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Advice For Better Content Ideation


Chris Butler: Welcome to the Agency Marketing Matters podcast. I’m Chris Butler.

Lauren Siler: I’m Lauren Siler.

Julia Vanderput: I’m Julia Vanderput.

Chris Butler: This is episode 12 of the podcast in season two. A return from Julia Vanderput, two podcasts in a row.

Julia Vanderput: Yes.

Chris Butler: Welcome back.

Julia Vanderput: Here I am.

Chris Butler: As we normally like to do, I’d like to start out by talking about something we’re excited about so who’d like to go first?

Lauren Siler: I’ll go. I am really excited about the new quarterly content program that we have here at Newfangled. We’ve got this content program where we advise clients on a monthly basis. We build out their content strategy and then we consult with them monthly to help them understand how effective their messaging has been and also provide a bit of administration coordination to their content program to make sure they’re actually writing content regularly throughout the month. But we’ve also been finding that, especially our clients who go through a year of this, and some of the newer agencies we’re working with are a little bit more advanced, in that they don’t need quite as much help holding your feet to the flame and actually creating the content.

Julia and I have been working together to create a different model where we work with these clients on a quarterly basis. I’m really excited about it. I think it’s going to be really helpful for these types of clients who don’t need the administration coordination of a content program but who do need the trend analysis to understand how effective their messaging has been for their personas and who need help understanding how to iterate on the existing strategy for the upcoming quarter and then ultimately for the upcoming year. That’s in the works. It’s pretty well nailed down at this point and I think it’s going to be really helpful for our client rosters. I’m pretty excited about it.

Julia Vanderput: Same, yeah. I’m really excited to see how that works out for some of those teams. My exciting thing, my favorite thing, is coming out of that a little bit. My favorite thing is that we’re starting a bunch of new content programs and so I’m having a bunch of those first quarterly meetings with a lot of clients. That’s a really exciting part of my job because I’m coming in and I know the potential of the program and I know they’ll be very pleased with where they’ll end up. I’m just really excited about being part of the journey. It’s just starting out there and getting all that excitement, you know? People are just ready. They’ve been talking about all the different puzzle pieces of the content program and they’re just ready to go.

Lauren Siler: Yeah. It is nice, the initial enthusiasm at the beginning of a content plan, when you’ve got the first strategy in place is always really fun to work with.

Chris Butler: That’s really cool. I’m excited to hear how that all goes. I’m sure we’ll talk about it in future podcasts. Especially something you mentioned about the measurement, there’s the approach, and there’s all kinds of strategies around what you’re actually executing but then being thoughtful about how you measure success and how you change from there. That’s probably great conversation for a future podcast episode.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Chris Butler: My thing is, I mentioned in a previous podcast, a couple of friends of mine who have a consultancy in New York called “Sense Info Design.” One thing I didn’t mention about their website, they just launched a new website and I did mention that it was a great representation of the type of advice we give to our clients about how to structure a website around your positioning and how to really flow somebody through a better understanding of it deliberately. But one thing I really like is how they structure their services page. If you’re listening to this and want to check it out it’s is the specific page.

What they’re doing there is they’re breaking out what they do in a particular structure that I haven’t seen before. They break it out into early, middle and late stage challenges. They’re basically saying, “This is how we help our clients who are experiencing specific challenges at early stages of their company, middle and late.” Within that, they’re breaking it out topically by strategic issues that they experience, research issues and then actual design implementation issues.

It’s a really neat matrix for how to understand where they work and what they do and it’s really specific. It’s basically saying, “This is how we help in this particular instance.” I haven’t seen something that specifically broken out before. I thought it was a really interesting model that some of our clients who get into that kind of work might adopt.

Julia Vanderput: That’s really cool. And it looks great.

Chris Butler: It does. I have it open on the screen behind me and it’s pretty nicely done. Michael Babwahsingh, who’s a friend of mine and his wife, Sheila Pontis, Sheila is a deep academic in information design and Michael has been working in the field for a very long time, as well. He always produces really great-looking things as well. He’s a great artist, really. His drawings are … He puts a lot of that into his client work. The two of the together are kind of a powerhouse for information design.

