By Brad Shorr published October 21, 2013

Make Your Content Marketing Processes More Creative: 5 Actionable Tips

lightbulbs-process of creativityIn my opinion, the most useless advice that often gets passed along by content marketing “experts” is this: “Create awesome content!!“As if using exaggerated adjectives and punctuation could help anyone figure out how to do this. 

In an effort to be just a little more helpful, I’d like to share five more-detailed tips you can follow to truly integrate creativity into your existing  content marketing processes:

1. Foster a culture of creativity in your organization

Any serious content marketer likely has lingering doubts that their attempts to be more creative just boil down to finding a fancier way to say things that have already been said a thousand times. While those doubts are usually unfounded, it may prove true for those of us who are prisoners of the “corporate comfort zone.”

Yoko Ono once said, “Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.” Can you imagine anything more antithetical to the term “corporate culture” than controversy? And yet, without a willingness to take risks, it is almost impossible to produce genuinely creative business content: When you try to please everyone, you wind up diluting creative ideas to the point where you’re publishing little more than the content equivalent of lukewarm bathwater — it serves the purpose, but no one is going to look forward to immersing themselves in it.

In terms of process, specifically, establishing a culture open to creativity may entail taking people out of the processes. To move from bath metaphors to kitchen metaphors, most of us realize too many editors spoil the creative broth. But it’s not just the editing process that suffers from over-involvement. If too many people are pitching ideas, the usual result is compromise, sometimes accompanied by argument and resentment — both of which, of course, do little to foster a supportive creative atmosphere.

To enable better creative productivity, here are a few ideas that have worked well for me in the past:

  • Get out of the office: Certain atmospheres — for example, a coffee house, a botanical garden, or even a park bench — can be particularly helpful for clearing your mental cobwebs and stirring creative energy.
  • Keep a notebook within reach at all times: Breakthrough ideas come at any time of day or night, and if you don’t write them down immediately, chances are good you’ll forget them by the time you need them.
  • Don’t expect to be creative on a set schedule: A good creative process enables the writing team to meet whenever and wherever inspiration strikes —not just when there’s a deadline looming.
  • Remember these words, from John Cleese: “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.” If you want to truly understand the creative content marketing process in a corporate environment, I urge you to watch this 38-minute video of John Cleese talking about creativity. It’s entertaining, enlightening — and provides a lifetime supply of light bulb jokes.

2. Don’t rely on the wrong teams

A common problem is assigning creative responsibility by default. This is perhaps natural because “creative content” has never been a major priority for many firms, so they have no processes in place to support it.

Sometimes, the SEO team ends up driving the creative process, since they’ve been the ones writing content in the past. The main problem here is that SEOs tend to have a technical perspective that could end up amounting to: “I don’t care what it says, as long as it has the right keywords.”

In other cases, it’s the PR team that drives creative, but that can be limiting as well in that SEO considerations may be overlooked entirely, and because PR experience doesn’t always include the multiple content formats (e.g., infographics, email marketing campaigns, etc.) that are at the disposal of the content marketer.

This of course leads us to wonder, what is the right creative team? My view: A creative team should have nothing to do with rank, department, or job responsibility. Creativity is all about chemistry, and it’s just as likely for a shipping clerk and an engineer to crank out creative ideas as two marketing professionals — provided they are the right two people.

3. Designate an idea person to lead your efforts

One solution for the challenges noted above is to formally designate an idea person — someone for whom creativity is the number one priority. It would be a high-level position, reporting to the director of marketing or content marketing, or perhaps even the CMO or business owner. The idea person would be responsible for developing (and filtering) creative concepts for content creation and distribution, focusing on such things as:

  • What topics are in demand among our target audiences?
  • Are there new ways we can approach old topics?
  • What great ideas can we adapt to our industry’s needs?
  • What terrible ideas should we avoid or discontinue?
  • How can we create interest and action without even mentioning (or barely mentioning) our products and services?
  • How can we expose more people — and new people — to our content?

The key here is to set up a structure that enables content marketers to drive content creation. And given the fact that effective creative teams can come from anywhere in the organization, the lead idea person should continually be looking for ways to mix employees together, so as to identify creative chemistries. This can be accomplished though after-hours social get-togethers or interdepartmental group meetings. When a promising creative team appears to be taking shape, those people can then start working together on specific assignments.

