author
Stacey MacNaught
Tecmark

About Stacey MacNaught

Stacey MacNaught is a digital marketing professional based in the U.K. A director at Manchester-based agency Tecmark, MacNaught has also enjoyed speaking engagements at numerous events, including MozCon, SearchLove London, and BrightonSEO. With a background in copywriting, she is also a keen blogger and features writer.

In her Learn Inbound talk, Stacey shares the tactics and tools that she and her team use to come up with ideas, develop them and then test them before investing too heavily in production.

Key Takeaways

  • Most brainstorming sessions fail when the energy goes out of the room. You need to give people at least two days to prep and come up with ideas.
  • When assessing how feasible an idea is, you need to determine if it’s: timely, relevant, unexpected, new, close to home, or has human interest.
  • Sanity check the idea by getting external opinions. You can use Google consumer surveys as a guide, or Reddit (Only if you have thick skin!)
  • Don’t overthink ideas as some things just work and the reason may not be so clear during the initial brainstorming session.

Video Transcription

So, I'm Stacey, Search Director at Tecmark, and basically, that means I do SEO, content marketing, stuff like that. And I'm talking about ideas because, for me, ideas are currency.

I think whatever job you do, really, being able to generate ideas and overcome problems, massively, massively important. But for me, it's all about content ideas and ideas for content that people will talk about, link to, that will drive traffic audience and drive customers, usually. Those are our core objectives. And we live in a world full of shit ideas.

So, products, services, diet fucking water. Not only did somebody sit there and say, "Let's make this product," a load of people bought it. It gets worse. Canned whole chicken. Yeah, somebody thought, "I know, I want a chicken that's not frozen that will last six years," and a load of people bought it.

So, I'm not saying a shit idea can't work, because it can, but it's better if we start with a good one. I blame SEO people for most of this, like me. The internet is full of shit content. The Benefits of Having an Accountant,riveting. A Brief History of Waste Management, oh, yes.

Put The Da VinciCode down. This piece of shit that I was involved in five years ago, to be fair. I know this started with a bad idea because it was my idea. I'm not saying that the content you do is going to completely succeed just with a good idea and I'm not saying that bad ideas are the only reason it goes wrong.

But starting with a bad idea, you give yourself a bit of an uphill battle, then, making something good out of it. You've got to really overcompensate with the execution, the people or paying bloggers to sort of make bad content work. And one of the biggest challenges, I guess, is that not everyone agrees on what constitutes a good idea and, sometimes, stuff that you think is a terrible idea works.

This happens to me every now and then at Tecmark, and it happened most recently about 10 days ago, when Hannah, who's thrilled that I'm using this photograph, came to me and said, "I've got an idea." Hannah's our digital PR manager. So, I was pretty excited. Hannah has fantastic ideas consistently. I was like, "Amazing. What is it?" "Flamingos." I said, "Okay."

I usually get a bit more than that from Hannah. I was like, "Okay. So, enlighten me.Flamingos. Are you just still drunk from last night, or...?" So, then she proceeded to talk about these images that people share to my Facebook timeline that make me want to unfriend them, where it's like, "Oh, look, here's a picture with a load of snowmen.

Can you find the panda?" "Well, no, because I've got a fucking life." So, I was like, "Okay. Aren't they a bit done to death?" And yeah, okay, so Hannah agreed, not our thing. But she presented some research to me that suggested this is worth an experiment, that this crap could build links, get people talking, generate a new audience, all the social engagement stuff.

I was like, "Okay, what's this got to do with flamingos?" and this was her answer. She wants to hide a ballerina in a sea of flamingos, not just because she likes either of those things, but because we like to experiment where we can with a live client if it's a pretty safe experiment. We've done loads of experiments with content that have worked on a test site that's non-commercial, but we haven't been able to put them into practice as effectively for a commercial website.

So, it makes sense. We have a dance wear retail client, this is probably something we can sell into them. So, I was like, "Okay, here's what the risks are." I'm not convinced this is worthy of top-tier publication. I think it's going to be quite tough to pitch flamingos to a client and, actually, I don't think it's that original. What will it cost?

