Ideas are the fuel of content marketing. The more you have, that better they get – and that means creating that mindset of creative play where the best brainstorming happens.
Here are a few ideation games and activities to get you going…
It’s always a good idea to break the ice with a warm-up activity or two. What works best depends on the dynamics of the group, how well people know each other, their familiarity with brainstorming and so on. Here are a few suggestions:
- Secrets: Everyone introduces themselves in turn, and in the process reveals a fact about themselves that no one else knows. (NB it doesn’t have to be particularly interesting, but it has to be unknown.)
- Other half: Get people into pairs, and ask them to have a quick chat together. Then when they go round to do introductions, each person introduces not themselves but their other half to the group.
- Unlikely props: Provide a few random objects, which attendees in pairs have to shout out uses for (like the Whose Line is it Anyway? game). Or you can ask people to come up with as many alternative uses for a paperclip (or some other common object) in 2 minutes.
- Yes and No game: Attendees introduce each other and chat about the session, with the facilitator keeping the conversation flowing, but are not allowed to say Yes or No. If you do you’re out, and can focus on catching others out. Play continues till the last one is left standing.
Develop a content mission statement
At the outset, it’s a very useful exercise to try and define what you stand for as a content brand. A simple way to do this is to brainstorm a content mission statement. You can do this at the level that suits the scope of your current activity, so your mission statement could crystallise your whole content marketing calendar, focus on a new (or existing!) content destination, or even just the output of a specific social channel or blog. (Obviously, where you have a higher-level statement already in place, you need to make sure your lower-level statement is aligned.)
Activity: Split into pairs or small groups. Brainstorm together a series of words or phrases that can fit the gaps in the following:
[insert business or brand description, and content destination if appropriate eg ‘As the blog for a leading sportswear brand…’]
…we aim to provide…
[insert key target audience(s) eg b2b decision-makers, parents of young children, people serious about sport etc]
[insert subject matter and themes eg ‘insightful and inspirational tips and ideas for improving their sporting performance’]
…with a view to…
[insert the desired outcome for you and your users eg ‘positioning our brand as a generous provider of expert information and so raising our profile at the purchase consideration phase’]
Once every group has come up with a suggestion for each gap, come back together, compare your responses, and agree together a draft statement.
Output: Once polished and approved, the statement gives you a simple framework that everyone has bought into, onto which to hang your ideas. It helps to focus further ideation activity, and also gives you some good initial criteria for filtering out ideas which might seem attractive but aren’t really on-brand.
Your statement is very top-level. Next come topics or themes, and after that come individual ideas. Cascading your ideation thinking in this way helps to give a better sense of the scope of your content, highlight missing gaps, and iron out inconsistencies.
For a building society, for example, a suitable topic might be ‘money-saving tips for families’; a specific idea under that topic, meanwhile, might be ‘How to save £15 a week on your family food shop’. But for now, we’re at the topic level…
Activity: The facilitator stands at the whiteboard, ready to build out the branches of your content tree in alignment with your mission statement. People shout out ideas for high-level themes and topics, and the facilitator slowly builds out the map, sense-checking suggestions with the group along the way. Here for instance is a topic map we brainstormed for the Sticky Content blog (mission statement: ‘Practical answers to marketer’s real-world content problems’):
Output: The topic map is a more detailed framework of your desired content creation universe. As well as providing even more focus and filter for brainstorming individual ideas, it can help you to look hard at your actual and/or desired output from a strategic or operational perspective.
The map will prompt questions such as:
Are we giving equal prominence and resources to our key topic areas? Is there an area that requires greater prominence given its importance to our target users? Do we have the expertise to cover off all these areas of the map at the necessary depth and frequency? Is the map too broad? Does it lack the sort of detail and depth that could create a point of content difference? Or is it too narrow? Does it risk becoming repetitive and one-dimensional because it doesn’t cover enough ground?
This activity works well in tandem with…
The In and Out game
Activity: To help test and define the limits of your topic map, the facilitator brings a pre-prepared list of topics and ideas which may or may not be suitable for you to be creating content about. Eg, for a sportswear brand:
‘Would we write about marathon training?’
‘What about triathletes? Not sure. Probably Out.’
‘Too technical. Unless it was practical tips from triathletes that amateur runners could use in more basic events.’
‘What about nutrition for marathon runners?’
‘Vitamin supplements? Maybe. So long as there’s a clear sports angle.’
‘What about healthy smoothie recipes for runners?’
‘Not what people expect from us. A bit of a stretch for us, getting into food…’
(And so on.)
Here the decisions you make about specific ideas are less important than the conversations you have about why certain topics or ideas are In or Out for you. As a group, you’ll find there’s often a tacit consensus about ideas that are right or wrong for your brand.
