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Bad ideas happen to all of us. And I’m convinced that poor ideation is one of the primary causes of content failure. So I gave a talk in April 2019 at Digital Olympus and MancSEO about why bad ideas happen, how to stop them getting through and becoming live content projects and, ultimately, how to have better ones. This is a summary of that talk.

The Deck from the Talk

Here’s the deck from the version of the talk given at MancSEO:

TL;DR Version

Short on time (or attention span – like me!)? Here’s the short version:

Bad ideas happen because of

  • Poor briefs
  • Bad brainstorming
  • Insufficient raw ideas to start with
  • A lack of constructive criticism within the team
  • A lack of external validation

You can fix it. Yay. 

  • Spend more time on your brief and include objectives, audience, examples and key limitations
  • Consider allowing more time ahead of traditional brainstorming sessions for people to mull over the brief
  • Consider allowing people to participate in brainstorming anonymously using online tools like getspeakup.com
  • Experiment with switching out brainstorming in favour of something like 635 brainwriting to enhance the volume of ideas
  • Check out the “worst ideas method” for injecting life back into dying brainstorms
  • When developing ideas, to bring an element of honest feedback in, measure them against specific criteria so nobody feels like they’re critiquing ideas based on what they like
  • Get yourself an external validation panel – whether it’s friends, acquaintances from other companies or publishers and journalists themselves
  • Embrace the light bulb moment – you cannot process drive ideation all the time

Bad Ideas Are Everywhere

From single use plastic bags to canned whole cooked chicken (yes, it’s really a thing), we live in a world full of pretty terrible ideas.

canned whole chicken

As an aside, I’m pretty confident that the worst idea of them all is Brexit, for the record. But I digress.

In the context of content marketing, there are a ton of reason that content might fail:

  • Poor production quality
  • Poorly planned promotion
  • Insufficient resource allocated to promotion
  • Bad timing for launch
  • …and a whole host more

But, in my experience, a fundamentally bad idea at the core of a content campaign is often to blame for failure.

Sometimes an idea is bad at the outset. Sometimes, it gets bad through concept development, but still somehow makes it through our filters and into production.

The most common reasons for bad ideas, I’ve found, are:

  • Poor briefs (or none at all)
  • Bad brainstorming
  • Insufficient raw ideas
  • A lack of constructive criticism
  • A lack of external validation

 So, here are my preferred techniques to overcoming those problems.

How to Write An Ideas Generation Brief

Over the past 12 months, I’ve worked on content marketing training with a number of agency and in house teams.  Well over half were not writing formal briefs ahead of ideation at all. Sometimes the “brief,” would be as simple as “we need some ideas for xx client.”

It’s not good enough.

A brief actually probably shouldn’t be that brief at all. I’m not suggesting you need 90 pages of jargon, nor should it take as long as putting the final project together will! But half an hour spent writing a comprehensive brief can be the difference between a great brainstorming session and one of those painful why-am-I-here type ones.

The brief should include 4 key things:

  • Objectives: what are you trying to achieve? For me, it’s most often link building centric. But this could be anything from achieving social shares, to driving organic traffic. Including information about the objectives of your content ensures those participating in your ideas generation are thinking about the end goal throughout.
  • Audience: Your audience is not the journalist or the influencer. The audience is the journalist’s audience – the end reader. Include information about who they are, their interests and other information you can clean from publication media kits or tools like Facebook Audience Insights.
  • Examples: Share examples of other content you think has done well and achieved similar goals to yours. Explain why you think it’s a good example and what could have been improved about it
  • Limitations: Approach with caution. You don’t really want to be starting out on this big creative process by telling people what cannot be achieved. It should feel near limitless in order to inspire creativity, I think. But equally, particularly when you need to make ideation slick and efficient, it’s important not to waste time. So, I think certain key limitations should be included. If, for example, there’s a PR team involved who don’t want you to approach certain publications or a compliance team that won’t permit you talk about certain topics, these are things your ideation team should know about. Similarly, if there are time restrictions or budget restrictions, these could have big implications on what’s feasible and could be pertinent to the ideation brief.

 

Alternatives to Brainstorming – How to Have More Ideas

Two of the biggest reasons I think bad ideas happen are bad brainstorming and simply not having enough ideas to choose from. I want to discuss both of those things here.

