Good Strategy Is Knowing What Not to Do: The Art of Rejecting Content Ideas

By Liz Alton on October 16, 2018

The feedback strategies you use to approve, reject, and reshape the content submissions you receive are a critical part of running a successful content marketing initiative.

Rejecting ideas can be tough. One particularly harrowing experience I had early in my career involved facing off with a C-level executive who desperately wanted to move forward with a content project. It was, in a word, bad. The piece was more about positioning the executive as a tastemaker and showcasing their most important contacts than moving the organization's goals forward. The concept didn't align with the company's vision and would cost half the yearly budget to produce. Ultimately, I lost that battle. We spent thousands of dollars on a project that promoted the executive's individual brand and then ultimately fizzled out.

The experience taught me a lot about how to give effective feedback, the importance of learning how to say no, and the role of pivoting and reshaping pitches to better fit your organization's objectives. If you're a marketer who's struggling with this in your process, here are some elements to consider.

The Science of Good Feedback and Strategies for Rejection

Giving feedback is hard. In some cases, even positive feedback can be tricky to phrase. Constructive feedback and suggested changes can be fraught with landmines when it comes to navigating people's egos and feelings. The toughest feedback of all is a rejection, whether you are rejecting a potential contributor or even a single pitch.

The experts are divided on how to reject ideas. Some suggest that you go for the kind and gentle approach, with lots of explanation and support. Others find direct and concise-ripping off the Band-Aid, so to speak-to be a better strategy. No matter the tone, there are a few points which most people agree help to shape the formal feedback process.

Negative feedback can affect relationships

The Harvard Business Review highlighted an important finding: Poorly handled negative feedback can drive people apart and encourage people to seek out new relationships. In other words, having a strong approach to managing rejections is key to ongoing healthy relationships.

Context matters

McKinsey notes that explaining why an idea was rejected can not only help improve future delivery, but it can also help eliminate resentments.

Silence is not a strategy

Some marketers hope that a fade or lack of response to bad ideas will be an easy way to manage the process. Yet lack of response can lead to confusion, frustration, and a negative reputation among potential contributors to your project.

Prepare for the fallout

Rejection is a process in motion, and being prepared to deal with any fallout is just as important as trying to create a healthy process in the first place. Whitney Johnson writes for Harvard Business Review: "Growing and maintaining a culture is an active process, which utilizes resources and generates byproducts. The dirty little secret of innovative cultures is that some byproducts are inhibitory to growth-and any organization that is not prepared to handle these toxins quickly puts itself at risk of contamination and failure."

The Reality of Rejection

When you're running a content marketing program, rejection is just part of the puzzle. It can come in the form of bad ideas from management, off-brand pitches from contributing freelancers, and proposals from employees that don't land.

feedback strategy

Image attribution: Goh Rhy Yan

Learning how to face and manage rejection is key. As managers and marketers, having a strategy for delivering feedback should be part of your regular process.

Start by defining a system for how feedback will be delivered, and making rejection one of the potential outcomes when ideas are submitted. If every contributor knows that ideas can be accepted, accepted with feedback, or declined, rejection is less likely to come as a surprise. When possible, deliver these rejections in a timely way. You shouldn't keep prospective contributors waiting too long.

Additionally, treat each rejection with the consideration that you would give any other form of business evaluation, and take the time to give some basic explanation. Why didn't you move forward with the piece? Was something missing? Could it be pivoted and changed to be submitted another time? Would you rather be seeing a different type of pitch from this person? Clear directions and explaining why an idea didn't land not only helps improve future ideas, but it puts the whole experience into context.

On the other side of the conversation, address any questions from the person receiving the feedback. As the Harvard Business Review notes, when people feel heard and respected, they're less likely to be upset when rejection occurs.

Finally, recognize that negative feelings can arise from rejection. Don't let them fester. Be prepared to deal with them, even if it simply means listening to the person's concerns and looking back to see where your own feedback process can improve.

The Importance of a Shared Vision

On another level, rejection can be made easier by taking steps before you ever solicit ideas. Sharing your organization's larger content strategy can help make the rejection process easier. Check to see if your contributors have the following materials available:

  • A documented content strategy that outlines your goals and objectives
  • Brand guidelines on topics like audience and tone
  • Samples of topics or articles you've enjoyed

If so, make sure that these are widely distributed. It may even be appropriate to add a section about what types of pitches you're looking for. One reason I love writing for the Content Standard is that it has such a well-thought-out pitching process. Every pitch is submitted in a format that includes the target persona, the problem the piece is solving for readers, and essential takeaways that connect with broader brand strategy and goals. Having an established system in place right from the initial point of ideation helps contributors make sure their ideas are on point before they're submitted.

For marketers, there are two key questions to ask:

  1. Have you shared your content strategy and brand guidelines with your colleagues to help them understand what you're looking for?
  2. Can you improve the pitches you receive by creating a template that captures the information that you need to deliver an idea?

The Harder Cases: Rejecting Upward

One case where feedback strategies may not be enough is when you're managing upward. If there's a power disparity, what should a marketer do when they receive an idea from a senior executive or star colleague that's not right for the program? First, acknowledge to yourself that you may lose this fight. Politics and hierarchical structures are complicated. Second, give it your best shot.

  • Find ways to constructively shape the piece into something that can work. Are they open to trying the idea with modifications?
  • Lean into your guidelines, company objectives, and stated mandate. If there's a misalignment, that can help make a non-subjective case to an adamant contributor.
  • Ask what they're trying to accomplish. Understanding their aims may help you come up with an alternative proposal that gets them what they want, while producing something that's more in line with your goals.
  • Finally, know when to enlist a senior ally. Someone higher up in the marketing organization, for example, may be the right person to handle tricky discussions with very senior employees or volatile personalities.

A Final Note on Empathy and Delivery

You've documented your strategy. You've provided coaching and guidance. You've even helped pivot ideas that don't work into ones that do. When you give rejections, you provide feedback on why it didn't fit and how to reposition it. In other words, you're doing everything right. Ask one last question: Were you kind and mindful that there was another person behind the pitch when you delivered feedback?

empathy and rejection

Image attribution: Matheus Ferrer

As a professional writer, I've got a pretty thick skin. Rejections, edits, and sometimes harsh feedback are just part of the job. But on the rare occasions editors make off the cuff remarks or give feedback in a way that does sting, it usually has more to do with delivery than with the actual feedback itself.

As writer and producer Rachel Bloom told Fast Company, "In every writers' room, ideas are shut down, but I think it's important not to look at people dismissively or derisively when one of their ideas isn't going to work in the script. The role of a boss is to shut the idea down in a very calm and humane way. I reject ideas overly kindly. I'm like, 'I understand where you're coming from. I appreciate it.' [Rejection] is something you have to learn as a writer."

Remember that behind every pitch is a person who is eager to do their best, make a contribution, and help your content marketing efforts be successful. Being kind, along with being constructive, can help forge long-lasting relationships.

What's the big takeaway for content marketers? Rejection is part of the process. Learning how to manage rejections kindly, constructively, and within the context of your larger content marketing goals is important. Develop feedback strategies that you can use in a variety of situations, and trust in your ability to manage the tough conversations. Rejection can ultimately help people be stronger contributors and ensure that you produce to the highest levels of quality. At the same time, be thoughtful about how you approach these conversations and commit to managing rejection with the same care and professionalism with which you handle every content conversation.

Skyword360 technology improves communications across large scale organizations by letting marketers put together a unified content strategy which ensures everyone, from the CMO to content creators, are on the same page. Learn more.

Featured image attribution: kevin laminto


Liz Alton

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.