When an idea person meets with people from various areas of the business, good conversation starters include:

  • How would you describe this [product or service] to someone who knew nothing about it?
  • What’s wrong with our marketing? How would you improve it?
  • Why would somebody want to buy our [product or service]?
  • I’m struggling with this assignment. How would you approach it?

If the ensuing conversation is brimming with ideas, you may have the makings of a strong creative team.

4. Learn when to just say “no”

In the SEO and PR worlds, there’s always a push for more: More content, more links, more publicity, more everything. However, as Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, once said, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” For every 10 pieces of content on a particular topic, eight or nine probably merit the delete button — but an SEO or PR pro is apt to hit “publish” every time.

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to tell people you’re going to pass on publishing a piece of content. Ways to handle to handle the conversation gracefully include:

  • Remind people that, just as every new product idea doesn’t come to market, and every new streamlining idea isn’t acted on, every new content idea doesn’t see publication. If every idea became reality, chaos would reign; selectivity is a strength, not a rejection.
  • Stress the necessity of maintaining a strong brand: One content step forward should never result in two branding steps backward.
  • Point out that unpublished content may live to fight another day. Anything that’s been created stays on the radar, perhaps to be repurposed, reworked, or published as it is when the time is right.

A firm that emphasizes creativity not only praises its content marketing team for what it publishes, it will also praise the team for content it rejects. After all, if a team is taking creative risks, it’s going to make mistakes. An efficient content marketing team will minimize the damage by recognizing flawed projects early on, but, regardless of timing, it will not publish content that falls below standards simply to justify whatever expense has already gone into it.

5. Enable customers and prospects to take part in the creative process

Sometimes creative pressure can be eliminated simply by asking customers and prospects what kind of content they want and how they want it delivered. Some ways to weave them into the process include:

  • Initiating a customer roundtable discussion session that meets periodically to critique past content and brainstorm new topics.
  • Conducting one-on-one phone interviews with loyal customers to get their ideas
  • Insert links to surveys on various content pieces to elicit immediate feedback on the value they provide and how creatively they provide it.
  • Email surveys to the house list that ask for content suggestions and/or evaluations and opinions of previous content.
  • Ask your customers to share their preferred content formats — video, text, etc.
  • Mine customer inquiries and FAQs for additional topic ideas that directly speak to their informational needs and interests.

Wrap-up: What is creativity?

Advertising legend David Ogilvy famously once said, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” Truer words have never been spoken. In the business world, creativity must always serve a business purpose — be it lead generation, brand awareness, establishing credibility, or a combination of several key goals. Applying Ogilvy’s insight to the suggestions in this article:

  • In terms of company culture, emphasizing profitable creativity will make it easier to keep unnecessary cooks out of the creative kitchen. When personnel are confident of a profitable focus, they are more apt to loosen their grip.
  • Emphasizing profitable creativity will help transfer creative responsibility away from teams that have been handling it by default. SEOs and, to some extent, public relations practitioners don’t always see themselves as creative contributors. These team members may actually be happy to be relieved of creative responsibilities so that they can focus on what they are experts in.
  • Profitable creativity makes for a great marching order for the entire content marketing team.

Please feel free to add some of your own ideas for fostering more creative environments and processes in the comments below — we can never have too many ideas when it comes to driving creativity!

For more ideas on how to create an environment that enables content creativity, read Joe Pulizzi’s latest book, “Epic Content Marketing.”

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Brad Shorr

Brad Shorr is Director of B2B Marketing for Straight North, an internet marketing agency headquartered in Chicago. He is an experienced content strategist, respected blogger, and SEO copywriter. Connect with him on Twitter @bradshorr.

Other posts by Brad Shorr

  • Erik Alan Devaney

    Great post, Brad! I feel like a lot of folks in the content space can get conditioned into acting like “content machines.” The powers at be say, “Let there be content,” and then we mechanically crank it out.

    A higher-caliber of content definitely requires a more human and more creative approach. Love your tips, and am especially fond of the term “profitable creativity.”

    Cheers,
    -Erik

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Thanks, Erik. “Content machine” thinking has its roots in SEO – but today Google is pretty clear in saying that we must focus on human readers. A very healthy perspective all the way around.

  • Kaantent

    Definitely agree Brad, especially with the old view in SEO “I don’t care what it says, as long as the keywords are there”. We created a similar manifesto on content. http://www.kaantent.com – Definitely feel that creativity needs to be increased these days if content is going to mean anything, and have successs.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      I love the focus on quality!

      • Kaantent

        Love it! Thank you :)

  • http://www.it-sales-leads.com/ Barbara Mckinney

    Creative content can be a gateway to engagement,not simply as filler for brand presence.Great article Brad.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      A terrific point, Barbara. I hope readers are reading all of these great comments. This is a problem with “SEO copywriting” — it’s hard to isolate any sort of business writing within a single marketing discipline. If you do that, you leave so much of the value on the table.

  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    Just saying “No” is important Brad. More is not better necessarily. Quality is better. If you can churn out major league quality content persistently than you can put out more. If not, refrain, and improve the value in your offering.

    Great share, thanks!

    Ryan

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Absolutely, Ryan. It’s great when writers have the ability to recognize their own bad ideas … but one way or another, there has to be “quality control” on quality!

  • http://www.onfiremediaonline.com/ ‘TC’ Teresa Clark

    Hello Brad,

    This is a great, informative article! I definitely agree that we must enable customers to take part in the creative process. I keep my customers at the top of my mind when creating quality content.

    I interact with people without making them feel as if they are being sold. Anytime we think that we are being sold we visit what many call ‘the lizard brain.’ This makes people feel suspicious and responsible for watching for confrontation and danger. As an alternative we need to get people into the buying part of their brains. Whenever we are in buying mode we are more likely to ask, for instance, “Does this come in my size? ” and follow the salesperson eagerly. I refer to this part of my brain as ‘my purring cat.’

    Thanks again for sharing,

    TC

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Thanks, TC. Excellent point about cultivating the right customer attitude. A car salesman (i.e., confrontation and danger!) once told me how his dealership’s online presence was so helpful in kicking off communication with customers. In the past, customers would come into the dealership in full lizard mode and the initial buying experience was tense for the customer — and the sales rep. But later, email, chat, etc., served as an ice breaker. By the time a customer came in the door, he/she had already communicated with the sales rep, felt comfortable, and was purring like a cat … or an engine.

  • CAYENNERED

    Hi Brad,

    Fantastic article, especially the part about content writers becoming automised machines instead of focusing on human readability. A great overall look at how to really perfect content marketing with easy to follow, concise tips.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.erikaheald.com/ Erika Heald

    Great tips! I’d add that when you take that stroll outside of the office — bring a colleague with you! I’ve had some of my most productive marketing brainstorms while talking a walk around downtown San Francisco, talking to a colleague.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Yes, Erika! That is a great suggestion. So simple, so easy to overlook.

  • Chuck Kent

    Glad to see the topic of creativity brought up here, as I think it’s one of the great, and growing, weaknesses of content marketing as currently practiced. If this end of marketing wants to occupy more of a position in the center of the mix, we can actually learn a thing or two from the traditional ad agency world that Ogilvy represents, a world that, for all it’s self-absorbed and consumer-irrelevant excesses, places a high value on conceptual thinking.

    With that in mind, I suggest changing “one idea person” to “lead idea person,” (Creative Director?) someone who directs but also inspires, and expects everyone to be an idea generator, not just a content quota filler.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Hi Chuck, You’re right — lead idea person/creative director is a better way to think about it. There’s a nice fringe benefit, too. Companies that already have that position in place are gaining a huge advantage in SEO the way things have been evolving over the last few months.

  • Dave Rothacker

    Whew! If I was working at a company that was contemplating taking the leap into CM and had limited staff, after reading this Brad, I’d be out looking for an agency to help.

    This small little gem of a book is the perfect compliment to your message: A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young.

    I wonder if Hummingbird will help to neuter the over aggressive SEO guys?

    I still try to keep a pulse on my former industry and I am absolutely shocked by the direction companies are getting from agencies when it comes to CM. You can tell industry “gurus” are supplying content ideas and not prospects and clients. I suppose one wouldn’t really call it CM then, but direction IS coming from agencies that bill themselves as CM experts. I’m sad to say that Joe’s former company is one of them (though he certainly has nothing to do with it). That’s why I love # 3 & 5 here.

  • JimYoungPRBrigade

    Great piece Brad – we especially subscribe to the phone interview model. We actually record the call so that our writing team can use the transcript for source material too.