Julia Vanderput: That’s cool.

Chris Butler: Anyway, what are we here to talk about, Julia? This is kind of your show since you’re back at the table.

Julia Vanderput: Today we’re talking about brainstorming techniques, specifically for developing content marketing topics. How to come up with the ideas to decide on what your blog posts are going to be about, your white papers, all of your content portfolio. It’s an interesting thing to talk about brainstorming techniques because I mentioned that excitement in the very first meeting. Typically, the room, the team has had a lot of conversations around what are their audiences that they want to reach with this content, what are their messaging points, what is their content portfolio looking like, what kinds of content are they going to put up there? Then they meet with me for their monthly content [inaudible 00:05:46] meeting and I’m asking them to start brainstorming on topics and that excitement, all of a sudden, you can hear the crickets. There’s a little cringing on the other end of that call.

I think it’s because their marketing people who are comfortable making those marketing decisions, like audiences and all those pieces I just talked about, when we’re actually asking them, “Okay, this is now the part where you write,” I think it’s different for them, that role to be a writer.

Chris Butler: It’s also a creative act. You’re asking them to have an idea and expose it, the raw idea and expose it in front of other people. I think for a lot of people who know what they’re doing and they’re used to doing it in a certain way, to suddenly have to completely think and operate differently, in front of others, so “Here’s a creative act that I’m asking you to do,” and expose it in front of others in its rawest form, that’s intimidating.

Julia Vanderput: Definitely, definitely. The good news is that we have brainstorming techniques that we can fall back on and make sure that that creative process is one that’s strategically focused but it’s still really cool and interesting and gets those creative juices going for those writers.

One of the things that we do, we do a couple of different brainstorming techniques here. I think the biggest one that I think is super interesting is breaking up the typical team dynamics because a lot of times the people we have in the room are people who maybe managers of other people in the room and there might be some hesitance in bringing up topic ideas in front of your supervisor. How do we break that up? How do we get the team feeling empowered to bring up topics?

One of the things that we do there is to make sure people are coming up with ideas even before the brainstorming session, which seems pretty straightforward but the idea there is that, when I come up to the brainstorming session, I’m not, or whoever the brainstorming lead is, they’re not asking to specifically for ideas. I’m not going, “Chris, what is your topic idea?” Or “Lauren, what is your topic idea?” I’m reading from a list and then asking whoever is the contributor of that idea to expand on that.

Lauren Siler: Right. So you’re saying that in advance of the meeting, everybody’s put a little bit of thought into what they find interesting or what they think might fit the strategic perimeters of the plan and they’re throwing it into a shared document, and so it’s just up for general group discussion rather than putting somebody on the spot and saying, “Okay, you, go, right now.”

Julia Vanderput: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of times it’s interesting. I’ve heard supervisors be surprised that some of the people they supervise came up with these ideas. It’s also a moment to shine for them and they feel good about that idea and they’re more likely to bring up more ideas in future brainstorming sessions.

Lauren Siler: Yeah. I think honestly at the heart of this issue is the stability of the content team, and putting a lot of thought into who you invite to be a part of your content marketing strategy. If you are the principal in this case and you’re making that decision, to really be bought into the varied perspectives inside of your firm and to create a safe space for people to feel comfortable brainstorming in your presence. Also, to create a space where people might want to disagree with your opinions, because we see that, as well. The healthiest ideation sessions that I’ve been a part of are the ones that really turn into respectful debate around a topic because somebody gets a seed of an idea going then there are many different perspectives at the table so it becomes a debate or we start to parse it out a little bit more specifically and build the argument.

