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13 Brainstorming Techniques to Spur Creativity on Content Marketing Teams

Your editorial calendar has holes. Your content creators aren’t feeling creative. Your content marketing strategy is wilting.

When challenged to create, rejuvenate, or rethink what your team does, it’s time to connect for a good brainstorming session.

What is brainstorming?

Introduced by advertising executive Alex Osborn in 1953 in his book Applied Imagination, brainstorming uses lateral thinking to solve problems. In the almost 70 years since researchers have improved upon his process.

Keeping a relaxed and informal environment matters. When brainstorming is too structured, it inhibits the creative process and disrupts the flow of ideas, which is the antithesis of the concept.

Here are a few rules for group brainstorming:

  • There are no bad ideas.
  • There’s no need to stop and evaluate or expand on ideas until the end of the session.
  • Don’t set a numerical goal for your ideas.
  • Don’t be afraid to use multiple techniques in a single brainstorming session.
  • Save all your ideas. What you don’t use right away may be the inspiration for getting “unstuck” in the future.

1. Gap filling

Start with a statement of where you are and a statement of where you want to be. Then, ask everybody in the brainstorming meeting to come up with ideas for how to get from point A to point B.

You’ll get everything from highly specific suggestions to generalized overviews. At the end of the session, you can organize all the thoughts to develop your vision and action plan. (Flow charts can help).

For instance: “Right now, we sell 10,000 units per month of our best-selling product – vegan vanilla protein powder. By the end of the year, we want to reach 20,000 units of our bestselling product.”

Gap-filling brainstorming might produce ideas like:

2. Brainwriting

With brainwriting (also called slip writing), each participant gets a piece of paper or an index card to use to write down ideas. In some versions, participants pass the paper to another person who adds their ideas. Once the papers have made a full journey around the room, the participants share and discuss the ideas.

All answers are anonymous, so no one should write down their name. This method works because no one has to worry about whether the group will support them. It also prevents discussion before all the ideas are in. Evaluating ideas too early in the process can derail brainstorming. Sometimes everyone agrees with one of the early ideas for harmony’s sake or from a desire to end the meeting faster.

3. Collaborative brainwriting

Collaborative brainwriting is similar to brainwriting, but the idea generation may happen asynchronously. To start, have someone write a question or problem on a large piece of paper or a whiteboard displayed in a public place. A leader asks team members to write down their ideas over a week or so. From there, the team can collate the ideas.

Collaborative brainwriting example showing a page filled with six people’s ideas, gathered over six rounds, for improving a mobile app for gym members.

Image source

4. Brain-netting

Also known as online brainstorming, this technique works well for remote teams. Set up a system where people can share their ideas independently, then collaborate. A Google Doc or a Slack channel can work well in this process. Have each team member contribute ideas to the system on their own time. Set a deadline, then schedule a meeting where everyone comes together in real-time to discuss the ideas.

5. The 5 whys

With this brainstorming method, keep asking “why” – drilling down from one central idea to a variety of related niche topics you can use to move forward.

Start with a problematic outcome. For instance, “We missed our sales target for the third month in a row.” Then, ask, “Why did this happen?”

Answer that question, then ask again, “Why did this happen?” Repeat until you get to the root of the issue. You may get there in fewer than five whys. Sometimes, you may need more. Both results are OK.

This approach works best when used as a group brainstorming technique, and it helps to have a  facilitator guide the conversation. Before you begin, make sure everyone agrees on exactly what problematic outcome you’re trying to solve.

Once you’ve gone through the five whys, analyze the findings and begin to develop an action plan. Remember, though, the brainstorming session isn’t a planning process.

6. Mind mapping

Mind mapping is among the most popular brainstorming techniques because it adds a visual component. By drawing a picture of the relationships between ideas, you and your fellow team members can develop more creative ideas. It’s a good option because you can do it alone, too.

Here’s how to do it: Write down your goal, challenge, or content idea. Think of related issues. Add related ideas to the map to show how they all relate and connect. You can find mind-mapping software online, but old-fashioned pen and paper will work well, too.

Mind map showing blog post brainstorming by topic.  

7. Round robin

In a round-robin session, each participant shares an idea and until everyone has shared something. Only then does the floor open for additional ideas and critiques.

This is a great way to get some creative ideas from team members who are shy or otherwise uninterested. It also keeps one or two people from dominating the conversation.

8. Trigger

Trigger brainstorming is a version of the round-robin technique. As the name implies, it begins with a trigger that encourages creative thinking. The best way to get this ball rolling is to start with a proactive statement or open-ended question.

Let’s say you were trying to come up with a list of blog topic ideas for a healthcare client. Triggers could be:

  • Our client’s customers always seem to interact with content on …
  • Our client’s target audience needs to learn more about …

9. Role

The role-storming technique works best as a group discussion. Ask group members to imagine themselves in the role of someone who relates to your goal. For instance, if you’re trying to get some great ideas for blog posts, place yourselves in the role of your target audience.

From there, act out a scene, with each team member playing that role. What would that audience want to know? What would they not care about? What would motivate them to take action? Generate ideas from this perspective to change things up.

10. Figure

A slight variation on role-storming, figure-storming involves using a fictional or historical figure, like Superman or Abraham Lincoln, or a well-known person (who isn’t in the room). What would that person do to manage the issue or opportunity you’re solving in your group brainstorm? How would this figure’s approach work well? How might it backfire? Exploring these options encourages imagination and can result in some highly creative ideas.

11. Charrette

The charrette method, or design charrette, works best when brainstorming with a large group. This approach breaks the large group into smaller that discuss one element of the problem for a set period. When time’s up, each group passes its ideas to the next one to build on. You can run multiple groups at the same time, as long as they work on different parts of the problem. At the end of the Charrette, each idea has been discussed and refined multiple times.

12. Image method

The image method, another type of visual brainstorming, involves setting your intention. To start, close your eyes and describe what you want to create. For instance, “a new e-book for a software provider client.”

Each person in the group sets the intention in their mind, then closes their eyes again. This time, they create a vivid image based on the intention. Then they add on to the picture as a direction is given: “Picture the e-book with the client’s brand on it.” “See the features or topics it should cover.”

Randomly ask one team member to share their ideas. Record the idea. Next, have everyone picture the new version of the e-book and start layering additional ideas. Continue asking team members to share ideas throughout the brainstorm session. This approach works best when you want to enhance, not reinvent the wheel.

13. Stepladder

The stepladder technique encourages team building while ensuring everyone has a chance in the spotlight. You start by sharing a challenge with everyone in the room. Then, you send all but two people out of the room.

The duo in the room has a set amount of time to come up with ideas. After that, you send one more person into the room. The new person shares their ideas before the previous ideas are discussed.

Every few minutes, another person comes in, and the process repeats. Eventually, everyone will be back in the room and have shared their ideas. From there, you can discuss all the good ideas as a team and decide what to move forward with.

Which technique will you use first?

Brainstorming focuses on idea generation. Each of these techniques promotes creative approaches to a problem or issue. You may find some of your best ideas coming from these exercises.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute