How to Use Group Brainstorming to Grow Your Content Calendar

542799515_c5ffcee5d6_mI have the distinct privilege of speaking on content, blogging and Social Media several times a year to the Ohio State University chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America.

The OSU PRSSA kids are bright and eager, and looking forward to great careers in PR, Communication and Journalism in the near future.

But just like any other group I speak to on content and content marketing, they have the same question: “What do I write?”

Because, just like any other group I speak to on content and content marketing, there is nothing more terrifying than a blank screen.

The thing is, content IS hard to brainstorm and produce for any one person.

I know some of you reading are Departments of One when it comes to your online marketing efforts.

I salute you…you are busy, busy people, and the fast-paced nature of the Web, combined with an ever-increasing demand from customers for content means that your job, at times, can be overwhelming.

Fortunately, unless you’re a soloprenuer, there are others in your company who can be wonderful sources of ideas.

In fact, one of the things Nate and I do when we work with companies to do rapid-fire content ideation is specifically ask for non-marketing people from all levels of the company to be involved in the process. Our ideal group will involve anyone from key decision makers all the way to entry level assistants.

One of the main reasons we do this is because it’s easy to get into “marketing brain” mode…to think of every piece of content as THE piece of content that will land the next big deal. While this isn’t a terrible mindset, it can also mean that great ideas or new angles or a “twist” on an old idea can be missed in execution.

So we bring in fresh minds and fresh perspectives.

There’s always a little hesitation to start. Inevitably, there will be one person in every brainstorming session who will say, “I don’t know why I’m here, I have nothing to contribute.”

In my experience, those people will provide some of your most insightful and brilliant ideas…but you’ll need to create the space and freedom to do so.

So, using a bit of my improv training and some lessons learned from brainstorming and creative mastermind Mike Brown, here are 6 tips to running your own group brainstorming session:

1. Gather up your people (costumes optional).

avengers_background_8If you’re a small company (under 10), it’s all hands on deck. If you’re a larger company, try to find up to 10 people from varying levels of experience and disciplines across your business.

Get a good mix of analytical types (yup, mine your accounting or engineering department!) and creatives. Ask all people to come prepared to have fun and be mentally present for at least an hour.

2. Lay the ground rules.

rulesAsk everyone to be honest and let them know this session will be fun.

Turn off all devices.

Let the group know, seriously, there are no bad ideas…say “yes” to everything.

(Know in your head that there probably WILL be bad ideas thrown out…but the quicker they’re on the table and pronounced “not bad” everyone will feel they have permission to throw out new and better ideas.)

3. Warm up.


Conduct a series of warm-ups to get those minds a-movin’. You can try improv games, word associations, or even just lead an open discussion (bears vs sharks! Cat people vs. dog people!) that gets everyone laughing and talking.

4. Focus your efforts.

First, make sure everyone understands the goal of the session.

When I conducted a short brainstorm with the OSU PRSSA group on blog categories and topic ideas, I first gave them the run-down on the basics:

  • The type of platform we were generating ideas for (in this case, it was a blog for a local artist)
  • The main goals of the content (our artist wanted to ultimately drive sales of his products and art)
  • The skill set of the person who would be producing the content (our artist was highly creative, open to trying new things and was pretty handy with a camera)

For your group, you’ll want to de-brief them on roughly the same points:

  • The type of content/campaign/outlet you’re generating ideas for (e.g. content for a focused campaign that you’ll be running primarily on your company blog vs. content ideas for an entire year for your Facebook Fan Page)
  • The main goal of the content (education, awareness, sales, leads, etc.)
  • The capabilities of the team producing content (consider resources, talent, budget and time. For example, there is no need to explore a video series if you don’t have the in-house team or budget to execute.)

5. Get crack-a-lackin’

timed exerciseIt doesn’t matter how smart your group is, or how much fun you tell them they’re going to have…making lists for an hour or more is going to get boring.

Instead, try short, varied bursts of energy focused on specific topics or ideas, and keep the meeting moving.

For example, let’s say you’re brainstorming content for a specific campaign, like raising awareness about your latest product offering.

If you’re leading the brainstorm, come prepared to the meeting with a list of questions that will tap the specific expertise of your group, like

  • “What can you tell me about the design process of this product?”
  • “What can you tell me about the pricing of this product?”
  • “What specific needs of our consumers does this product meet?”

Then, set a time limit to answer each questions.

If you’re having participants write their answers down, give them one to three minutes to start. If they’re brainstorming out loud while someone commandeers a white board, try three to five minutes to start.

Don’t, however, feel limited to one set time. Try three minutes on one question, then drop it to two on the next.

Once you’ve answered the questions, do one more “speed round” where you cut the original time in half or even in third and go through the questions again.

In improv, we call this game “diminishing returns.” The game starts out at one minute, but by the end, the performers have to give the same scene in just three seconds. And while it seems crazy or impossible, the exercise forces the brain to think quickly of better ideas and focus solely on the most important information.

6. Sort your brain dump

After your session is done, you might have 72 million Post-its, a white board full of words, or sheets of papers riddled with chicken scratch.

Sit down and enter everything (there are no throwaways! Yet!) into an Excel doc. Label each Excel page with the question or category, then enter all the ideas, even the silly ones (and yes, you’ll get those).

Here’s an example of the “Analytics” tab from a TKGenius content brainstorm. The question was, “What information can you share about collecting and interpreting analytics?”:

content ideation spreadsheet

Once all the information is entered, use your content marketing brain to sort through the information.

Begin thinking of how each answer could turn into a title. Here’s another example from our TKGenius brainstorm. We not only came up with suggested titles, but began loosely categorizing them, as well. It ain’t pretty, but it gets the job done:

content ideation spreadsheet titles

Then lather, rinse, repeat. Pretty soon, you’ll have a spreadsheet full of categories, titles and post dates, which can then help you plan backwards from your release or target date on how quickly you’ll need to begin producing content.

The group mind can be one of the best ways to generate hundreds of new ideas in the span of and hour or two. Trust yourself, and trust the people in your company to know and understand your brand, products and services. Then harness those ideas, get ’em out, and never face a blank screen again.

Have you tried group brainstorming for your content production efforts? How did you like the process?

Avengers photo | rules photo | brainstorm photo | time photo

Sarah is a TKG Content Strategist, a veteran blogger of love, life, and unicorns since way back in 2001. On the blog, you can follow her thoughts on content marketing, corporate identity, how to story-tell effectively, and yes, the occasional unicorn.

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