Sometimes that can be a little bit intimidating if the team dynamic isn’t strong enough to sustain that kind of conversation but we see that all the time, even in our own ideation sessions here at Newfangled. Someone will throw out an idea and then we all bat it around as a group. By the time we decide what it is that we’re actually writing on, you kind of forget who’s initial idea it was. It doesn’t matter. It was something that was shaped by all the perspectives in the room. That made it a lot stronger.

Chris Butler: Yeah, that’s a huge point. There have been some pieces of content that we’ve written in the past that basically are urging our clients, our agency clients especially, to remember that most of your ideas, as novel as they might seem to you, as probably not. Really learning to not be precious about your ideas, you have let go of this concept that your ideas are that innovative and new. I think that allows you to more freely exchange everyone in your team on ideas.

One other thing too, something that you both mentioned, is that if you’re creating that dynamic in the meeting, Julia, of a democratic, all hands on deck, and sort of displacing the typical power structure of the team, that can’t be 100% in contrast to what they’re used to. If they’re coming from an organization that’s an autocracy, for example, that’s not going to work. That’s true of content marketing globally. If that’s how you run your company, then content marketing isn’t going to work for you because you’re not going to let anything pass your desk, you’re going to think it needs to be in your words, if you’re the leader of it. That’s entirely in contrast to what we’re advising our clients to do. It needs to be a distributed experience.

Lauren Siler: For it to be the most successful that we’ve seen.

Chris Butler: Right.

Lauren Siler: I guess you could try and pursue it that way. It would be a really lonely endeavor though.

Chris Butler: It would be too much work.

Julia Vanderput: Yeah, I think another way to get that empowerment going in a group, where they feel that they can share those ideas and also to collaborate, is to actually encourage or even congratulate, audibly congratulate people who are giving constructive feedback on some topics. People who are coming up and actually asking, “What is this really about because I don’t know? And if I don’t know, I don’t know that we can actually explain it to our audiences.”

Encouraging that deconstruction of topics could go really well, not just in making that topic be really strong, because you know exactly what it’s going to be around, but also to help people think critically of topics and really hone in on that empowering for collaboration.

Lauren Siler: Right.

Chris Butler: So you’ve mentioned that you ask everyone who is attending the meeting to bring their ideas with them, to have thought in advance as opposed to making the meeting itself a time for people to just think openly. What other exercises do you have them, other structures do you use to draw out the best stuff from the group?

Julia Vanderput: One of the things we do is building constraints. It’s called “The Word Shift” or “Timed Word Switch,” which is when we throw out ideas about words, say “digital.” Now we switch to, “Okay, what about the word you added in here is marketing, so what about digital marketing brings up topics?” What ideas come out of digital marketing? From there you can say, “Well, digital marketing, there’s content programs, there’s CRM,” there is all this other stuff we can talk about. It’s all about getting ideas that were thrown out separately and bring them together and seeing what kind of topics spin out of that.

Chris Butler: Have there been any surprises that you can remember where it’s like, “Wow, that thing would never have come up had we not employed that approach?”

Julia Vanderput: I can’t think off the top of my head but I know that there’s been moments where I brought up ideas that maybe they of months before, and then because it’s months before and maybe they’ve forgotten what that topic, original idea, was, just bring that up, those words themselves, helps them think of a new topic.

Chris Butler: Actually, you’ve done that for us and we’ve referenced this in past episodes but we meet on a monthly basis to plan out our editorial approach and then we come up with these quarterly themes, which has been huge, especially the theme structure, by the way, has been really good for our ideation because if we can agree on a theme, once we’ve ideated that, then that really helps us to think or look at the same problem set at a different angle. But one thing that you’ve done that’s really nice is you keep a record of all the ideas. Even if we don’t write that article, you’ve got it in your spreadsheet so you’ll be like, “Hey, this was thought about two months ago and no one ever wrote this. What do we think about it now?” … which is really useful.

Lauren Siler: It is. Cataloging that brainstorming and then revisiting it over time can definitely be helpful. One of the things that you said when you were introducing the idea of the word switch, it’s about constraints. You’re saying, “Okay, I’m throwing out this word and this word and this word. Now what ideas can you draw from those three words?” We’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but the idea of allowing constraints to actually breed more creativity. That can be done through the strategic parameters of the content strategy itself. We mentioned that we like to have quarterly themes that guide the direction of the ideation but we’re also looking at a month’s worth of content planning. We’re thinking, “Okay, we know we want to target this particular persona, this [bi-cycle 00:15:02] stage. We know we want it to be in this format. We know it’s relevant to this theme.”

As we start laying those different strategic parameters in place, you could think it’s boxing you in and actually making ideation more difficult, but what it does, in our experience, is actually focuses the ideation session and makes it more productive. I’ve seen that with our clients, as well.

Julia Vanderput: Yeah, absolutely. Creating constraints is always going to be a good idea for brainstorming sessions, not just in strategic parameters and also throwing out words and seeing where they go, but I mentioned “timed,” timing it, as well. I think this industry has a lot of quick thinkers, people who really think on… Their best ideas come from thinking quickly and thinking on their feet. It’s putting a time to it, like, “Okay, here’s two seconds. Go. What’s your thought?” Then moving it to another direction can be really helpful also to get those topics going, those creative juices going.

Another constraint is writer switch. Again, kind of a timed structure but you can say, “Okay, Lauren, what’s your topic idea,” and you throw out a topic idea. Then I go, “Okay, Chris, how would you interpret that topic? How would you write it? How do you envision it?” A lot of times what happens is the person who threw out that topic had one idea and then the new writer, the switched writer has this whole other approach and now you’re collaborating on a really interesting piece or several different pieces that came out of one topic idea, from one writer. If you hadn’t switched it to another writer and asked them what their perspective was or how they would approach that topic, that wouldn’t have happened.

Chris Butler: That’s actually a really great exercise because what you’re ending up doing is prompting the writer to whom you’ve switched. Typically, it would be like, “What’s your idea and what’s your pitch for that idea?” That’s a big burden to carry in an ideation session. Julia, you threw out an idea, and then it was my prompt, that gives me something to react to. I think reactivity is really important to ideation.

Something else I wanted to mention in regard to time that I think is really great, and getting a little bit specific about some things people can do with time, is whenever I’ve had someone talk to me about having writer’s block or having a hard time writing, I’ve always said, number one, give yourself a time constraint. I’ve found a lot of success with actually removing myself from my typical workspace, so leaving the office, bringing my laptop with me, with no AC adapter, specifically, because I want that to reinforce the time constraint. The battery is going to die at some point.

I’ve found success with going to a coffee shop, setting my phone time for 30 minutes and writing within that constraint. Turning off the Wi-Fi also, that’s important. Then the third thing is what I call “one-way writing.” I know we’ve talked about this before but especially within the creative set. People who are creative, whether it’s visually or with words, then to be simultaneous editors, so they’re ideating and editing at the same time. That’s utterly destructive to this process. What you want to advise someone to do is say, and this requires discipline, there’s no tool … Actually, someone did build a text editor that does this, but I find it really annoying but you can only-

Julia Vanderput: It won’t allow you?

Chris Butler: Yeah, it won’t allow you to go back, but what I advise people is whenever you have the instinct to hit backspace or delete, hit enter. You need to build that skill of writing in one direction only, with no distractions. A lot of people are like, “Oh, I wrote that thing but now I need to link to it and find out was actually said.” You just got to reject all that and know that what you’re ending up with is something that’s going to form you for later writing, but stage one is one direction, no editing, time constraints, no distractions. Right?

Lauren Siler: Yeah, I love that idea. What we’re really getting at here is again, coming back to what are the ways that you can focus your time and your effort and not allow outside distractions allow you to veer off course. Having different strategic parameters, I love the writing in one direction idea. I had forgotten … You do talk about that but I had forgotten about that.

Chris Butler: It always works.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, that’s a great one.

Julia Vanderput: Yeah, and I like also, you mentioned leaving the office or going somewhere else. That’s a good technique too, for brainstorming. With a content team, that might look like just meeting elsewhere, that’s not the typical conference room or the closest conference room. Maybe you’re meeting somewhere else, maybe you’re meeting-

Chris Butler: Like in Second Life or something? I get to be a panda.

Julia Vanderput: Sure, yeah. Maybe at the kitchen table. I know that the content strategy department does that for our own department evolution, like our own departmental brainstorming. It’s gone really, really well.

Lauren Siler: Yeah, the new environment can make all the different sometimes. It’s true.

Chris Butler: Something I wanted to throw out is we’ve been talking about constraints and strategies that you can sort of level out on a team basis, so everyone in the room is constrained in the same way, but another way of looking at this is actually more individualistic approach. Actually looking at the individuals on the team and thinking about what does that person specifically need or have to offer? Sort of like if you were their teacher and say, “What do they need to actually get this content?” Or, “How do they learn uniquely?”

One concept that we’ve written a bit about on the site and talked about is an engagement style, a natural engagement style. There are three particular engagement styles that I think are worth considering in the ideation scheme, which are talking, listening and visual thinking. The talking approach to the engagement style is that somebody actually comes upon their best ideas after outward processing. They need to talk through it and be wrong or misfire sometimes in order to get to the right thing. You just need to let people do that.

The listeners are the ones who actually get to the best idea through reacting to someone else’s talking, so in conversation. Actually, writer switch prompt would draw out that person quite well. The visual thinking one is one we haven’t talked about, which is that sometimes, and especially among our audience, people see pictures and images that represent ideas much more quickly than they are able to call out words to express them. Actually drawing upon that and saying, “Take five minutes to sketch something out. If you have an idea, what does that mean visually to you, if you had to illustrate it?” That exercise is saying if you had to illustrate this idea, what it would look like, then you can it and say, “Okay, now would the sentence be that describes that image?”

There’s actually a game around this that people play a lot. With alcohol, it’s especially good. You all start by writing one sentence, right? So the three of us would write a sentence on the top of the paper. You hand that sentence over to the left, you draw it and then you fold the sentence over, then all you have is the drawing and you have to write the sentence. You do that until it comes back to you. It’s sort of the game of telephone but it also reinforces this idea that people think differently when it comes to visuals versus words.

Julia Vanderput: Are you sure that’s an alcohol-related game? I feel like I played this as a child.

Chris Butler: I’m saying it’s better with alcohol. I’m saying it’s always-

Julia Vanderput: Just better.

Chris Butler: It’s a great game to play but I think it draws upon this notion of engagement styles and also getting people to react in the moment, which doesn’t give them the luxury of hindsight or second guessing their own ideas.

Lauren Siler: That’s an interesting approach because we talk about this with content development, as well. Thinking about how each writer is going to be best suited to create their content. Sometimes it’s not always the classic putting pen to paper, so thinking about what is that individual’s strength when it comes to content development and how do we best empower to get the thinking out of their head. What’s the content format that’s going to be best for them?

It’s interesting to take that same concept and apply it to the ideation process so that they can be working with their strengths in that context, as well.

Julia Vanderput: Yeah. That’s what it comes down to, with the writers’ switch. It’s all about taking your spin on it. Another thing that you can potentially do as a technique, and this is more brainstorming how to write your post, as opposed to brainstorming for topics in a team setting because we mentioned some individual techniques, right? It’s all about what we just talked about, taking a concept that maybe someone else pitched or you’re assigned to and making it your own. That’s looking at old content, like really old, talk about email five years ago, reading through that content seeing is there something fresh and new, I hope you do, since email has changed quite a bit, but is there something fresh and new that I can add to this. Can I take this idea that we have, this service that we saw and then apply my perspective to it?

It’s also helpful just to develop thought leaders, right? When you’re taking ideas and making it your own and making it your approach and seeing if you have a fresh perspective on it, you’re also developing your personality as a thought leader.

