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A process to put the right ideas at the heart of your content marketing campaigns

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 18 Aug, 2014
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Bringing ideas to life - developing the perfect process for content ideation

"Creative thinking inspires ideas. Ideas inspire change." Barbara Januszkiewicz

Ideas are the lifeblood of campaigns and the content strategy to support them. Creating brilliant ideas and developing them into unique and appealing content is what marketing campaigns have used to generate audiences for years, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. The value of the creative process is something we recognize and respect at Zazzle Media, which is why we spend hours – many, many hours – honing that process. In this post, we'll describe 12 process steps to consider as part of content ideation.

But contrary to popular belief, there’s a lot more to producing fantastic ideas than huddling together crossed-legged in a Zen-like state, shouting random ideas at each other during a wacky brainstorm session.  Adopting the structured approach this article suggests will help produce consistent results across the board, whatever business you work in.  Without a structured process your ideas will usually be limited to whoever managed to shout the loudest...

Albert Einstein had the right idea when he said: 'Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas'

Comparing the ideation process to pure Math may seem strange, but Einstein realized that just like the precise process of calculating numbers to reach a desired or ‘correct’ outcome, ideas must be disciplined in order to make any logical sense; as without order there would be no poetry.

  • The first step in the ideation process

The actual first step in the process really comes before the first step. Deciding how often you want, or need, to create new ideas comes before anything else, and will be different for every business. For example, here at Zazzle Media we’re generating new ideas for many different clients multiple times every month.

However, if you work in-house it really depends on how big your content ambitions are, and an understanding of your audience in terms of what they want and expect you to create.

Larger brands generally have multiple blog and social channels as well as ‘off page’ responsibilities around digital PR and will need to follow the process once or twice each month. Smaller companies with a single blog and only one or two social accounts may find that once every quarter is more than enough.

  • The Environment

Finding the right location is a small but essential part of the ideation process and critical to its success. Moving away from the area that is cognitively associated with ‘work’ opens our brain and encourages creativity.

As installation artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien states: ‘It’s very important for inspiration to go elsewhere, to move away from the city into pastoral settings, and to make space for meditation’.

Of course very few of us will be able to take regular jaunts to the country in order to ‘find ourselves’ but moving away from desks to an outdoor bench is an achievable alternative for most and will help the brain loosen up and find new inspiration.

  • The brainstorm

Creating a warm, collaborative environment where there is no such thing as a bad idea and where people are free to take risks is also necessary to ultimate ideation success.  Everyone is somewhat fragile and sensitive at their core, and fear quickly shuts down creativity and causes us to doubt our own abilities.  In fact one of humans biggest fears is the fear of failure in the eyes of others.

Organizational Anthropologist Judith E. Glaser further explains this theory in her fascinating post about 'Minimizing Fear and Maximising Trust'.

Fear is a common response to uncertainty; a familiar emotion felt during open brainstorming sessions. This causes the primitive brain to shut down and release the same hormones produced during physical or emotional stress, which then cause us to freeze and come across as defensive or unintelligent.

On the flip side, when we feel comfortable and safe we’re able to speak what’s on our minds, connect and allow ourselves to be strengthened through the act of conversations with others, rather than inhibited by them. We partner, collaborate and co-create for mutual success - the essence of a great brainstorm session.

Madison Avenue advertising executive Alex Osborn developed the concept of ‘brainstorming’ and there have been several iterations of his original idea since then, all of which are valued methods of applying lateral thinking to problem solving. As meeting collaborator it’s down to you to find the best approach for your people or problem.

Alternative methods to traditional group brainstorming include:

1. The Stepladder Technique

Developed by Steven Rogelberg, Janet Barnes-Farrell and Charles Lowe in 1992, the stepladder technique requires all members to contribute individually before being influenced by anyone else. It mitigates the risk of people hiding or being overpowered by more confident individuals.

  • Step 1 – Present the problem to the group prior to the scheduled meeting allowing plenty of time for them to ponder the task and form their own ideas.
  • Step 2 – Form a core group of two members and ask them to discuss their ideas.
  • Step 3 – Add a third group member and ask them to present their ideas before hearing the ideas that have already been discussed.  Ask them to then discuss all the ideas as a group.
  • Step 4 – Repeat the process by adding a fourth member, and so on.  Allow enough time for group discussion after each new member joins.
  • Step 5 – Reach a final decision only after all members have joined and discussed their ideas.
2. Brainwriting

Brainwriting is simple. Rather than asking meeting participants to shout out their ideas, you ask them to write down their ideas on paper instead.  After a few minutes ask each participant to pass their papers to another person and repeat the process with any new ideas the individual thinks of.

After 10-15 minutes the sheets are collected and placed around the rooms for immediate group discussion.

3. Crawford’s slip writing approach

Give the group anything from 5-50 slips of paper (depending on how many ideas you expect back) and ask the group for ideas on a specific topic. Ask them to write one idea per slip – you can give them as much or as little time as you like to do this, and you can ask for answers to more than one question during the session.

