By Ian Humphreys published April 30, 2013

How to Pull Your Content Creation Process out of Creative Hell

creative hell

Cover image ©2013 Spider Trainers. Used with permission.

I used to manage a large creative team, and on a regular basis we had to generate ideas for content marketing projects. Content marketing is driven by fantastic concepts, so if you work in this field you’re very likely to spend a lot of time doing the same.

Like most organizations, brainstorms were our primary means of creating content ideas. Generally we found what we were looking for, but occasionally we would come up against a brick wall and find ourselves completely unable to generate a great concept for a specific project. 

I like to call this situation “creative hell,” where the pressure to find a content idea collides with your ability to generate one. Whenever we reached this point, the creative juices stopped flowing, and each of us experienced various levels of exhaustion, frustration, and defeat.

Why creative hell exists

Creative hell exists for one very simple reason: We are all imperfect.

Your company may be full of creative people bursting with fun content creation ideas; yet sometimes, for whatever reason, inspiration will be elusive and you’ll find yourself struggling to think of new ideas. But when you’ve committed to content marketing, you know you will need to persevere until you break out of creative hell. Here are six steps that will help you do just that.

steps to escape creative hell

Step 1: Walk away

If you are currently in the middle of a marathon brainstorm that’s lasted two hours or more, do yourself a favor: Stand up and walk out of the room.

In my experience, the best content brainstorms last 30 to 45 minutes, and anything over an hour is unproductive. So give yourself some space, think about something aside from the task at hand and get away from the people you’ve been working with. Come back later with a fresh mind and some perspective, and try again.

Step 2: Lighten the mood

Brainstorming is meant to be fun, and you will get your best results when the room is full of positive energy and creativity. Provide a supportive environment and participants will lose their fear and inhibitions and will be more likely to share their ideas. And the more people are willing to contribute, the more productive your brainstorm session is likely to be.

However, even a positive environment can get tense when the pressure is on to create content; and if the creative juices just aren’t flowing, you may notice participants getting frustrated, quiet, and sullen. To keep the mood light, go ahead and change the tone in the room: Bring in a treat (for some reason I’ve found croissants always work), watch a silly video on YouTube together, or move the meeting outside if it’s a sunny day. A happy brainstorm is a productive brainstorm.

Step 3: Search for inspiration

The internet is full of content. Some of it is wonderful, some of it is horrible, and the vast majority falls somewhere in between. There’s absolutely no shame in using this body of work to your advantage, so try this simple exercise:

  • Find three pieces of great content that are in some way related to your content creation project.
  • Find three pieces of stupendously awful content that are similarly related to your project.
  • As a team, write down one factor that makes each awesome piece incredible, and one factor that makes each bad piece horrific.

You’ll be left with three factors that lead to great content, and three that make you want to cause physical damage to yourself. Now apply this to your own subject matter, and find ways to incorporate the things you love into one idea, while eschewing what you hate.

Step 4: Call for help

Even the most creative people need help from time to time, and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it. If you’ve tried everything and still can’t think of a good idea, it’s time to get more people involved. Go to your boss, another department, your significant other, your friends, your parents… anyone who will listen to you. Great ideas can come from unlikely sources, and there’s no telling what your network might come up with.

Beyond that, the act of explaining your creative problem to outsiders will help you gain perspective — an invaluable vantage point when you’ve gotten too close to a subject. Taking a step back and explaining what’s going on to someone else can help you find your way back to creative productivity.

Step 5: Examine your process

If your work involves consistently creating content ideas, then you need to develop a process to manage that task. It will help you achieve consistent results and ensure that brainstorm sessions are as efficient and productive as possible.

Your content creation process will likely vary according to the size and type of organization you work in, but at a minimum, it should include these basics:

  • Setting a goal: Determine the objectives of the project and communicate them to the group.
  • Analysis: Determine the type of content that is likely to achieve the project’s goals (this can include competitor analysis, audience analysis etc.).
  • Determining your media: Select the media (blog posts, infographics, etc.) for your content ideas, based on how practical it will be to produce them given the resources available (time, budget, etc.).
  • Brainstorming: Generate ideas with a group of at least three people for no more than an hour at a time.
  • Testing: Sample potential ideas with members of the audience, coworkers, friends, etc., and note their reactions to help you determine which ideas are more likely to receive a favorable response from your target audience.

If you aren’t getting the results you desire from your ideation process, it may be time to make some changes to one or more of these components. Let’s take the goal-setting stage as an example. The purpose of this stage is to ensure that every potential idea coming out of your brainstorm fulfills the project’s core objectives. If the ideas you are generating don’t pass this test, look to give goal setting greater emphasis when you re-start your brainstorm.

Examine every stage of your process in this way and see what changes you may need to help focus everyone’s thinking on the right content ideas — not just any content ideas. Don’t be afraid to switch things up — sometimes the tiniest procedural changes can improve the tone of your entire brainstorm.

Step 6: Persevere

At the end of the day there is no surefire way to break free from creative hell. The only respite is to find that perfect idea and no amount of croissants or procedural changes can magically procure it for you. The simple solution is to persevere — keep your patience and keep working until you find what you’re looking for.

On the bright side, inspiration is often just around the corner. In my experience the really great ideas take work, and sometimes you need to suffer a bit for them: There’s no better feeling than emerging from the depths of creative hell with a truly fantastic idea.

Want more ideas to help get your content creation juices flowing? Read CMI’s Content Marketing Playbook

Author: Ian Humphreys

Ian Humphreys is a regional director for Caliber, an organic marketing agency with offices in London, Dubai and Edinburgh; he heads up Caliber's Dubai office. Ian has developed award-winning content marketing campaigns for some of the world's biggest brands including Ticketmaster, Tesco and TUI. He writes about the concepts and processes that lie behind effective content marketing. Contact Ian at ian.humphreys@caliberi.com or on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Ian Humphreys

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