Two hours design time, half day promotion. And actually, most of the promotion was done by one of our apprentices. I was like, "Okay, fair enough. If this fails miserably, it comes out of research and development budget. No worries, let's go." Three days later, so, starting last Thursday, it's in "The Telegraph." "The Telegraph" published the flamingos.

And more to the point, Hannah had convinced our client to give us a really meaningful quote to go in "The Telegraph," something about how you can always spot a dancer in a sea of anything, and the "Telegraph" published the bullshit quote as well. "Metro," "The Sun," "The Mirror," German "Bild.de." And actually, this slide's two days old.

It's now 45, close to 50 pieces of additional coverage, about a dozen with links and load more with links to the Facebook page. Right. Fine, okay. I was wrong. The flamingos were fine. But that's the point at which I always tend to sit down and say, "Why do we bother with actually trying to formalize any kind of ideation process if you can just distribute fucking flamingos and "The Telegraph" picks it up with a bullshit quote about dancers in a sea of anything?"

And the reality is, is because most or our projects cost a whole load more than that, and for every flamingo we've had in "The Telegraph,"we've had a number of projects that have failed miserably. Failure's really embarrassing, it really hurts your ego, it really pisses your clients off, and one of the areas that we've identified for improvement back in 2013, actually, was the efficiency with which we could come up with good ideas.

So, we've been able to build links with content. Before we called it content marketing, it was just link bait. And we've been pretty good at that, actually, but the big unknown for us was always, "Well, how long is it going to take to come up with the idea, and how many people?" And it could vary from 1 person, 10 minutes, to 5 people, 7 years and we're still going to have no ideas, which isn't scaleable by any stretch of the imagination.

So, with our internal content marketing training we made the entire first module ideation, set about a nine-month process of testing different tactics, tools, different approaches to ideation and, eventually, came up with this process that has looked loosely the same for about three years now but the tools and tactics within it change, probably, every couple of months.

I think when you say, "Yeah, write a brief, select your ideation team, generate a shitload of ideas in phase one, get 100. Start shortlisting them, then do a bit of risk assessment, then write your plan, then go into production," it makes it look simple, and it's not. Ideation's challenging. There's a load of areas in which, actually, it's really problematic.

And there's four areas in particular that we've had to overcome the most problems, and that's what I'm going to talk about. So, I think the brief is your first problem. The second one is getting people to participate and really give it their all. The second is, yeah, okay, it's nice to say, "Let's come up with 100 ideas." Yeah, I'll see you next millennium when I've got those.

That was the one that started the process for us because I live and die by this quote with content, and that's because I've been stung many times by having projects where we've got one idea. It's the only one. We all know it's a bit shit but we have to do something, so let's just do it. Never ends well. And the fourth area is actually assessing quality, what is a good idea?

You know, the flamingos worked. I would never share that. So, we actually formalized the brief and everyone hated me for doing this for a while, where it was like, "I want a big brief document." And I think we ignore it a bit too much or it's a three-line thing, "Let's have a brainstorming session.Here's three lines about what we're doing, something in travel." If you get the brief right, you can invite people into your project who know nothing about the background of the client, the objectives or anything, and getting those kind of external perspectives from people who maybe aren't your usual content marketers can be really valuable.

It's not that brief. We wrote 17 pages in a training guide about writing a brief. But loosely, every single brief that we do for a big ideation project has to have objectives, measurable ones. Don't say, "I want to build links." Don't say, "I want to generate traffic." How much traffic? Where from?

What kind of links? Pretty specific stuff you can actually measure against later. Audience demographic information, who's going to want to share this content? Okay, you might be targeting journalists but they're only going to cover it if the audience is interested. Who are the people that should be interested in this? What are they sharing?

What brands do they like? What content are they into? Examples, not necessarily of content in a similar topic area, not necessarily content from competitors, but content that's achieved the objectives that you want to achieve targeting the same audience. And the limitations bit. I don't know why I put number one there again. I can count, I assure you.

The limitations is always the boring bit. In an ideal world, we'd all sit down and come up with great ideas for content that costs £10 billion and will take until next year, and it will involve going to space. That's what happens in Stacey Land. In the real world, we've got a compliance, time scale and budget that are typically the three limitations of anything we can do.

So, if we've got, this piece of content has to be out next week, a big survey piece with a white paper and a HTML5 interactive, not feasible. If we're working with a big brand, finance company with a team of 10 million brand guardians, and compliance and a list of 1,500 words you can't when you're talking about their brand, they won't let you call Donald Trump a wanker in a piece of content, even if it's true.

So, the brief, we spend quite a lot of time on and then we send it round to our team, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get everyone's full participation. Everyone I've worked with, and I think everyone that comes to events like this, is more than willing to get involved in ideation. For a lot of people, it's their favorite part of the process.

But we're human, and I think that we probably have all worked with people, some of us will be people who don't necessarily feel comfortable saying, "Hey, this is my best idea. Tear it to shreds, guys." We're human. People have different levels of comfort with that. So, we sat down and looked at some of our past projects. And for the last hundred projects, the main ideas, in a team of 20 people, had come from 3 people.

I was like, "Okay, how many amazing ideas are we missing, because we're running brainstorming sessions that rely on people feeling okay with putting themselves out there?" And we concluded quite a lot, so we made really simple changes to encourage people to share more.

So, for quick ideas gathering, we've allowed people to choose anonymity using a tool called SpeakUp. It's free for up to 25 people, actually. And it's intended as a tool that lets you gather feedback on planned workplace incentives or changes, but where we use it is at the end of a project, before we launch, we've been through our main ideation.

This was one last month where I just felt like something was missing, so I put it out to the entire company and got, probably, about 30 responses in the end. Some people like answering three times. And people can either choose to put their name on it or comment completely anonymously. So, what we're finding now is that we're getting more input from people who, ordinarily, wouldn't get involved.

They might have silent ideas but not fancy everybody getting involved in a conversation about their ideas. For verbal brainstorms that have gone a bit flat, we use a worst ideas method. So, this is from a book by Bryan Mattimore called, "Idea Stormers." It's worth a read. It's a bit of a slow read, it's not particularly bouncy and engaging but there's a lot of really good tactical stuff in it.

And we'll ask people to come up with the worst possible ideas they can against a brief, something legal or something that uses David Beckham. You could never get him. And that's got a couple of benefits. So, the first one is that people with, I guess, a lower comfort threshold for putting their best ideas out there are surprisingly willing to give you their shittest ideas.

So, everyone's okay with, "I've got this really bad idea.It's totally illegal, they'll never sign it off." What that does, as well, is puts a bit of energy back into a flat brainstorm. We've probably all sat in rooms where it's like, "Okay, it's Friday afternoon, it's 4:00. Everybody would rather be in the pub than talking about what we're going to do for a debt management client." I think most brainstorming sessions fail when the energy goes out the room, so, as well as making people feel more confident sharing, this actually gets energy back in the room.

And you switch it up by then saying, "Okay, is it possible to turn this thing into something good?What's the opposite of it?" And the conversation naturally turns, then, to a more energetic version of, "Let's make something work." And a minor change, we've started giving people more prep time. It didn't really occur to me until we did this how harsh it was to give people an hour with a brief, expect them to read and digest the brief, and then come out and give me, like, 10 of their best ideas right now.

So, we've switched it from giving an hour or two, to two days, usually. That means people have got the option to prep if they want, and not only has that actually improved the quality of the ideas in the sessions, we're also finding now that more people will participate in verbal brainstorms. This was the issue for me that started it all in 2013, where I'd kind of had it up to here with ideation, is the fact that we couldn't scale ideation.

It just couldn't be done. We're like, "Well, it might take 5 people 10 minutes, or it might take 10 people 3 years and we might never get an idea." Doesn't work. I hate brainstorms. When I tell my friends about what I do, friends that are not in the industry, they're all like, imagining us sitting in a coffee shop in jeans and checked shirts, having a great time coming up with kooky ideas.

No, it's not. More often than not, I find brainstorms are six people in a room, one person doing all the talking and five people sitting around waiting for the sweet release of death, or 5:00, whichever comes first. So, I wanted to rid of brainstorming as the main way we generate ideas, and I wanted to be able to get loads of ideas.

So, we experimented with so many tactics and we still do, but one that we've used now for three years, consistently, is 6-3-5 brainwriting. And I've talked about this extensively before so I won't go into too much detail, but it's a 1960s method devised by a German professor and it involves six people sitting around with a sheet of paper. Three columns, six rows, round one, they've got five minutes, five minutes to come up with three ideas.