Bad brainstorming alienates introverts. Some of the most creative people I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years are people who, by their own admission, simply would not feel comfortable sharing ideas in a verbal brainstorming environment. 

It’s a pretty big ask, isn’t it? Asking someone to stand up in a room full of respected colleagues, their boss, even their client and to put their best ideas out there for critique. And in turn that begs the question:

How many great ideas do we miss because our most creative team members simply don’t feel comfortable in a brainstorming scenario?

 There are a few ways to tackle that and here are three of my favourites..

635 Brainwriting

 An old 1960s methods of problem solving devised by a German academic, 635 brainwriting in its most traditional form involves the following:

  • Participants receive a brief
  • They then receive a worksheet with 3 columns and 6 rows
  • In round 1, participants (working in silence) write 3 ideas on the top row
  • They pass their sheets to the person to the left of them and now everyone has a sheet with 3 pre existing ideas on it
  • In round 2, also 5 minutes long, participants put 3 more ideas down
  • This is repeated and the sheets passed around each round
  • You run 6 rounds so each participant has produced 3 ideas for each sheet

That gives you a total of 108 ideas in 30 minutes. 

The idea here is that the ideas available to you on each round from other participants help to expand your own thoughts, help to inspire new ideas and make the process of generating new concepts a little easier. And I’ve found it incredibly effective even adapting the method to smaller groups or remote teams.

Allow Anonymity

Let people submit ideas anonymously using a system like Speakup. This means moving away from more traditional brainstorming sessions of course. But I’ve found this to be incredibly effective in allowing those less confident in their ideas to share more comfortably. And if people want to claim ideas later in the process, that’s fine. But for the first step of generating those ideas, the option of anonymity can increase the quantity of ideas you get.

The Worst Ideas Method

This is something I read about in a “Idea Stormers,” a book by Bryan W Mattimore. Essentially, this technique is used by Mattimore to break creative block down. By asking his team to come up with the WORST ideas, he gets people talking again in otherwise lacklustre ideas sessions. 

He then brings it back around by asking people what would need to be done to make those ideas actually feasible or actually practical.

 

I used it slightly differently. I use it to inject energy back into a room or to build confidence in those less comfortable sharing. But I’ve personally found only limited opportunities to turn those ideas (the bad ones) into usable ones but I’ve found extraordinary benefit in using it to energise a brainstorming session and then essentially, once everyone is feeling energetic and comfortable, then bringing it back to, “Ok, let’s get serious.”

 

 

A Lack of Honest Feedback Lets Bad Ideas Through

In the context of content marketing,  we often have to sell ideas to people or critique those of others. And by “others,” I mean your boss, your respected colleagues or even your clients. 

Being honest about ideas is imperative. But telling someone who essentially pays your bills that you don’t like their idea is NOT easy.

That said, building a culture of honest and constructive criticism is vital to stopping bad ideas from getting through your processes.

I believe it’s important to put in measurable metrics against which to judge ideas. That way, whether or not ideas get through isn’t down to whether someone LIKES an idea, but instead is down to whether it passes certain tests. Personally, I like NUF testing for this.

Validate Constantly

“Can’t see the wood for the trees!”

That’s a syndrome I suffer with in content marketing. When you’re so bought into an idea, you stop seeing its faults.

Furthermore, when you have sold an idea to someone (like a boss or client) you’ve also convinced yourself even more of its worth and value, which makes it harder for you to ever spot the flaws.

Build yourself a team of external people who you can bounce ideas off and try to include publishers or journalists in this. 

Some of the best paid for consultancy I’ve ever had is from journalists (no, they won’t accept payment to publish your content – you can do better than that!!). But hiring freelance journalists to train people in press release writing, or to feedback on ideas, has been invaluable.

Embrace the Lightbulb Moment

My deck above talks a lot about techniques you can incorporate into a process for ideation. But I think it’s incredibly important not to try and process drive everything. Some of the best ideas I’ve had or have witness people I work with have happened outside the office, while walking the dog or driving the kids to school.

Embrace the lightbulb moment and make those externally devised ideas a part of your ideas development process.