By Ann Gynn published April 9, 2020 Est Read Time: 13 min

25 Tools and Ideas for Brainstorming in a Remote World

Self-isolation doesn’t sound like the optimal environment for collaborative brainstorming. Yet, that’s where many content marketers find themselves today.

Can you harness that collaborative mentality to create content ideas, strategies, and more at a distance?

You can pull off collaborative brainstorming for #content ideas and strategies – even in a remote work world, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

“Many of us are used to meeting in person to brainstorm – even if it’s just a chance encounter at the watercooler. Video calls can be just as effective. By meeting face-to-face over a (video) call, participants will be more engaged and can benefit from one another’s enthusiasm,” says Diane Domeyer, executive director of The Creative Group.

Diane was one of over 100 who responded to our call for processes, tips, and tools to help content marketers brainstorm remotely. Here are 25 of the most unique, helpful, and intriguing.

Processes for virtual brainstorming

Start with a brief

“A lot is being done on the fly right now, and we are in a constant mode of adapting. But to make a brainstorm as effective as possible, prep the participants ahead of time – ideally, at least a day ahead of time,” says Denise Blasevick, CEO of The S3 Agency.

“Providing a brainstorm brief in advance allows people to digest the information, do research, and come armed with questions along with any potential thought starters that can start the brainstorm out with a burst of energy.”

Provide a brief a day ahead of remote brainstorming sessions to help people start with a burst of energy, says @AdvertGirl via @CMIContent Click To Tweet

Ask 4 questions

“One way to improve remote brainstorming is by increasing the sharing of information. Aligning your team is very important. The problem is when the brainstorming session does none of that,” says James Marques, marketing advisor and founder, Iconic Genius.

He has found that answering these four questions has helped tremendously:

  • Does it need to be a meeting or a brainstorming session? Know the difference.
  • Will we need to have recurring sessions?
  • Is progress dependent on others?
  • Do we have an agenda?

Wear different hats

Rameez Ghayas Usmani, digital marketing executive at PureVPN, uses multiple techniques, but I think his six-hat technique is the most interesting.

Have each person wear a different color hat or have everyone wear the same color to focus on one aspect. Here’s how he breaks it down:

  • Black– brainstorming content ideas with criticism and caution
  • White – thinking of content ideas purely based on evidence and numbers
  • Yellow – positive pragmatic thinking
  • Red – imagining ideas out of feelings and emotions
  • Green – creative, unusual, and original thinking
  • Blue (needed in both scenarios) – moderator

Create a sense of competition

Ollie Smith, founder and editor of EnergySeek and ExpertSure and CEO of the newly formed Card Accounts, uses virtual brainstorming to encourage employees. He pins each employee’s name next to their respective ideas on a virtual whiteboard and circles winning ideas with different color markers.

“This a great way of not just motivating everyone to contribute their ideas but also to take responsibility for the project. It also pushes team members to continue to suggest even better ideas going forward,” Ollie says.

Work separately together

Grace Judson, a leadership consultant, offers a couple of options that involve solo work.

She labels the first approach as individual work. “Everyone takes 15 to 30 minutes to write out, as fast as possible, their ideas. At the end of the allotted time, the results are forwarded to the facilitator who posts them for evaluation and discussion.”

The second option is individual teamwork (she admits it sounds like an impossibility) that follows a great technique called six-three-five brainwriting. “It works with a team of six (you can go as few as four or as high as seven; too few, and you don’t generate enough ideas; too many, and the ideas get overwhelming),” Grace says.

Here’s how it works:

  • The first person takes up to five minutes to write three ideas in a designated Google Doc.
  • The second person opens the shared document and writes their three ideas in five minutes.
  • The process continues until all six people have shared three ideas in five minutes.
  • The facilitator collates the ideas for discussion.

“In this way, each person adds their ideas to every document – either piggybacking off what someone else has written or adding their own new ideas,” Grace says.

Don’t do it all on video chat

You can start with a video call, but that’s only one part of a brainstorming session, says Sam Carr, marketing manager at PPC Protect.

Discuss ideas by video, listing them in your project management software or other tool. After the call, have each member comment on each idea and assess it as good or not.

“This feedback lets you raise any critical points or provide extra details for a certain idea without having to bore everyone in the video call,” Sam says.

Then the project manager or team leader selects the ideas with the most potential to produce.

Simplify the process

The Growth Engine Co. went entirely online for a recent ideation project with a client. What would have been a two-day, in-person session turned into more pre-work, three real-time two-hour online sessions, and three asynchronous virtual ideation sessions (i.e., group members could work at different times).