Chris Butler: This is an awesome topic because I’m noticing that we could probably spend another hour just shooting out ideas about how get better ideas. I’m actually thinking, and this is just for our own benefit, I feel like what we should do is have a blog series where each person on the team writes a blog post that just suggests one thing, one exercise or one strategy. It can be a tied-together series but each of us suggest one. That would take very little time but as a group, that would be very cool. I think we could get it done quickly so maybe we should talk about that after this.

Lauren Siler: That would be awesome.

Chris Butler: Yeah, this is such an interesting thing because it really does fuel the lifeblood of everything that we say content marketing is about. It’s such a challenge but I think it’s overall based on a core hope that we have and trust. The people we’re working with do have something to say. You said earlier that a lot of people don’t really believe in their own expertise. These tools are purely a way to draw it out and to illuminate that they actually do know more than they think they know.

One other thing I was going to mention, because you also said email, was, and I find myself doing this all the time, where a client will ask me a question and I realize I’ve answered this question five times before. I, for whatever reason, think that I don’t have the energy to reword it so I’ll search my own email and find how I explained it before. Every time I do that, I’m like, “You know, that’s an article, that’s two articles. Why am I not going into my own email as a way to generate topic ideas.”

Lauren Siler: It’s so true, we all have that deep repository when you’re in this kind of business.

Chris Butler: Exactly.

Julia Vanderput: That’s a thing we talk a lot, quite a bit, during our monthly meetings for content programs because a lot of the writers that are in the room are people who speak to their target audiences on a daily basis. One idea I throw out there when we’re talking about brainstorming for topics is what kind of question do you get? What questions have they been asking you lately? A lot of times, when people come to these meeting and they’re not quite ready to brainstorm or it’s taking them a minute to get to topics, that’s a question I throw out. Okay, so we’re talking to the marketing manager, “So and so, you talk to the marketing manager every day. What have you heard from the marketing manager lately?” Then they give me five to ten questions. Those are excellent topics.

Chris Butler: Yeah, that’s really great stuff. We need to wrap up but you mentioned deep repository. We’ve got a deep repository of content around all these things. What we like to do is end these programs with sharing some things for people to look at next. Who would like to go first?

Julia Vanderput: I’ll go. This topic is also a blog post. It’s called “Brainstorming Techniques for Content Topic Ideation.” Very conceptual. You’re not going to find it on our site. No, it’s brainstorming techniques for content topic ideation, it’s outlining a lot of the techniques we talked about today, a little bit more even. Yeah, it’s a good read if you want to use some of these techniques in your next brainstorming session.

Lauren Siler: Cool, great. One of the tactics that we threw out at the beginning of this podcast was talking about the makeup of your team and making sure that you have healthy dynamics inside of your content marketing team so that the ideation process is this safe space. To dig a little deeper on that concept is making sure that you’re bringing your editor in very early in the process so that when your editor is doing their job by reviewing the content later on, they were there for the ideation process and they were a part of the evolution of the topic so that the writer and the editor are aligned, is a really important thing. Not just for the ideation process, but for the entire content development process.

We’ve got an article on the site. It’s called “Establishing a Healthy Writer/Editor Dynamic,” which talks all about strategies and tactics for making sure that that relationship between those two individuals on the content team is strong.

Chris Butler: Awesome. I mentioned the engagement-style thing a few minutes ago. We’ve got three articles from way back in, what was it, 2011, called “Finding Your Engagement Style.” There’s one on talking, there’s one on listening and one on visual thinking. They’re really short. They’re just really about what does that mean and how do you use it so check those out.

Thanks again for being here, Julia. I think we’d love to have you back many times.

Julia Vanderput: That would be so cool.

Chris Butler: This is very great conversation. I hope you all enjoyed it. You can find more of these things at, of course. You can also find us on iTunes or Pocket Casts or wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to rate us and spread the word. We hope to see you next time.

Lauren Siler: All right. Thanks for listening.

Julia Vanderput: Thanks, everyone.