“You can’t outsource your creativity.”
This theme spread like wildfire throughout Content Marketing World last September. While it’s somewhat obvious that marketers should be tapping into their team’s own ability to find creative solutions to content challenges, that doesn’t make it easy.
For example, what if you don’t consider yourself to be a naturally creative person? Or what if you find the process of brainstorming to be frustrating and fruitless? Or maybe you have already built a reputation as a genius content creator, but find it tough from time to time to consistently keep the pump primed with cutting-edge ideas.
Some wise (though perhaps overstated) advice is to start with a change of scenery: Get away from your desk. Try taking a walk or doing some exercises to clear your head and get the blood flowing. These quick energy boosters can help, but sometimes it takes a different approach to get your inner creativity to pour out onto the pages of your content. Here are some strategies.
1. Become a student of visual design
You don’t need to be a design expert to be considered creative, but it never hurts to pay greater attention to visual content examples. For example, during a recent #CMWorld Twitter chat, Doug Kessler suggested writers who aren’t visual thinkers should, “…be a student of visual content. See how the idea is transmitted and what role words play.”
Doug isn’t referring to a formal education; he’s simply suggesting that writers find examples of visual content they love — and figure out why they love it. Then, use that information as a starting point for new ideas.
Doug is a big fan of using online portfolios on Behance as a way to inspire new ideas. And CMI’s creative director, Joe Kalinowski, says he gets inspiration from illustration boards like Illustration-cf on Tumblr, as well as Pinterest boards like Vintage Typography, Marketing Infographics, and the work of (art director) Oen Hammonds.
Of course, you can also browse sites like Instagram, Flickr, and Picasa for photos as well.
Tip: Looking for new people to follow on Flickr? We’re fans of photographer Thomas Hawk.
2. Create a bank of visual examples
Tying into the previous suggestion, share your favorite examples with your designer along with details about why you like something at the beginning of a project. This is a good way to get on the same page and get the ideas flowing.
Other designers recommend surrounding yourself with visuals when writing and designing. Clare McDermott, Editor-in-Chief of Chief Content Officer adds a twist to this: “While I’m at the early stages of writing, I may browse imagery to get ideas of how the written word will marry well with a visual story.”
Tip: Compile a collection of examples you love, so you can easily access them when you are looking for creative direction to get you started on a content creation project. Start a private image board on Pinterest, and grant your team members access so that they can all add their ideas.
3. Think about design sooner, rather than later
This may be obvious, but words and text need to work together for your content marketing efforts to be successful. So it’s best when tackling something like an eBook or a graphic to bring your designer on board from the outset of the project. If you plan to just “throw words over the wall,” at the last minute, your end products will likely turn out to be mediocre, at best.
Tip: Start off by working with your designer to determine a general format, and then try tossing some ideas back and forth to see which ones might work from both your perspectives. The team effort often leads to stronger designs and visuals that work more coherently with your content than when the two elements are developed separately.
4. Realize there are different types of creativity
When you think of creativity, design and visuals are likely the first elements that come to mind. There’s no question that these are creative endeavors, but creativity can take on other forms, such as:
- The ability to tell a (truly interesting) story through the written word
- The ability to “connect the dots” to help people see how all of these ideas work together.
- The ability to rethink a process to improve efficiency or help people have more fun (something that Brad Shorr discussed in his post on ways to make content processes more creative).
Tip: Stop thinking of yourself (or any of your team members) as a person who is not creative; instead, spend that energy finding where your creativity lies, and then look for a way to use that in your content creation efforts.
5. Exercise your creative muscles
Though you may have found great success with a set process or particular format for your content creation efforts, once in a while it’s important to challenge yourself and your team to try something different.
For instance, during Content Marketing World Sydney, Cisco’s Tim Washer suggested that attendees go out and take pictures of anything they see and then come back and write funny captions to go along with the photos. It’s a fun, simple exercise that may help you to view and think about your surroundings a bit differently.
As another suggestion, Doug Kessler shared what he called a “weird idea” on Twitter: “Pick an image at random and force your story to include it.”
Other ideas from our blog editor, Jodi Harris, include the following:
- Start a conversation with someone in the office you rarely talk to, or with someone you meet on your commute to work and write down something you learned about them.
- Have your team do word association exercises.
- Ask your team to share their favorite meme of the moment.
Tip: Do something outside of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to travel “down a rabbit hole” once in a while and see where it leads you. The more open you are to exploring creative potential, the more prepared you’ll be to channel the creativity you find along the way.
6. Foster the pursuit of passions unrelated to marketing
What’s one way to be a better marketer and writer? Stop thinking about marketing and writing. Some of the most interesting and creative people I’ve met in this field have been those who have taken the time to pursue their personal passions and can talk about them with an infectious enthusiasm.
Tip: Even your everyday interactions can likely give you some aha! moments if you’re open to them. For example, even potty training my 2-year-old this weekend taught me a few lessons about the value of patience, consistency and creativity that I can apply to my content creation efforts.
7. Rearrange your brainstorming processes
It’s no surprise that creative juices often flow more readily during dedicated brainstorming sessions. But inspiration can also come from spontaneity — something you can’t take advantage of if you always hold your brainstorms with the same people, at the same time, in the same location, using the same methods, etc.
Try shaking up your usual brainstorming processes to see what new perspectives and ideas the changes might bring. For example, consider these ideas:
- Brainstorm super-early in the morning (via @dougkessler)
- Conduct multiple, shorter brainstorming sessions (e.g., in 15-30 minute intervals) at random times throughout the day, rather than one long session on a regular schedule (e.g., every Tuesday from 2 to 3 p.m.). In between, your brain works on the problem when you don’t realize it (via @mikemyers614)
- Set a time limit of 60 to 90 minutes and create micro teams. At the end, have everyone discuss the new ideas born from the teams (via @eddieyoon)
- Use a facilitator who does not contribute ideas, but simply records the results and keeps the team from getting sidetracked (via @dougkessler)
As an alternative to brainstorming, you can also try Dr. Tony McCaffery’s “Brainswarming” technique.
Tip: Unless you always have insanely productive brainstorming sessions, try something different next time your team convenes. (And let us know what works for you.)
8. Experience art
A number of people I’ve spoken with on the subject of creativity have suggested visiting a local art museum for inspiration. Clare McDermott feels it’s “tremendously helpful to simply experience art… It’s not as if I’m getting something specific out of it, but I feel it keeps my brain pliable.”
Tip: If you don’t have the time to take an art-focused field trip, or you don’t live near any museums, Clare recommends checking out Hi-Fructose magazine’s Facebook feed or Intel’s Creators Project to learn about new artists.
9. Start with a blank canvas (or white board)
Sometimes the best ideas come when you simply start sketching the basic outline of an idea. During the recent Twitter chat I mentioned earlier, several participants suggested bringing out the markers and hitting the white board.
In lieu of a white board, I’ve recently taken to taping butcher block paper to the wall and writing out my thoughts using my kids’ magic markers. It sounds a bit silly, but it felt very liberating to just be able to write wherever I wanted; and by saving the sheets of paper, I now have a large visual record of my thoughts that I can refer to when needed.
Tip: Don’t have room in the office for a large white board? I learned from Ryan Montano (@RyMontano) that you can buy white board paint and make any surface into a reusable brainstorming tool.
10. Sleep on it
A fresh, rested mind is more agile — and better equipped to take on a creative challenge – and now I know why. A short time ago, I caught a fascinating interview with neuroscientist Dr. Penelope Lewis (on NPR’s Fresh Air) about the science behind sleep. In it, host Terry Gross explained that she often conducts research for interviews the day before, but doesn’t write out her questions until the next morning because she feels a good night’s sleep helps her “synthesize” information. Dr. Lewis confirmed that there is indeed a scientific basis for this assumption — which I took to be as good an argument as any that sleep is definitely not something that’s overrated.
Tip: Though we often rush to produce creative solutions in quick bursts of immediate output, sometimes it’s best to let ideas “simmer.”. By easing some of the pressure to perform, we give our minds time to process all the information we take in, draw more logical, relevant conclusions, and deliver solutions that have a greater potential of leading to success than those ideas that we just rush to deliver on demand.
Perhaps the best advice I have to share on the subject of content creation and creativity comes from Robert Rose, who told attendees at CMW Sydney to, “Shut off your email and phone, and create content that actually means something.”
With that, I turn it over to you. What other ideas do you have for unleashing your creativity?
Looking to take your content marketing to the next level? Download our e-book to get ideas from dozens of creative masters: Get Inspired: 75 (More) Content Marketing Examples.
Cover image via Bigstock