.

Luckily, this wasn’t my first “too many cooks in the kitchen” project, and we created a strategy that solicited feedback early and often. Different styles emerged, from the motherhood and apple pie “this looks great” to the brutal, hands-on style feedback that should come with a “you might cry” warning (which I also happen to love). Ultimately, this experience led me to create a framework to help marketers get the most out of their colleagues during the feedback process. What does science tell us about creating an effective feedback process that can support creatives and content development in a positive way?

paintbrushes on canvas -

Image attribution: RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist

Why Does Feedback Matter?

It’s all about context. Today, marketers are creating a wider range of content, campaigns, and creative than ever before. One department is often developing blog posts, white papers, social content, video campaigns, product launches, and vertical strategies—often in the same quarter. The creation process of each piece might include the marketers, the line of business stakeholders, SMEs, internal and external partners, agencies, and a full suite of creatives from writers to photographers.

In other words, most projects today have a full braintrust that can give a steady stream of insightful feedback on tone, voice, audience, brand fidelity, visual approach, high concept, and plans for execution. Yet tapping into this invaluable resource can be challenging. Individual styles vary. Company culture, individual relationships, the level of investment in the project, managerial oversight, and even the specific medium can all have an impact.

As a result, the experiences marketers have while gathering feedback vary. One project manager I talked to recently described a campaign she ran for a CPG client. During pitch meetings, creative presentations, and feedback sessions, a room full of marketing and frontline managers watched these presentations and demos with stony faces. Occasionally, she would get a nod or a question, but minimal feedback. The agency team was growing increasingly worried; however, the feedback would trickle in after the meetings and was always glowingly positive. Upon digging, it turned out that the manager of the project on the client side didn’t encourage in-meeting feedback. Many participants were concerned about speaking up and relied on back channels to give any input—positive or negative. The campaign went on to win awards and the client has hired the agency for multiple projects since. If you looked at the feedback process, you’d never have known.

Getting Great Feedback: 6 Tips from Science

For marketers who rely on excellent feedback to create unforgettable campaigns, striking the balance can be hard. As the Harvard Business Review notes, “In a study of seven companies and 11,471 days of creative work, researchers found two striking patterns: First, getting feedback was incredibly rare, indicating that people seemed to avoid it; and second, when people did receive feedback, it generally left a negative emotional residue.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s how to engage feedback-givers, keep actionable feedback, and minimize hurt feelings in the process.

Start with the Context

In a recent study published in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that while studies about feedback often focus on what is said, where it is said matters just as much. In other words, your feedback culture matters just as much as the interpersonal dynamics of how feedback is given and received. In fact, the authors conclude, “The present study advances several perspectives of previous studies, echoes recent suggestions that organizations interested in stimulating employee creativity might profitably focus on developing work contexts that support it.”

At one level, they’re talking about organizational culture. Does your management invite discussion and feedback? Do you set aside times during projects for feedback and encourage open brainstorming and sharing of ideas? Do you create an environment where people feel safe giving and receiving feedback? These are all important areas to consider, especially over the long term.

More immediately, set the context that your project is going to be a collaborative one. Back to the strategy I mentioned above. My plan included asking for feedback early and often. I held kickoff meetings with the brand and marketing teams to understand their goals and concerns. We also pushed for meetings with leaders on the vertical teams to better understand their content needs and concerns. Once the strategy was complete, we conducted several loop-back presentations to gather input. Each person was made to feel that their perspective was important and that there was room throughout the process to voice ideas, concerns, and approval as appropriate. If you’re working in a culture where feedback is limited—or conversely, abundant but perhaps unstructured—create an open context to welcome it. Just direct the flow by creating a structure that’s designed to help focus it in the right direction.

A man and woman laughing

Image attribution: Priscilla Du Preez

Come Back to the Goal

Given the range of experiences, expertise, and general opinions of the people you work with or the customers that your company sells to, the potential universe of feedback you can receive is vast and largely unfocused. How often have you received feedback such as “I don’t like that font,” or “Why are we using red?” These types of feedback can be helpful; however, if the answer is “these are our brand colors and typographic guidelines,” the context is different. Instead, define your goals—for the campaign and for the feedback. As Entrepreneur notes, “One of the hardest parts of giving feedback is figuring out where to start. Most feedback is a mixture of emotions, personal taste and critical thinking.” Direct that energy by focusing on what you’re trying to accomplish before beginning to ask questions.

When asking for feedback, quickly recap:

  • What is the piece you’re working on?
  • What is the goal for the piece, from both a brand perspective and a conversion perspective?
  • How does it fit into the campaign?
  • Who is the audience for the piece? What stage of the buying cycle are they in?
  • What messaging has been identified for the piece?
  • What levels of feedback are you looking for?