Ask for the slips of paper to be handed back to you and spend time after the session exploring and collating the responses.  The slips could be grouped into ‘themes’ or used for a further brainstorm session to help trigger further thoughts or ideas.

No matter which method of idea generation you chose to follow, variety of those ideas is the key to a great content strategy. It’s something the print world understands only too well; for decade’s magazine and newspaper publishers worked on improving their ‘flow’ to ensure readers keep coming back for more.

Our approach is that you split each brainstorm into a core eight-pillared process that could be applied to any business, task or problem. Read the animated version and it also links through to the various tools we use to make the process as effective as possible.

Within this article you will also find four additional ‘bonus’ pillars that are probably more suited to planning a digital content strategy. You’re welcome!

1. The Brief Overall Strategy

The brief is without a doubt THE most important part of the entire process.  It’s your baby, your mission statement, your bible – the point from which everything else evolves.

Obtaining a clear, shared understanding of the overall aim or strategy of the campaign will allow you to work backwards; exploring all possible roads to get you to your final destination in the most efficient way possible.  If you don’t know where you need to end up, how could you possibly know how to get there?

In essence, obtaining a brief detailing the aims and objectives of the task or problem sounds easy, right? Yet the number of times we speak to businesses without any understanding or knowledge of their digital aims has made this a critical part of the process.

A good brief is, well…brief.  It should be concise, to the point and leave as few ‘grey areas’ as possible.

2. Data/Personas

This ties into a deeper conversation around what key data we have, or can create, to improve existing audience ‘reach’. We can also leverage data from social to help inform audience understanding.

For example, by diving into social likes and shares we may discover that there is a high correlation between our target audience of 20-40 year old white collar workers interested in insurance, and those who also like F1 racing, for example. An example idea here might be to create a feature article discussing the cost of insuring high performance cars.

This is also where existing persona detail will be shared so we can ensure we are coming up with ideas fit for the different ‘types’ of audience being targeted: a 35-year-old married father of two working in a call centre will be intrigued by very different content than a 40-year-old entrepreneur when they are considering insurance services, for instance.

3. Long Tail Opportunity

The Long tail is an increasingly major opportunity, especially for those leading their digital marketing charge with content creation. Google's Hummingbird update was designed to better surface more precise answers to queries, and that should mean more traffic for those content-perfect long-tail phrases.

Creating content based squarely on existing search volume as opposed to simply guessing what people want and hoping it may attract visits, is a critical component of any strategy. If you build it, they might not come (unless you’ve done your research of course!)

The research for this can be carried out beforehand and given to participants prior to the meeting, but often we find it more useful to run tools such as Ubersuggest or Grepwords during the session to make it inclusive and interesting.

The idea is to prioritize those phrases either on search volume using tools such as SEM Rush or Google AdWords. Or 'fit' with the mix of the overall content plan.

4. Semantic Phrases

The marketing world is awash with talk of entity search and semantic association. For those who haven't the time or inclination to read awesome guides on this area by the likes of Aaron Bradley or Moz's Matthew Brown. In simple terms it is the concept of organizing information by understanding individual 'things' and their relationships with other 'things,' without there already being an explicit link between them.

Semantic search understands those relationships, and therefore (in theory) the implicit part of any query, and can thus deliver a richer list of results. Understanding what other phrases, or words, may be semantically linked can be useful in ensuring that can expand laterally into relevant content areas.

Google's own database of entities, Freebase, is also quite useful, and its search functionality will list other associated entries, giving you a simple map of subjects you could discuss while staying relevant.

5. Trending Content

If you’ve ever been asked to produce content that will ‘go viral’ then you’ll understand the importance of trending content. One of the easiest ways to capture large amounts of new visitor traffic is to jump on existing conversations around trending content themes.

Brainstorming this pillar doesn’t have to be a long drawn out meeting, It can pay to get everyone involved in the brainstorm to spend five minutes before the meeting researching news-related blogs, news sites, and social channels for ideas to expedite the process. Google Trends, Buzzsumo, Fresh Web Explorer, and other tools can be great to get the latest angles on relevant themes.

Trending content is obviously time-sensitive, so it is important that you brainstorm for this content on a regular basis. For instance, once a week, and the subject matter will be decided based upon the maximum possible impact. The idea is that you move the debate forward. Don't simply rewrite what has already been said. Look for exclusive, interesting angles to throw in the mix.

For instance, if I use Buzzsumo to look for the most shared car insurance articles, I soon discover there is some cool content being shared about driverless cars, and futuristic vehicles that can check whether you’re over the limit or not (!). Sort results by sentiment, and look for newsworthy opportunities that would be relevant to your client.

6. Evergreen Content

This is one of the most important content types of all: evergreen content. Quite simply, it's the content you will put the most effort into perfecting, that will attract the most traffic, and that will have the most longevity.

It is imperative that you really understand the core concerns, frustrations and gaps in knowledge your audience has so you can fill those gaps in great detail and build trust, association, and engagement with your brand.

Evergreen content articles are lengthy, detailed and in depth views of a particular matter, and unlike trending content will not be time sensitive. Whilst no-one can predict the future, creating content based on subjects that are unlikely to change massively will be the most effective.