Bryan Mattimore, agency co-founder, says they’ve learned to use as few virtual programs/tools as possible. Getting through global company firewalls and trying to learn unfriendly programs took too much time and hassle.

“We spend a great deal of time creating very simple instructions for the different ideation techniques we use for virtual ideation sessions (semantic intuition, customer wishing, questioning assumptions, worst idea, etc.) … (E)xercises can be delivered seamlessly via email or Slack,” he says.

Use an improv approach

At Beyond Influence, the team gathers with their iPads on a Zoom call to sketch and show their ideas, says CEO John Ramstead.

But to spark the creative sketching, they take an improv approach.

“We use the improv mindset of ‘yes and …’ to keep building on each other’s ideas. This allows us to come up with ideas that are out of the box. At the end of the session we use the virtual whiteboard to categorize ideas, decide on the best ones, create action steps, and then use monday.com for accountability and tracking,” John explains.

Tips for better brainstorming

Mind your manners

“New ideas are fragile and can be shattered by a hostile or distracted look,” says Sam Harrison, author of the book Creative Zing!. “Remind participants that they are being seen by each other, so they should watch body language and facial expressions as ideas are being shared.

“It’s hard to be enthusiastic about sharing an idea while others are yawning, filing nails, or flipping through magazines.”

New ideas are fragile, says @zingzone, so keep body language and facial expressions in mind when brainstorming #contentmarketing ideas. Via @CMIContent Click To Tweet

Work in bursts

Barak Kassar, co-founder and partner at BKW Partners, says he sees waves of great ideas generated and improved on via online chat or texting. “People shoot ideas, tag, and build off each other, share images, clips, links in real time. But then breaks happen and more ideas come in. That’s due to time-zone differences and people taking time to think and develop ideas on their own,” Barak says.

Become more visual

At SocialPilot, remote brainstorming has become a more visual activity. Jagruti Bhargav, marketing and communication specialist at the company, explains: “Rather than making spreadsheets of ideas or having a two-hour meeting, we all add our ideas in the storyboard and then come together as a team once a week.”

Use the mute button

While video conferencing is a great option, it only works if all participants don’t talk over each other and all are given a chance to speak, says Adam Lumb, EN site manager at Cashcow.

Each brainstorming chat should include a host who can mute participants to let others have their say. “This will help to create an orderly and constructive remote session,” Adam says.

Don’t put people on the spot

Mark Webster, co-founder of Authority Hacker, says brainstorming allows a free exchange of ideas, not a mandated exchange of ideas. Requiring each person to contribute on the spot is “a quick way to instantly wipe all creativity and cause people to freeze up. In a face-to-face brainstorming situation, participants are never expected to come up with ideas off the top of their heads. Online should be no different.”

Instead, Mark recommends, allow participants to go away for an hour or so and have the chance to add their ideas to your tracking tool.

Tools for online brainstorming

Now that you’ve gotten processes and tips for making remote brainstorming better, it’s time to explore the tools to help make it possible. Given the ubiquitous presence of Zoom (heck, it’s become a verb to many), I don’t go into detail about its primary service.

Google Docs

Sadi Khan, content marketing manager at RunRepeat.com, says they find good old Google Docs works best when brainstorming content ideas.

“It’s the easiest way to share your ideas, suggest changes, and let other team members rate and comment on these ideas. The comments and threaded chat keep the document clean and everything is automatically saved on the cloud,” Sadi says. “Once an idea is approved the document link can be shared with everybody working on the idea (writer, data analyst or designer) to give them an idea of the goals, concerns, and challenges associated with that idea.”

Google Hangouts

Megan Marrs, founder of K9 of Mine, uses Google Hangouts, which doesn’t require users to download any special tools or create new accounts (as long as you have a Google account).

Meg Marrs of @K9ofMine likes @Google Hangouts for brainstorming #content ideas because users don’t need to download special tools via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

“You can get a good group of folks on for one call and pitch ideas on the fly. It will automatically focus on whoever is speaking and enlarge their face so everyone can see them and will switch to whoever talks next,” she says.

The chatbox also works as a great repository for notes and idea summaries at the end of the session. Its screen-share feature allows team members to share articles or visual concepts, Megan says.

Ideaboardz

Aleksi Halsas, chief marketing officer and product owner, Trustmary, says they have been using the “old-school tool” called IdeaBoardz for brainstorming. Here’s what they do:

  • Everyone writes down ideas for x-minutes.
  • They combine similar ideas.
  • Then they vote and choose the top one to five ideas.
  • They create a new idea board and brainstorm each specific idea in it.
  • Then they combine similar ideas and vote again.
  • Finally, they discuss the best ideas that came up.

