Why Brainstorming Content Doesn’t Work

The traditional approach to content is wrong, and there’s a better way.

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 This post originally appeared on The Entrepreneur's Handbook.

There’s a phrase I see in content-related job descriptions over and over that guarantees a hard eye-roll from me every time.

The phrase goes something like this:

“This role will brainstorm content ideas for social media, blogs, etc…”

In fact, I’ve seen this phrase in almost every single job description I’ve looked at over the years for a variety of content related positions, from Social Media Managers to Marketers to Content Strategists.

After leaving my corporate job to start a content consulting agency, I’ve made it my personal mission to help businesses change their approach to content.

Great content isn’t produced by luck, creativity, or magic. It’s the result of research, planning, and strategy.

Problems with the “brainstorming” approach

Problem one: Creating, publishing and managing content takes a lot of resources. Brainstorming is like gambling those resources away.

Creative brainstorming could produce amazing content. It also might produce content that isn’t actually helpful or interesting to your users, or you might end up publishing that content on the wrong channel.

Without a real strategy in place, you’re relying on creativity and luck—and those things just aren’t smart to bet on.

When startups rely on the brainstorm method, they’re basically just taking a gamble. Depending on how talented your content team is, the risk may be pretty low.

But my question is, why gamble when you could instead invest a small amount of time into research and planning to product far better content?

Problem two: Relying on the creativity of individual people makes it harder to scale a content team and onboard new employees

As mentioned above, pulling content ideas out of a hat could work if the hat is smart enough. But that’s not a scalable, repeatable process. That means that when it’s time to scale your content team from one person to a team, it’s going to be harder to reproduce the same type and quality of content from different people.

Typically, startups that rely on creativity to generate content also lack strategic documentation. Things like style guides, editorial calendars, or even simple channel strategy guides usually don’t exist.

The result is scattered, disconnected content that lacks an overall purpose or perspective.

It’s also a waste of money, since it’s not pulling it’s weight to build brand affinity or support lead generation.

Why Content Strategy?

Content strategy is the discipline that focuses on ensuring that content is useful and delightful to users, and valuable to the business. It takes a strategic approach to the entire content lifecycle, from planning and publishing to how it’s maintained over time. By implementing just a bit of lean content strategy, startups can avoid the imminent problems that come with the “brainstorm” approach, and get more return on investment for their publishing efforts.

By taking a bit of time to research your —

  • Target audience

  • Competitor’s content

  • Performance of any existing content (if applicable)

and developing things like —

  • A core content strategy

  • Tone and voice documentation

  • Strategy for each publishing channel

  • An efficient content workflow and process

you avoid creating content that is crappy, useless, inappropriate for your audience, misaligned with your brand, or published in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Content Strategy is smarter, leaner, and better supports the long-term growth of your team and brand.

A lean content strategy framework to start with

Should you decide to start approaching content more strategically, it’s worth saying that it doesn’t require a big budget or a ton of time. All you need is one person on your team to focus on research and long-term strategy planning for a few weeks.

 

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1. Start with user research

Too often, well-meaning marketers fill out “Customer Avatar” templates without ever speaking to an actual living person who matches that description.

While internet research and demographic studies can be helpful, consider them a starting point. The most valuable insights into your audience you will ever find are the insights that actually come from your audience.

Here’s a great guide to conducting user interviews. And here’s another resource with lean user research tactics.

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 2. Look at the data

Dig through the data of any existing content you have to see what’s performed well and what hasn’t.

When it comes to content data, all of the many KPIs can get overwhelming quickly. Before you start, just pick a few metrics that mean the most to you based on your goals.

First, record your findings in a simple spreadsheet in Google or AirTable. Include a title for each content piece and the metrics you’ve chosen. Once you’re done, take a step back and try to notice high-level themes and takeaways.

For more on this, check out How to Audit Content for Quality.

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3. Analyze competitors

Competitive research allows you to avoid costly mistakes and find unmet needs in the market that your brand can fill. By spending just a few hours researching your competitor’s content, you give your brand and your content a far better chance of succeeding.

Take a look at my detailed approach to content-focused competitive analysis here. If you’re working on a product, check out Supercharge Your Products With a Competitive Audit from Shopify UX.

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4. Create a strategy

Learning about your audience, your own content and your competitor’s content is going to tell you a lot. Once you’ve completed this research, you should have everything you need to make informed, strategic decisions about your startup’s approach to content for the long term.

Armed with your research, you can answer crucial questions like:

  • What’s our overall brand message?

  • What’s our brand’s tone of voice?

  • What channels should we use, and how should we use them?

  • How often should we publish content?

  • How often should we update our content?

  • What’s our plan for tracking and measuring success?

And with these questions answered, you can start to create some documentation to help guide future employees and scale your team. Instead of relying on a single person to come up with brilliant ideas, you’ll have a strategy and system to publish content that adds value to both your customers and business.