A team of content marketers brainstorm
Marketing ROI

Strategic Ideation Turns Brainstorming Into ROI

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I come from a family of scientists.

Brilliant people, each and every one of them, but practitioners of an entirely different sort of creativity from content marketing. It makes for some repetitious Thanksgiving conversations when I have to explain again what it is I do, and sometimes these conversations reveal some quite romanticized notions of what my work entails. There’s no room in this perspective for corporate-feeling terms like “strategic ideation” or “ROI-driven content.” They seem to think brainstorming means a group of writers gather in a room with a common purpose, sit in an eclectic collection of strange comfy chairs, and in the course of five minutes fill a chalkboard with row after row of masterpieces in the making.

I think my family’s love of The Dead Poets Society might be at play here. If only this were close to the truth.

For writers, content producers, and marketers today, brainstorming isn’t always an easy or enjoyable practice. It’s necessary to keep your pipeline full and your team responding dynamically to what interests your audience right now. But it can also be exhausting, cause the occasional editorial conflict, and more than anything highlight the hard truth that nine times out of ten your first idea isn’t that great. It’s no wonder then that adding the additional layer of ROI focus makes this already stressful practice all the more stressful.

Just because brainstorming encourages free thought and expression doesn’t mean that it can’t benefit from some structure, especially when your team has a specific end goal that’s supposed to drive revenue for your company. But what does this structure look like?

An empty chalkboard

Image attribution: Maciej Korsan

Step One: Killing Your Darlings (and Biases)

Marketers often have an inherently critical streak. This is vitally necessary for professionals whose work is scrutinized by hundreds, thousands, or millions of people a day, but it doesn’t always make us particularly good at opening up to new ideas. But the primary challenge of ideation isn’t producing high quality ideas, it’s producing a high enough quantity of ideas that you have a pool worth refining into quality pieces later.

Hemingway once famously suggested that good writers should “write drunk, edit sober.” While this ideation method doesn’t encourage drunkenness at work (though if you work at one of those neat startups with a tap in the breakroom, feel free to have a beer before starting), it does steal the idea of getting rid of your inhibitions up front.

With your team, start having people suggest ideas and explain them in one minute or less—this keeps the flow moving, and limits your team to ideas that are well thought out enough that they can be easily conveyed in an elevator pitch. Now here’s the important part: no ideas are allowed to be removed, rejected, or criticized at this stage.

Holding back criticism is hard for a number of reasons, from complex causes like cognitive biases that limit our quick assessment of situations, to simple desires like wanting to see your idea come out on top. But by filling a board, email thread, or notebook with unfiltered ideas, you give your team a large canvas to work with that is far more likely to benefit from a nexus of perspectives.

Once you have your initial pool of ideas, themes, or pitches, start trimming down to a goal number by cutting some suggestions, consolidating similar entries into a more detailed single idea, or setting some ideas aside to be used for a different purpose later. This process should also be collaborative and even loosely voting based—biases can give you just as hard a time in revision as they do in ideation if you aren’t careful.

Step 2: Define Reader “Spreads”

Good content marketing teams know to keep their content “on brand,” which is a shorthand way of talking about how we work to tie all of our work together with cohesive style, themes, and value propositions. But if your team only produces content against your brand without thinking specifically about the themes that underlie that brand, it’s still possible to produce a bunch of content that doesn’t connect particularly well with each other.

Some brands combat this by creating subject-oriented sub-headings on their publication platforms to help direct their readers towards portfolios of content that relate to each other. This very site is a great example of this with groupings from technical marketing topics to more creative storytelling techniques for freelance writers.

But not every brand has concentrated enough topics to sustain long-term subject separations on their content hubs. It’s also just as possible that your brand just hasn’t identified what subject separations would be best for your brands.

To address this, I like to take a page out of the magazine and newspaper playbook by organizing accepted pitches into “spreads.” Sort ideas into roughly equal collections, and then in a few words describe how they are related (it’s okay if some ideas are shared across a grouping or two). These groupings will not only make it much easier to organize your efforts in the near future—from “suggested content” links on blog pages to coordinated social campaigns around a single theme—but these groupings will also provide hypotheses you can test later to see if you really do understand your audience’s interests.

Friends sitting and talking around a campfire

Image attribution: Phil Coffman

Step 3: Create Tracking Flow Up Front

This step is one of the most ignored in the content workflow, and it makes for some very painful data analysis later. Once you have spreads built for your ideas, it’s time to think about what these themes might drive best for your brand. Are some ideas thought leadership-oriented and more suited to driving search visibility and brand interest? Perhaps some of your spreads are a bit closer to your products and might be more closely related to lead generation?

Whatever the case, you’ll want to assign each spread the following:

  1. A primary marketing goal that you think it will accomplish (and related KPIs)
  2. A unique tracking identifier to compare against these KPIs (UTM coding is great for this)

This will allow you to constantly conduct small experiments on your content to really hone in on your audience’s interests and what sort of marketing goals your content can achieve—which is one of the strongest ways to tie your content back to ROI.

Once you have some data on a handful of spreads, I personally like to use a “king of the hill” organizational method to keep driving marketing goals. In this method, about 50 percent of my team’s content is produced against the three to five top-performing marketing spreads I’ve seen in the past. The other 50 percent is a combination of refining past themes that perform well, but not best, or testing new themes that I think might be able to topple one of the top three to five. Any time a spread outperforms one of your historical spreads in a given KPI area, it takes over a top spot until something else beats it out. If you find that there are a few themes that consistently hold a top position for your brand over the course of a whole year, you might consider turning these into overall site organizers.

All of this of course assumes you have some healthy data practices in place, so make sure your team can trust its data first before you dive headlong into analyzing marketing gunk.

Step 4: Rinse, Repeat

The best content marketing strategies are iterative, because they keep your brand constantly moving forward, even if only with smaller gains. Strategic ideation isn’t just about organizing your ideas against marketing goals and testing them—it’s about instilling a mindset for yourself and your team that is focused on the end goal of your content even as you’re just beginning to conceptualize it.

Hopefully this method is simple enough that your team can find ample room to tweak it to meet your brand’s needs, stick to it, and heck, maybe even successfully explain it to mom and dad when you’re inevitably asked over Thanksgiving: “What exactly is it you do again?”

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Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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