How do you go about working out what kind of content you should be producing here? The answer lies in keyword analysis, competitor analysis and audience data insight once again.

Tools like Searchmetrics can help here; its long-tail opportunity tool can help you see what some of the most successful sites rank for alongside their traffic volumes and value. This makes finding the opportunities you don't have and ranking them in order of priority that much easier. Sort by either volume or opportunity, and you have a list of content creation to-dos right there!

Prepare a spreadsheet of keywords with search volumes for your target country. This will help validate any ideas that come out of the brainstorm, ensuring that what you think is a good idea for a lengthy evergreen piece actually matches real-world search demand. If you're putting in a heap of effort then this is crucial in ensuring positive ROI from the activity.

You should end up with a list of five to 20 ideas to go away and begin work on.

7. Content Types

By now you should have a long list of possible ideas, and you can start classifying them into ‘content type’ piles. To do this, create a spreadsheet with all the relevant content types for the brand along the top, and then drop in your ideas below. That way you can see which content types you need more of, and you can further brainstorm around that specific area, filling in the gaps.

Consider content types such as: E-Books, video, blogger competitions and ‘how to’ guides in addition to the usual blog posts or social conversations.

8. Purchase Funnel

Supporting your audience through the various stages of the purchase funnel is another important consideration and will help ensure conversion opportunities are maximized through your content strategy.

AIDA Funnel

For those who do not have the classic funnel engrained in their mind, the various stages are based on the AIDA principles first set out by marketer E. St Elmo Lewis.

AIDA stands for:

  • A - attention (or awareness): Attract the attention of the customer.
  • I - interest: Raise customer interest by focusing on and demonstrating advantages and benefits (instead of focusing on features, as in traditional advertising).
  • D - desire: Convince customers that they want and desire the product or service and that it will satisfy their needs.
  • A - action: Lead customers towards taking action and/or purchasing.

aida new model

What regularly happens with ideation is a team will end up with lots of content that sits at the top of that funnel, helping with brand discovery and awareness, but rarely moves past consideration stage.

It is critical, however, to brainstorm content ideas that help people through that buying process and also help turn them into evangelists and long-term clients/customers.  This is where in-depth, unbiased buying guides come in.

Customer retention can be improved by building a community with exclusive offers and competitions, member clubs, and so on.

9. Competitor Analysis

The old adage of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ has never been truer than when creating an effective and disruptive content strategy.  The idea is to gain a level of competitor understanding that enables you to emulate their successes and avoid their failures, thus keeping one step ahead.

Knowledge is power, and the Internet gives us greater insight into our competitor’s movements than ever before.  Want to know who they are targeting with their latest marketing campaign?  Track and compare their social engagement using tools such as Rival IQ, or check out their newest backlinks using Majestic SEO to find out.

Brainstorming around content your competitors have already successfully executed is a no-brainer.  Everything’s a remix after all; you just need to make sure you do it better!

10. Seasonal Opportunities 

Exploiting any seasonal opportunities will be an essential part of your final content plan, and brainstorming relevant ideas to help get the best from peak trading times could throw some interesting new thoughts into the brainstorming ring.

For example, if you work for a florist, the lead up to Mothers Day and Valentines Day are likely to be the biggest and best times for sales and new customer enquiries.  Producing timely, interesting content that puts your business in the forefront of people’s minds will pay in dividends.

Your client is likely to have a good idea of when they’re usually busiest (Google Analytics will confirm), but a quick Internet search for ‘national’ days within the client’s interest set, or any relevant events, could provide some new and interesting opportunities.

11. On/Off-page?

The content that appears on your (or your clients) website is likely to be very different to the content that gets distributed to the wider world, and it is therefore useful to have separate idea gathering sessions if you’re going to be responsible for the delivery of both.

On page content will be specifically tailored to your customer base. The tone of voice will be unique to your brand and the content within the site specifically designed to meet your customer’s needs. A deep understanding of the companies products or services is essential and brainstorming must be kept ‘on topic’ to ensure it makes the grade.

By contrast, off page content must have a much wider appeal in order to catch the most digital fish.  Brand reputation and trust must, of course, be a major consideration but the opportunities tend to be greater.

12. Distribution Channels

Throughout the course of content creation and execution you are likely to have built up some strong and mutually beneficial relationships across the digital landscape. It’s a simple equation; website owners and publishers need interesting and unique content, and you need respected and authoritative portals to publish the content your produce.

In an ideal world you’ll have a digital PR or outreach team that will consistently be building these relationships for you.  Here at Zazzle Media we are fortunate enough to have just that, and now have associations with huge numbers of fantastic publications, both on line and in traditional print.

Creating content you know a particular editor will love is a sure-fire winner and brainstorming around a list of topics they have expressed an interest in can save hours of everybody’s time.

The final stage of the process is to edit your final selection of ideas down into a realistic list of concepts that you CAN deliver with the time and resources you have available.

Get it right and you’ll have a smart content strategy filled with unique game-changing ideas that not only achieves all the original aims, but also grows and engages your audience across every digital channel.

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