User personas (if you have them) are a great trigger for brainstorming ideas – and even if you don’t, there can be lots of brainstorming mileage in starting to think about them.
One of the most successful ideation sessions I ever facilitated involved getting a team of commercial estate agents – who had never heard of the concept before and were extremely suspicious of it – to draw up some customer/prospect personas.
But in a relationship-based world like theirs, it turned out they had a very good idea of who they were trying to reach, and together we drafted some initial character sketches in no time.
We then spent the next three hours asking, ‘How can we help and engage these people though our content?’ – and by the end of the session we had generated a whole wall of valuable Post-Its.
Here are a few ways you can use personas as a brainstorming tool:
- Persona role play. Nominate someone in your group to play one of your personas. They sit in a chair at the front, while the rest of you pepper them with questions about their needs and wants, pain points, likes and dislikes. Jot down or post up the ideas that arise as you go.
- Create an anti-persona. Sometimes knowing who you DON’T want to reach or what you DON’T want to be creating content about can help you define what you do want to stand for. Split into groups and devise a series of characters who stand in for the sort of people you can’t really help, would rather not deal with, or would never be a good match for your products and services. Add pictures or drawings – or even carry out interviews again – to really bring them to life. Again, jot down the useful thoughts and ideas that arise.
The verb game
Another useful exercise to get you thinking about the kind of content you want to create is to think of your users and brainstorm a list of verbs that crystallise the sort of effect you want to have on them.
Activity: Start with a long list of verbs like the ones below. Each participant gets to circle a maximum of five, and has five minutes to make their choices.
Our content aims to…
Inspire / Inform / Advise / Warn / Scare / Comfort / Influence / Teach / Encourage / Protect / Serve / Help / Alert / Wow /Reassure / Provoke / Train / Persuade / Educate / Excite / Organise / Surprise / Intrigue / Transform / Coach etc
Output: Compare answers, count votes and see what your whittled-down selection of verbs looks like. Then together as a group, you should be able to get your shortlist down to one or two. (There may be verbs not on the list that people want to suggest too.)
Your chosen verb(s) provides another trigger for ideation: if we decide we are all about inspiring people, for instance, what we do want to inspire them about? Who’s got an example of an inspirational idea? What other brands or publishers in our space (or parallel players) do we think are doing a good job of inspiring people, and how can we emulate them? etc.
In this activity, you split into pairs and come up with ideas for individual pieces of content that you have to pitch for possible inclusion in your output. Start by agreeing the boxes all your ideas have to tick as a minimum. Your criteria will probably look something like this:
- Fits with our content mission statement
- Good fit for at least one of our audiences
- Doable, resource-wise
- Good reason for talking about this now
- Not something our competitors have done/would do
Pairs come up and pitch their ideas to the group, who debate and vote on each suggestion in turn. The facilitator acts as editor-in-chief, interrogating the ideas and asking for views from the rest of the group.
Here again, the discussions around the ideas are often the most valuable part of the exercise – often the very best ideas arise in response to not-quite-right suggestions.
The format game
This game looks for ideas from a different way round – based on the format or content type they fall into.
Activity: The facilitator pulls out a list of content types (see below) and asks the group. If we did a , what would it be about? What would it look like?
Sample list of content types/formats:
Listicle / Self-help tutorial / Checklist / Top tips / Mythbuster / Glossary / Talking head video / Mini-movie / For and Against / First-person / Case study / How-To / Q&A / Rant / Infographic / How not to… / Podcast / meme / Animated gif (etc etc)
Eg: If we did a Rant, what would we rant about? If we made a mini-movie, what would it be about etc? As always, simply jot down any plausible ideas that emerge.
The Non-judgemental Post-It game
This is a great game when you just want to get ideas flowing – and you don’t want people to feel judged on their thoughts or worry too much about whether they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It’s great for showing people who don’t feel confident about their brainstorming abilities that we are all of us bursting with ideas.
Activity: Based on the conversations you’ve had so far (eg about mission statements, personas, topics etc), split the group into pairs and set a time limit of, say, 15 minutes. The idea is that each pair comes up with as many ideas as possible in that time, scribbles them on a Post-It and sticks them on a wall.
Make it clear that the idea here is just to jot down whatever comes into your head – there are no wrong ideas. To make it more fun, offer a prize for the pair that contributes the most ideas (identified by different colour Post-Its).
If you’ve already been working on personas, you can of course stick your Post-its on specific personas which you’ve already stuck on the wall.
Output: At the end of the 15 minutes, you’ll have a wall full of ideas. Now spend some time going through them, with a quick group vote on each – Keep or Kill. Only kill ones that the group vetoes unanimously – sometimes a half-baked idea can lead to a really good one later on. The ones you keep can then of course be thought about and refined later on.
Dan Brotzel is content director at Sticky Content, a Press Association company
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