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The Sticky Note: A Stupid-Simple Approach to Better Content Marketing Brainstorms


15263966105_018a8d4c5c_oAsk a hiring manager about the marketing team’s approach to brainstorming, and what he’ll tell you could be captured in this headline: “Brilliant, Cohesive Team Creates Amazing New Ideas to the Delight of Millions Everywhere – High Fives Ensue.”

But in reality, the vast majority of group brainstorm sessions fail to do anything but waste our time and our employers’ money. It’s not like we aren’t trying, since I suspect nearly all of you have led or joined such a meeting, but we keep ignoring the science and the data behind idea generation to establish a best practice for content marketing brainstorming.

This is utterly bizarre. We live in an age when many marketers seek to remove all subjective thought behind their work, asking will-this-be-on-the-test-style questions about ideal word counts, whether humor converts to leads or how many images, exactly, should be used in a blog post. All that aside, brainstorm sessions are still somehow accepted as ephemeral. They’re worshipped from all sides as glorious, team-building discussions that yield all the answers we’ll ever need to transform our businesses forever.

But let’s be honest. The real headlines to our brainstorm meetings today sound more like this:

  • Marketing Team Excited About Huge Pile of Ideas They’ll Never Actually Execute
  • Brainstorm Session Sidetracked by Hyperactive, Talkative Colleague
  • Proud Boss Beams as Team “Feels It” –  Has No Idea How to Do That Again
  • Teammates Slowly Swivel Chairs, Stare at Table, Wait for Someone Else to Speak

Brainstorm sessions actually deserve more objective clarity. If we just look at the data, we’ll not only understand brainstorming better in theory, we’ll make it much more successful, repeatable, and genuinely, heartbreakingly, simple.

And the highly advanced, futuristic technology that will get us there? The sticky note.

But first, we need to understand something.

What the science says

In her book, Creative Conspiracy, Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management, cites dozens of studies that suggest that the business world is brainstorming backwards. That’s because these studies — i.e., the data, the stuff we’re all supposed to heed in the modern marketing world — show that individuals outperform groups in generating both quantity and quality of ideas. In other words, our beloved group brainstorm sessions are broken.

And really, that should be obvious. Here are just a few familiar issues with our discussion-based group brainstorming:

  • Talkative teammates monopolize the conversation.
  • Pragmatic colleagues discourage bold ideas because they’re already thinking about implementation issues.
  • Ideas proposed earlier in the meeting garner more favor from the group as many studies show. Consensus builds around an idea’s recency, not its merit.
  • Teams are constantly stressed and distracted about the rest of their work, leading them to check laptops or refresh in-boxes rather than achieve deeper, more proactive thought and flow during the brainstorm session.
  • And at the end of it all, at best, you’re left with a pile of disconnected ideas and without a plan to make sense of them, let alone execute them.

Time and again, studies arrive at the same conclusion: Individuals are great for generating ideas, while groups are great for judging them.

In other words, we should brainstorm separately and alone, then meet together to improve and select the best ideas. In a telling quote, Thompson writes, “True collaboration often calls for periods of focused, independent work, interspersed with periods of intense, structured team interaction.”

It’s easy to accept in theory the science behind good brainstorming, but it’s much more difficult to actually change our behavior. Luckily, the solution — the “app for that” — is the almighty sticky note. And here’s how to use it.

Simple way to follow science of brainstorming

We now know that individuals should spend time generating ideas on their own, while groups should be used to critique, improve, and select the ideas. We also know that, in all likelihood, we’re stuck with the old muscle memory of “blocking time” to “jump in a room.”

So here’s how to balance both of these realities and still create more successful and repeatable brainstorm sessions:

Step 1: Establish a single meeting leader.

This should be the case in every meeting, but in this process, the leader fulfills a particular, critical role. (For the rest of these steps, let’s assume that you’re the meeting leader.)

Step 2: Write or display a problem statement on the wall.

This statement is the reason you’re meeting. Preferably, write it from the point of view of your buyer, not your company. So rather than write “to increase qualified traffic,” you should write something relating to a problem your audience faces that your content aims to address. That’s the hallmark of great content marketing after all – adding value before your audience asks for it.

For instance, if you sell marketing-analytics software, perhaps your problem statement becomes, “Teach SMB marketers how to incorporate data into their work.” That command is much better suited to idea generation compared to the more abstract notion of increasing qualified traffic. Traffic is an outcome of the relevant content anyway – that’s just good content marketing.

Step 3: Give each individual a stack of sticky notes.

