When I meet with clients for the very first time, they’re often inspired and excited to start their content marketing production. Writers are ready to connect with their target audiences in meaningful ways and demonstrate their thought leadership. Up until this point they’ve defined these target audiences, determined what their main message focus areas will be, and understand the regularity and minimum word counts for their blog posts, white papers, and webinars. Their energy is contagious at the very start of the call- until I tell them it’s time to brainstorm upcoming topics.
Many times the cringing is almost audible. And it makes sense. Many of the marketing and sales experts we work with are much more comfortable developing strategies to nurture target prospects but are squeamish about first putting pen to paper. They’re used to coming up with messaging points but not so much the writing of that message. I imagine they’re thinking the brainstorming session is going to be a call-and-response type deal and radio silence will prevail while they collectively scramble for something to say.
But that’s not the case because we have a few different strategies to get those creative juices flowing.
Break typical team dynamics
One critical condition of a successful brainstorming session is to ensure that all writers in the room feel empowered to throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks. Depending on your group participants, writers can have difficulty bringing up topics in front of their supervisors. Because you want a diversity of writers, you’ll likely end up with supervisors and their employees in the same room.
Encourage thinking of topics before the brainstorming meeting and write them down in a group document. Instead of asking for volunteers to voice their topics, I begin by pulling up a list of topics that have been added to previously by content writers. I ask writers to think of this list as a ‘notepad’ where they add topics ideas as it comes to them, such as after a client meeting or when they read industry news. By reading straight from the list and then asking for writers to explain the idea in more detail, perceptions of hierarchy are diminished and any shy speakers, who otherwise might have been drowned out by dominant speakers, have an opportunity to speak.
This ‘notepad’ also encourages team members to always think of ways they can educate their audiences and to proactively find a place to catalogue those thoughts throughout the month, revisiting them during the editorial team meeting. Often, if that cultural shift happens from the top down, others will follow suit.
Audibly praising writers who question the thinking of the majority can have a real impact in the quality of your work. It’s not enough to pitch a topic idea that’s interesting to you. The group must think critically whether it’ll be of interest to your audiences, if it hits your messaging focus areas and if it aligns with what your brand stands for. Sometimes groups can get stuck on one idea and have a hard time moving past it to different ideas and result in groupthink. Reminding content writers to think critically is key to successful content creation.
It’s also key for agencies marketing teams to actually think of themselves as a “team” rather than a group of disparate writers in the same space reporting on what they’re going to write on. Because everyone in the room has a unique perspective, content team members have a responsibility to thoughtfully respond with their own perspective to a suggested topic idea. Ultimately, this makes the topic better as a whole.
Shift brainstorming expectations
We typically think of brainstorming as a harvesting of topic ideas. This is true in the beginning of a session, but successful brainstorming includes extending and combining ideas.
One technique that works well for narrowing topics from a big idea is to create a mind map. A mind map begins with a theme, such as ‘Asian-American marketing’. Then a handful of smaller pieces of this larger theme are defined, such as ‘PR,’ ‘Media,’ ‘Emerging martech,’ etc. For each of these, more narrow topics are formed, and these become a list of topics for the content.
Word storms help teams form broad topics that can be narrowed with some of the techniques below. In a word storm, writers are presented with words (‘marketing,’ ‘digital,’ ‘branding’) and are asked to share what words come to mind. For example, when presented with ‘media’ someone might say ‘social.’ Or ‘message’ when they hear ‘branding.’ These produce a set of broad ideas – branding message, social media, etc. – that can then be narrowed into topics.
I genuinely believe the scariest part of brainstorming is that there are not enough constraints. We’re marketers, so we’re typically quick thinkers who do their best work under pressure.
One way to create constraints is using timing techniques. ‘Timed idea switch’ is best for when a list of topics feels too broad. Use the broad list and ask team members to start throwing out ideas for narrowed topics for each item on the list, like sub-bullets.
‘Writer switch’ works well when there is one writer who is very engaged and throwing out ideas, and you need to engage other writers of the team. With a writer switch, the brainstorming leader asks someone who did not suggest the topic how they would approach writing this topic. This not only produces more authentic content but also it empowers content team members who don’t normally contribute. This is essential because successful brainstorming relies on a room full of writers who are comfortable brainstorming and vetting topics. Additionally, it might give a different spin to the original intent of the topic, ultimately producing a second content topic.
All points of the content production process are opportunities to vet content and ensure its strategically focused on your audience and message points. But by spending time setting up a successful brainstorming session, you’re setting the right tone for thinking strategically about content.