For example, you might say something like: “I’m writing to ask you for feedback on a new landing page we’re creating. The goal of the piece is to raise awareness of the WeLovetoFaxAllDayLong brand and help send B2B users to our sign up page. We’re going to be driving traffic to the page from search and advertising, so we need something that really speaks to B2B buyers in healthcare, finance, and legal firms. These could be office or IT decision makers, and they’re really in the purchasing stage. From a messaging point of view, it has to be heavy on the benefits, show why we’re better than the competition, and encourage them to take action now. I’d love to get your thoughts on whether this copy effectively speaks to that audience, and whether you’d add anything else. What do you think?”

Address the Problem of Silence Through a Braintrust Feedback Model

Silence and a lack of feedback are often a cultural issue. A recent blog post for Trello considered the feedback culture of Pixar, writing, “When was the last time you got completely unfiltered feedback? Do you dread presenting your big projects to your team because you fear their harsh critique? With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that so many people choose to play it safe rather than to take a risk. The problem is, playing it safe leads to work that’s average at best.”

The founder of Pixar described Braintrust, the company’s approach to feedback: “The Braintrust is our primary delivery system for straight talk [at Pixar]. Its premise is simple: Put smart, passionate people in a room together, charge them with identifying and solving problems, and encourage them to be candid with each other.”

The ground rules are simple: Everyone must be candid, but respectful. Focus on the project, and don’t let things get personal or inappropriately heated. Don’t focus on finding solutions. Instead, give feedback and share ideas that introduce new perspectives that the presenter may not have yet considered.

Employ Best Practices for Solutions-Oriented Feedback

While the Braintrust works great for getting unstuck early in the campaign generation process, there are times when you need great solutions-focused feedback. These include when you’re in execution mode and when you’re collecting feedback on specific collateral, for example. The Harvard Business Review has several tips:

  • Ask open questions that encourage a wider range of feedback, rather than overly specific feedback. If you’re seeking specific feedback, start wide and then narrow in on your areas of focus.
  • When giving subjective feedback, use terms like “I think” and “What occurs to me is” to signal that the feedback is an opinion—not company gospel.

In addition, I would add three more:

  • Focus on feedback that helps the person you’re talking to more effectively align with the company’s goals.
  • Be specific and try to connect your feedback to actionable goals.
  • Always find something positive to say.

Silhouette of person making heart gesture

Image attribution: Cerys Lowe

Train Your Team to Ask for Feedback

When we’re giving feedback, we can be in prescriptive mode. However, according to the NeuroLeadership Institute, making the shift to asking for feedback can change the dynamic. They write, “a focus on asking for feedback offers cognitive benefits that are more likely to lead to higher quality and quantity feedback.” Asking for input is an invitation. It signals to the recipient that you’re open to hearing their thoughts and that they’re operating in a cultural context that welcomes interaction and discussion. When your team learns to ask for feedback from a wide range of people and at different stages of the project, you’ll take an important step toward creating a culture of positive feedback, while also improving the execution of your current campaign.

A Final Note On Tough Feedback

Sometimes the feedback we need to hear—or the feedback to give—is rough. A concept isn’t working. A piece that took days to develop completely misses the mark. Carefully crafted copy doesn’t align with brand voice or audience needs. Giving difficult feedback is never easy, but it’s an important part of helping your company grow. Focus on the opportunities that this creates to improve your work product.

Whenever possible, train your team on how to take difficult feedback; this Forbes piece is a great resource. When you’re delivering tough feedback, be aware of the intention and effect gap that the Harvard Business Review highlights. Your intention in critiquing a campaign might be to improve the execution or save your company from a bad investment, but the marketing manager whose work is under the microscope simply feels that you’re putting her vision through the shredder. Find ways to anticipate the gap between your intent and the effects your words may have. Ultimately, some of your colleagues may be totally comfortable with direct, unfiltered feedback; they may take it and simply fix the issues and move on. However, it’s always best to assume that being professional and respectful when giving feedback will solicit the best results.

Getting and giving amazing feedback is part of the creative process at the world’s top brands. It can be challenging to know what to ask, how to give feedback, and how to create the context that people feel safe sharing their ideas. However, one thing is clear: By taking these steps, you’ll be tapping into your own braintrust and bringing the most effective feedback available to your creative freelancers and teams to bear on executing your next campaign.

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Featured image attribution: Omar Lopez

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Liz Alton is a technology and marketing writer, and content strategist, for Fortune 500 brands and creative agencies. Her specialties include marketing, technology, B2B, big data/analytics, cloud, and mobility. She's worked with clients including Adobe, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Twitter, ADP, and Google. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA. She is currently pursuing a master’s in journalism from Harvard University.

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