Provide way more sticky notes than you think they’ll need. It seems trivial, but this actually matters. In the next step, you’ll instruct them to write as many ideas as they can without hesitation, and too few sticky notes can cause hesitation.

Step 4: Ask the individuals to write.

Tell the group that everyone in the room, including you, will now take a specific amount of time to write as many ideas as possible to solve the problem statement on the board. Write only one idea per sticky note.

Remind them that each idea should aim to solve the problem statement, and that they should not worry about implementation or whether an idea is original and unique. In this step, the goal is volume.

(Regarding timekeeping, I like to tell the group they have two minutes then give a 30-second warning. If I notice that everyone is still frantically writing, I’ll just delay my warning until after two minutes. The overtly stated time frame is a game mechanic to promote a sense of urgency and encourage stream of consciousness in the idea generation rather than careful, measured judgment of each idea.)

If you can’t tell already, this step helps you obey the data while avoiding the need to change a company’s behavior. This period of writing forces the team to actually operate alone to generate ideas, which studies show is much more effective. However, doing so in the same room still feels like the usual meeting, and it doesn’t interrupt the rest of their day by requiring a second block of time.

Step 5: Collect each sticky note, one at a time.

When time is up, ask for one volunteer to start reading each of her sticky notes. At the same time, tell the group that everybody will have a chance to read their ideas. I like doing this because that first volunteer is typically the same eager teammate who dominates other brainstorm sessions, so your quick disclaimer can relieve frustration in others. Everybody will be heard. Nobody will dominate. That’s the goal.

Here’s the process to collect these sticky notes:

  1. Have the first volunteer read her first note, which you then place on the board.
  2. Next, ask if anyone else had identical or very similar ideas. If so, group those sticky notes with the first one.
  3. Have the volunteer read her second idea and repeat the question. In doing so, you move through this person’s stack of notes and group similar ideas along the way. (Place unique ideas apart from each other.)
  4. Once the first volunteer exhausts her stack, move on to the next person, and so forth, until no teammates or sticky notes remain.

During this process, it’s critical to avoid any judgment of ideas, so make it clear that there will be time to evaluate the ideas later. The goal is not only to surface all the ideas around the table but to avoid any vocalized support, positive or negative, that could influence the rest of the meeting.

Step 6: Give a final call for ideas.

Occasionally, you’ll get some really good ideas as a result of all the inspiration you just stuck on the board. Do a final call for any new ideas that might have emerged. Each should be written on a sticky note and placed on the wall.

Step 7: Use the group format to vote, improve, and select the best ideas.

You’re now in a much better place than during the usual (and broken) brainstorm discussion. And now is the time for the group to finally shine. It’s time to judge these ideas.

There are two ways I’ve seen this work. The first is a straightforward vote whether out loud or by asking individuals to place hash marks on their three favorite ideas. You also could email a survey afterwards, but it’s preferable to do this evaluation when the context is fresh.

The other approach feels more like our usual group brainstorming, wherein you open up the floor. What do they like? What do they dislike? What patterns do they see based on the groups of sticky notes? Are there any tactics that seem popular? Maybe SlideShare was mentioned a few times. Why? What can be improved there?

The goal is no longer idea generation but idea judgment — an area where studies show the group actually excels. You’ll now poke, prod, bite, disagree, tear down, build up, and ultimately narrow or outright select from the list of ideas. In our traditional brainstorm sessions, this process begins immediately and often clutters the discussion the entire time. In reality, we should wait until we get to this step.

Perhaps the best by-product of this process and this step is that, in the end, the energetic collaboration and teamwork we so idolize shine more than ever. Rather than defending your own ideas against the opinions of others, you’re now all working together and focusing on something tangible up on the board. And it’s all in the name of solving your audience’s problems and hitting your team goals.


In a saturated, mature industry, we need better, more original ideas, and we need them more often. While we can learn from the ideas of others, to blindly follow them is dangerous. After all, a “best practice” when it comes to creating content is literally “what the other guy’s doing.” That’s a horrible way to stand out.

So instead of more best practices, we need unique practices, and we need to generate them on demand in a systematic, predictable way. That’s how audiences operate. That’s how content marketers operate. But that’s definitely not how the Muse operates. So the next time she happens to show up, just wave your sticky notes and tell her you’re all set.

At Content Marketing World, Jay Acunzo shared a unique perspective on eBook overload and alternative content outlets. Couldn’t make it to his presentation this year? You can still catch up on the biggest issues, ideas, and innovations in content Marketing. Check out our Video on Demand portal for more info.

Cover image by bloomingmimosa via