At the end of that round, everyone passes their sheet of paper to the person on the left, and now everyone's got three ideas of someone else's and you round six times. If you do six rounds with three people writing three ideas each in a round, you end up with 108 ideas in 30 minutes. Going to hazard a guess that 20 of them will be shit to start with.

Pull those out right away. But it's a great way to get the quantity pool you're going to work with first. We devised a tool, it started as our internal tool, to do this online, which is now available for anyone to sign up to. Two reasons, I hate typing up people's handwritten notes, secondly, it means we can do it remotely. So, we can get clients involved or, if we've got people working from home, they can still be involved.

So that, for us, has been a tactic we've used for 3 years to generate a list of 100 ideas as a starting point. And then, this problem here, what's a good idea? If the flamingos are going to work, I don't want to just rule those out because they don't necessarily fit what I like. And I guess one of the hardest learning points for me, over a few years, is it really doesn't matter if I like what we're distributing.

I'm usually not the target audience for our ideas, actually, so whether I'd share it with my friends is completely irrelevant. Instead, it's about getting good at judging an idea based on whether it's going to hit the goals, rather than on whether you'd be embarrassed about sharing this with your friends.

So, the first thing we do is NUF Test, that list of 108 ideas, and we mark each idea out of 10 against 3 criteria. How new is the idea? How original is it, in the context of what's going on in the current content landscape? How useful is it? So, how likely is it that that's going to hit your goals?

And taking into account all of the compliance and other restraints, how feasible is it you're actually going to be able to do it? That gives you a score for each idea of 30, and we usually get 3 or 4 people in the team to do that and collate all the scores, cut an idea down to the top 10, top 20. And that's when we get a little bit less rigid in structure and we go into verbal shortlisting and development.

We're looking for a top five here, usually, sometimes a little bit more if we're a bit unsure. And if you've not read "Made to Stick," I can't recommend it enough. It usually revisit that book every year. Chip and Dan Heath basically say memorable content has a number of these attributes in common. So, it's a good starting point to sort of assess the ideas, start developing them a little bit further with that in mind.

First, if we're going for press, which we often are, like nationals, regionals, locals or trade press, we're looking at criteria like, is it a story? Based on some help from some external journalists we've had and based on a study of 300 of our most successful pieces of content, we're looking for these things and we want as many of these things in common.

I think timely, relevant, unexpected and new, pretty obvious. The close to home one, I think, is one that we actually struggled with a little bit. And I think the best way I've found to describe the close to home thing is, in a news context, it's why in the U.K. and here in Ireland terror attacks in France will get way more coverage than the ones out in the Middle East.

It's not because it's any less horrific. We'll all still look at the news in the same horrified way, but in the Middle East, I certainly sit there and think with a sense of relief, "I'm really glad I'm not raising my son there." When it happens in France, you think, "I've been there, I was at that cafe last year.My friend's in France, I hope she's okay. God, I'm raising my son in a world like this."

It feels closer to home. I'm really doing content about terrorism, but the same things need to apply to what we're putting out there, it needs to really resonate with someone. And Hannah's going to talk about that later on today, about what resonates with people. Human interest, the catch-all for the shit that shouldn't work. Basically, it's stuff that makes people cry or gets people mad. I really hate the term human interest.

But every journalist I speak to is like, "It's just human interest." It's clickbait. Then we stop, because this is where it's about to get expensive. So, this is where we're about to go and buy data for £2,000, or £3,000 or £4,000, or we're about to put a developer and a designer on a project and it's about to start getting real in terms of money going out.

And this is where we sanity-check, because we're human, and we all get a bit too close to projects and we can't see the woods for the trees. So, we go for external opinions, sometimes people in our company who haven't been involved, or sometimes journalists, bloggers. We've got journalists we've got great relationships with who help. We've got journalists on retainer who come in and do sessions with us on press release writing, tell us how not to pitch stories, and give us their opinion on these ideas.

Google Consumer Surveys, you can ask 200 people for their opinion for $20, which is not bad and you get it pretty quick. Use Google Consumer Surveys as a guide, not the gospel. People see Google Consumer Surveys questions before they see the content they want to read and they have to answer just to see what they wanted to see, so some people click anything.

So, use it as a sort of guide rather than an absolute, "This is definitely going to work." And Reddit, so, there's a load of subreddits where you can ask for an opinion. Develop a thick skin before using Reddit. So, about 50% of comments are just going to be trolls. I had someone start recently, and in their first week they came to me and said, "I've just posted something on Reddit."

Okay. "Well, somebody called me a click baiting fuck nugget and suggested I should never reproduce." I said, "Okay. Ten out of 10 for originality of the insult." So, develop a thick skin before going to Reddit. It's horrible here, when everybody agrees that this idea's going to be amazing and then three or four journalists come back with a really valid reason that it won't work.

By the time we get here, it's usually minor changes if we need to make any changes to an idea. We've usually sanity-checked it enough, but I can think of, probably, 20 occasions when we've had really valid concerns to an idea we were all convinced by and I can think of 2 occasions when we ignored the advice. Once it was great and once it was a disaster. I don't ignore that advice anymore.

It can save you a pricey error. So, we either go back, revisit the idea with our feedback, or if it's just not revisitable, we look at an alternative idea. So, what did Google Consumer Surveys think of the flamingos? I normally post things to Google Consumer Surveys much earlier in the process, so, long before we have assets ready.

It's usually sort of a concept. In this case, we went from, "Hey, I want to make ballerinas," to "Hey, it's on 'The Telegraph,'in three days." So, what I did was, the night before we went into distribution, I asked Google Consumer Surveys, "There's a ballerina hidden amongst the flamingos.Would you challenge your friends to find it?" I was like, if 30% say "Yeah," that's probably enough for a couple of journalists to think it might be worth a lazy piece of content.

Seventy five percent of people nothing like me said they would actually share this with their friends. I am wondering if those people have friends. Which then brings me back to this thing that I obsess over, is why did it work? Why, why did it work? And it's not original. So, I sat down with a friend who works in broadcast journalism, and the only three things that we could conclude were that it is pretty simple.

I'd call it stupid, simple, whatever. You can just kind of look for that when you're on the bus or on the train, or you don't have to really think about it. You don't often find a ballerina in a sea of flamingos. It's fairly unexpected and it's really fucking annoying, so it does evoke some sort of emotion.

For me, it's annoying that it worked when we spend so many time on big, sensible, data-driven projects. For people who are actually looking for the ballerina, we actually got some accusations within the comments of our coverage that there was no ballerina. It was a big conspiracy. There is a ballerina, there she is. I didn't find the ballerina, I made somebody show me.

And then, we actually decided that, "Do you know what?It just fucking worked. Get over it. Make hay while the sun shines.It won't work forever. I'm distributing another one this morning." So, with everything I've said about process, and ideation and tactics, and I would really encourage you to go off and process drive as much of it as you can for scale, sometimes, actually, forget process and test.

I'm an absolute advocate of experiment fast and frequently with as little investment as you possibly can. The flamingos worked as an experiment for us because it was cheap and it was quick, and it's never going to work forever and it's a bit shit, but I'll do it again because it'll build links and we've already seen the rankings go up.

Brilliant. Doesn't matter if you believe in an idea, but I do think it matters if the key people on your project believe in it. Hannah and I have very similar experience in content promotion. We get very similar results, we have very similar contacts and a very, very similar approach. But I genuinely believe that, if I'd been tasked with selling the flamingos, I wouldn't have got half the coverage that Hannah did.

So, those people need to be involved from day one. Don't just give them a shit product to sell at the end of it. If they don't believe in it, it's going to cause a problem whether it should or not. Sometimes things just work, and by the same token, sometimes things just don't. And I have a massive tendency to overthink everything. I want to understand why every single thing worked.

Sometimes, it's because a journalist is half an hour away from a deadline and they're fucking desperate for content. That's why, sometimes. Sometimes it's a slow news day, and sometimes your piece doesn't work because something happened in the news that's completely and utterly beyond your control, and that has taken priority over the feature that you thought you were getting placed. So, let's stop overthinking and sometimes just accept that some things work, and take advantage of it for as long as it lasts.

And I guess, the main thing is this stuff should still be fun. Let's try and enjoy it. Thank you.

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