Do the Math: Creativity by the Numbers Won’t Add Up

Looking for a reliable, data-driven process to help your team consistently produce amazing content? Don’t. Instead, forget formulas and aim for the heart.

The idea of data-driven, process-led content sounds so seductive, doesn’t it? The promise is that the right data, married to the right strategy, made actionable with the right formula, and produced with the right template can remove the guesswork and provide scalable consistency in the quest for effective content.

Like a recipe, formulas are convenient snippets of quantified and precise wisdom, guiding the creator through a documented and proven process to achieve a desired result. Mix X ingredients in Y quantities with Z techniques and end up with something approximating the polished, picture-perfect meal in a cookbook.

This desire for mathematical exactitude and formulaic certainty is essential in some areas – such as gathering business intelligence or calculating return on investment. But problems arise when we try to apply the same scientific method to fields and tasks that don’t work so systematically. “To demand or preach mechanical precision, even in principle, in a field incapable of it, is to be blind and to mislead others,” wrote philosopher Isiah Berlin.

Creativity is one field that stubbornly refuses to be definitively quantified, measured, or replicated. But that doesn’t stop businesses from trying to apply formulas to creative tasks to make the unknowable knowable. In his 2018 book, The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Z. Muller writes (italics are mine):

“Quantification is seductive because it organizes and simplifies knowledge. It offers numerical information that allows for easy comparison among people and institutions. But that simplification may lead to distortion, since making things comparable often means they are stripped of their context, history, and meaning. The result is that the information appears more certain and authoritative than is actually the case: the caveats, the ambiguities, and uncertainties are peeled away, and nothing does more to create the appearance of certain knowledge than expressing it in numerical form.

Don’t get me wrong: Data, standardized processes, and templates have important roles to play in content creation. Your next piece should always be informed by the results of what came before. Your content also needs to meet certain statistical criteria if it hopes to appear prominently in those parts of the internet ruled by algorithms.

But following a step-by-step recipe isn’t a creative act. It’s obediently following someone else’s process to replicate their creative success. And that means there will always be an essential ingredient missing in the final result.

Following a step-by-step content formula isn’t a creative act – it’s replicating another brand’s creative success. That means an essential ingredient will always be missing from your content, says @Kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The human skill factor

A formula or process distills the process of making – whether it’s a prawn curry, a bedside cabinet, or a blog post – down to its most important components. Just add effort.

But this implies that individual skill and talent are not only unimportant but unnecessary. By following the formula, anyone should be capable of achieving a similar result. No more struggles to find the best writers for your business. Creating content is now so simple, any team member (or even a bot) can do it. Hooray!

If only that were the case.

Every photo of a hilariously abysmal attempt at a birthday cake shared to social media with the caption “Nailed it” is proof that no recipe or formula is as foolproof as the careful instructions might suggest.

Harvard professor Teresa Amabile is best known for her research into creative behavior. In The Social Psychology of Creativity (1983), Amabile explains why creativity refuses to be confined to a neat set of universal characteristics, behaviors, or processes: “One of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of creativity is that, in some ways, it defies effort. Unlike most desirable behaviors that psychologists study, creativity behavior cannot be achieved simply by trying.”

Are you igniting audience passion or just creating a smokescreen?

Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Art is fire plus algebra.” The algebra is the technique – the composition of a painting, the structure of a novel, or perhaps even the keyword density of a blog post. The fire is, unsurprisingly, the passion and drive to create.

The algebra is quantifiable, practical, repeatable, measurable. The fire is not. But without the fire, the algebra has no point. It is the architecture for an empty house.

Irony alert: Yes, I just used his metaphorical formula to argue that formulas miss the point of creativity. If anything, it confirms the brain likes to reduce complex ideas down to simple equations in the hope that the unknown X will reveal itself.

A few years ago, I presented a workshop on content writing where one of the participants told the group about how her employer required all blog posts to be written to a very strict formula. Their typical briefs didn’t specify a topic or suggest an angle to take. Instead, they contained little more than a handful of keywords (and the number of times each had to be included), along with a shopping list of other SEO and practical requirements – how many words to include in the heading; how many subheadings to use, and so on.

The business didn’t appear to care about the contents of her work, just whether or not she hit her numerical targets. The message didn’t matter. The readability or persuasiveness of her copy didn’t matter. The only metrics the company cared about were search engine rankings, so its content was designed only to attract the attention of search bots – not actual human customers.

The creative process was only concerned with the algebra. Fire was surplus to requirements.

Championing a formula, process, or template to the exclusion of everything else reduces writing to a word game, creativity to assembling furniture from a kit. The content becomes a puzzle to be solved or a score to be hit instead of an idea to be expressed.

I don’t think that’s why anyone chooses to become a writer or content creator.

I don’t think that’s what audiences look for, either.

If you want your audience to feel passionate about what your brand has to say – passionate enough to take action – don’t overlook the importance of personal passion in the creation of your content.

If you want your audience to feel passionate about what your brand has to say, don’t overlook the importance of personal passion in the creation of your content, says @Kimota via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Casting blame on creativity

A formulaic approach can also have the side effect of penalizing the use of creative skills. When given minimal agency in the content creation process, writers have little incentive to apply any effort beyond the bare minimum necessary to meet the technical specifications of the brief and get paid.

As the saying goes: Tell me how you measure me and I will tell you how I will behave.

Further, the notion of a “proven” formula implies infallibility. Because numbers don’t lie (dontcha know), should any content fail to perform as expected the fault must lie on the creative side of the ledger.

Don’t want to become marketing’s scapegoat? Then, don’t be too creative. Avoid experimenting. Stay inside the lines. Don’t bend the rules. Forget trying to be fresh, original, or different because anything new can’t rely on historical data to prove it won’t fail.

Creativity requires experimentation and experimentation requires permission to fail – permission a formula simply doesn’t allow for.

Sure, the algebra matters. But much of it may be far more appropriate to focus on after the content is created – during the editing and approval stages. Take a well-written article with something meaningful to say – and then tweak the title, subheadings, metadata, and keywords to achieve the necessary SEO lift.

Remember: The goal of content marketing is not to boost your SEO. The goal of SEO is to boost your content.

How to keep the formula without dousing the fire

As much as possible, a good brief should provide creative problems for the content to solve, not distracting math puzzles that focus attention on the wrong things.

Of course, data and formulas can offer plenty of useful insights to help fuel, rather than hinder, an effective creative process – such as helping your team determine what content to produce and revealing the right topics and right formats to reach the right audience.

To return to Teresa Amabile, in 1998 she wrote an article, How to Kill Creativity, for the Harvard Business Review: “Creativity thrives when managers let people decide how to climb a mountain; they needn’t, however, let employees choose which one.”

Don’t allow the convenience of a formula to absolve you of the need to think. Don’t allow the numbers and the algorithms, the templates and formulas to promise certainty where none exists.

Above all, don’t allow the creative behaviors and individual skills your content relies on to become devalued or overlooked because they refuse to be tamed with a spreadsheet.

Want to share your thoughts on this article or suggest additional ideas? Email us at [email protected].


Author: Jonathan Crossfield

Jonathan Crossfield describes himself as a storyteller because writer, editor, content strategist, digital marketer, journalist, copywriter, consultant, trainer, speaker and blogger wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. Jonathan has won awards for his magazine articles and blog posts on digital marketing, but that was so long ago now it seems boastful to keep mentioning it in bios. He lives in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia, with a very patient wife and one very impatient cat. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.


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