Lucidchart

Chanty CMO Jane Kovalkova says Lucidchart is the only tool they use. “It’s great for drawing up different plans, sketches, diagrams, and much more. It’s like a virtual drawing board where we can throw our ideas. There are different design elements such as arrows, bubbles, links, layers and much more.”

Miro

Miro is a favorite tool for several people.

Michael Chammas, CEO and founder of Makro Agency, says his team conducts all their remote brainstorming with the versatile virtual whiteboard: “It comes with a lot of pre-built templates as well as great features such as sticky notes. You can easily import images, PDF, PowerPoint files, keynotes, etc. When the session is over, you can easily export the entire board to share it with your team.”

Anh Trinh, managing editor of GeekWithLaptop, says Miro integrates well with Slack and other instant messaging apps, allowing people to post their ideas anytime from anywhere.

Mural

Online brainstorm and collaboration tool Mural has a digital dry-erase board that all members can contribute to. Matt Zajechowski, outreach team lead at Digital Third Coast, says the tool’s sticky-note feature is especially useful for organizing lists, flowcharts, and diagrams that can help align a virtual brainstorm.

Otter.ai

Trent Maw, director of marketing communications at L2L, says Otter.ai is helpful when a subject-matter expert has an idea. “They simply record themselves talking through the key points and share it with the content team,” he says.

Pencil and paper

Yes, you can still do pencil and paper in a virtual world. Chad Birenbaum, chief experience officer and co-founder of Duckpin, explains:

“Our creative team went back a little to our old-school roots of sketching with pencil and paper to share ideas and get them across. Too often we rely on software as a crutch and jump right on the computer as opposed to using the computer as a tool. Our best design ideas tend to come from doodling or putting tight sketches together rather than getting lost down rabbit holes of software or design reference websites. After we have our sketch review, we scan our images into our design software and then render them into tight vector graphics.”

Slack

Better Proposals dedicates a Slack channel to content ideas. CEO and founder Adam Hempenstall explains: “We have a plugin that lets us vote, so each time someone comes up with a new idea, we can vote on it immediately. We give everyone a 24-hour window to give their vote because we work at different times and in different time zones. Once 24 hours have passed, we either discard or accept content ideas.”

Texting

Another old-school tactic, texting is a favorite brainstorm tool for Martha Bartlett Piland, author of the book Culturing Creative. “It takes away the ‘fear’ of speaking a silly idea aloud. For some reason, the rapid-fire text in instant messaging as a group facilitates more ideas. When you’re finished, it’s easy to screen capture or print out all the ideas, then curate and plan next steps,” she says.

Trello

A card-based project management system, such as Trello, works for Ben Taylor, founder of HomeWorkingClub.com. “All you need to do is create a column for ideas, then anybody on the team with access can submit them,” he says. “If the ideas are taken forward, the cards can be dragged along the content pipeline, which can be customized to fit the exact workflow of your website or company.”

.@homeworkingclub likes @trello for #brainstorming, because it lets ideas move easily through your #content workflow via @cmicontent. Click To Tweet

Ziteboard

The Pollination Project has found Ziteboard to be its favorite brainstorm stool. The online whiteboard with real-time collaboration is particularly helpful because it provides a visual representation of the content they would like to brainstorm, says Lauren K. Terry, director of communications.

.@Pollinationproj likes online whiteboard @Ziteboard for #brainstorming because it allows for real-time collaboration via @cmicontent. #tools Click To Tweet

Creating the calm in a virtual brainstorm

When you accommodate your brainstorming process and use the most helpful, appropriate tools, you can conceive, exchange, and grow your ideas. Whether you’re filling out a content calendar or rethinking your content marketing strategy, a collaboration of ideas will make whatever outcomes are chosen stronger and likely more successful.

How is your content marketing team doing brainstorming these days? Please share your tips and favorite tools in the comments to share with the wider CMI community.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used). 

The CMI editorial team is brainstorming ideas for upcoming blog articles. Subscribe to the free weekday newsletter to see the outcome. Or send your ideas to CMI_Blog@Informa.com.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ann Gynn

Ann Gynn edits the CMI blog. She also serves as the Tech Tools editor for Chief Content Officer magazine. Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. Former college adjunct faculty, Ann also helps train professionals in content so they can do it themselves. Follow Ann on Twitter @anngynn or connect on LinkedIn.

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