It’s that time of the month again.
The monthly meeting for brainstorming content ideas is happening tomorrow, and you’re expected to show up with fresh, new topic suggestions. Even worse—it’s your responsibility to inspire your team to come prepared with their best thoughts, too. Ideation at scale is a massive pain point for just about any content marketing team. Depending on how frequently you publish, you’ll end up feeling as if you’ve already touched on all the important topics and then some, though you’re expected to continue churning out ideas, and fresh ones at that.
So tomorrow you’ll show up and toss ideas at that freshly cleaned whiteboard. You and your team will rack your collective brains for something, anything, new to cover. You’ll map out ideas with dry-erase markers that stem from key pain points or already-written cornerstone content. But is this really the best approach to ideating?
What if the problem isn’t that we’re all facing creative burnout—what if it’s that this style of brainstorming isn’t conducive to uncovering new ideas?
Does the scenario above sound all too familiar? You’re not alone. Content teams of all types struggle with ideation, though most all of them follow the same practices. Monthly meetings. One marketer, or a small team, charged with coming up the next month’s content topics. Starting from scratch and staring at a blank page, empty whiteboard, or blinking cursor. The pressure to produce permeating the air.
The system is broken. Creativity doesn’t sprout under pressure. It also can’t be summoned by reoccurring team meetings. And good content strategies deserve a creative team to bring them to life. However, a lack of creativity alone isn’t to blame when brainstorming fails to produce—the group dynamic itself is flawed.
In a recent study in the journal Human Factors, Paul Paulus and colleagues report, “In face-to-face settings, the opportunity to fully share information and knowledge is limited by the fact that only one person can express his or her ideas at one time.” That’s not the only reason why group brainstorming is troublesome. They continue, “While waiting one’s turn to share ideas, a person may forget what he or she meant to say or get distracted from one’s own ideas by the sharing process.” Finally, the researchers reports that “[t]here may be rather uneven participation as some individuals may dominate the discussion.”
Image attribution: Anete Lūsiņa
While Paulus and colleagues show that traditional brainstorming isn’t the best method for developing a jackpot of content ideas, they do provide a few tested methods for using group work to kickstart ideation.
The first section of the study was practiced under two conditions. For the first condition, participants sat alone to write down their ideas for ten minutes, then met in a group to continue what they call “brainwriting.” The second condition was a reversed situation: Participants met first in a group to ideate for ten minutes, and then finished the exercise individually. The researchers found that participants generated 37 percent more ideas under the second condition.
The researchers also tested an alternate method of ideation, called asynchronous brainwriting. The participants in this portion of the study quickly alternated between group work and individual ideation. First, participants would work individually for eight minutes. Immediately after, they’d spend three minutes doing a group review and reflection. This method generated significantly more ideas than either of the first two conditions.
What often hinders the whiteboard-brainstorming sessions most creative teams face is the process of starting from a completely blank canvas. Starting from nothing is a lot of pressure.
There are numerous human factors that will complicate this show-up-and-produce-from-scratch dilemma too. What happens when one of your key ideating employees has a bad morning in her personal life and can’t make the meeting? Or if a less motivated employee shows up with a wall up, killing everyone else’s desire to participate? You can’t control your employees’ mindsets, but you can create a system that makes ideation easier for everyone.
First, keep a pool of content ideas going at all times. Then, instead of brainstorming from zero, you can start by reviewing the topics in the content pool at the beginning of your monthly meeting. Has anything on the list become a timely subject? Is there any way to adjust an angle so a possible idea feels fresh and right for the current strategy? Content pools allow teams to start with a creative discussion rather than scratching their heads for brand new ideas.
Similarly, review your older content as a brainstorming tool. What new content can you create to increase your interlinking between articles on your website? Sure, you may have written a blog on dog obedience training, but allow that article to act as a spin off for other potential idea. If you compare group dog training to in-home education, but haven’t explored those topics on their own, there are two potential ideas to add to a content pool for later use or to add to the next month’s list of topics. To make this more of a group activity, each team member could be assigned a few previously-published articles to analyze prior to the meeting. Then, they can present any missing content links to start generating ideas.
Brainstorming is tough. Sometimes the creative juices will be flowing and ideas will be abundant. Other times, your team may stare at each other while no one speaks up with any new topic suggestions. If you’ve been brainstorming in the same ways for some time now, try a new method. Alternate between group and individual work. Start meetings with prepared ideas versus coming empty-handed. Just changing the way your team works through the brainstorming process will alter the type and amount of ideas produced.
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Featured image attribution: Headway