January 12, 2016
by Chuck Frey
In today’s highly competitive world, B2B customers have more choices than ever. In many industries, too many me-too products and services are chasing too little business. Almost all of the marketers within these industries tend to rely on the same old types of content and distribution channels. Everyone tends to promote their products and services the same way – the same way they’ve been doing so for decades. That means nobody stands out in the customer’s mind.
Like it or not, you and your competitors are commodities.
If you’re tired of fighting for a diminishing slice of the pie in your industry, I have good news: By applying a bit of creative thinking to your content planning, you can break from the pack and capture the hearts and minds of a greater number of potential customers. Here are four creative approaches you can use to identify fresh new approaches to your content:
Morphological analysis is an awesome way to brainstorm a wide range of possibilities and combinations. It is often used to develop new ideas for products and services, but can easily be adapted to content marketing. Here’s how to create your own morphological analysis:
- Use a spreadsheet to create several columns that correspond to aspects of your product or service, customer and marketing efforts. The example below is focused on four key areas: customer need/problem, content type, purpose and channel. Your market, your customers and your products will differ. If you have other ideas for collections of attributes, add them to your spreadsheet.
- Beneath each column heading, list as many attributes for each term as possible. In the example below, I’m using the scenario of a construction equipment manufacturer that needs to generate new ideas for content to promote its wheel loaders. So all of the attributes are focused on that industry, and upon the needs of its end customers – equipment owners and operators. Take your time with this exercise; list as many attributes as you can.
- Brainstorm by creating random combinations from the lists of attributes you’ve created. Many combinations won’t be fruitful; that’s okay. Just continue combining terms, and make a note of those that look promising.
The advantage of this brainstorming technique is it forces you outside of your normal mode of thinking to consider novel combinations and possibilities. Best of all, if you include customer needs as a column in your analysis, then the ideas you generate should also be customer-focused.
During the last several decades, one of the most widely used and successful brainstorming techniques has been SCAMPER. Its name is a mnemonic for:
- Put to other uses
- Eliminate and
The reason this creative thinking technique is so popular is because it helps you to approach your challenges or problems from multiple perspectives – one of the keys to generating new ideas. Here are several examples of how it can be used in content marketing:
- Substitute: Can you use this idea in a different place or context? What content elements could be removed and replaced by others to improve it or repurpose it? What other process, procedure or tool could be used to produce or publish this content?
- Combine: What separate pieces of content could be combined to create something new? For example, a series of blog posts on a common topic could be republished as an e-book. Or a series of “how-to” videos could be combined, with some modification, into an e-course. What content or raw materials can you combine to create something new and engaging? Are there complementary companies in your industry with whom you could partner to create new types of valuable content?
- Adapt: How can you repurpose an existing piece of content into a new context? What other ideas does an existing piece of content suggest? How have marketers outside your industry addressed this communications challenge, and how can you adapt the spirit of their approach to your needs? What analogies or metaphors can you use to make your content more memorable and engaging? Does the past offer a parallel?
You get the general idea. Use each letter in the SCAMPER mnemonic to suggest questions you can ask yourself, and then capture any ideas that result.
Create a swipe file
A swipe file is a physical or digital collection of inspiring articles, images, graphics and other materials that you gather as inspiration for future projects. In this context, the word “swipe” is used figuratively; you’re not stealing ideas from other creatives. You’re simply gathering things that INSPIRE you into one place – so when you need to court your creative muse, you have your own, tailored source of elements and ideas.
The swipe file is a technique that advertising creatives have been using for years to supercharge their thinking. They continue to do so today because it’s incredibly effective as a source of creative inspiration.
How does a swipe file work? When you find something that looks interesting, add it to your file. It’s that simple. The trick is to become more aware of ideas you can use or adapt to your needs, and to get into the habit of capturing them.
To do this, I use a popular digital tool called Evernote. It’s information agnostic – that is, it enables you to collect and save information regardless of its current form. You can easily capture:
- All or part of a web page (using Evernote’s browser-based “Web Clipper”)
- Scans of paper files
- Links to documents and files
- Video clips
- E-mail messages
One of the advantages of using a digital swipe file is that it’s keyword searchable. That makes it easy to find items that inspire you when you’re faced with a creative challenge.
On the other hand, a physical swipe file gives you something tangible you can touch and manipulate. That provides a different set of stimuli to your brain, which can lead to a different set of ideas.
Board of directors
Force yourself to think about your current content challenges from unfamiliar perspectives. One way to do this is to form a Board of Directors. These people can be anyone, living or dead, famous or obscure. The key is that they have unique creative perspectives. Your goal is to leverage their unique thinking styles to consider your problem or challenge from their viewpoints.
For example, how would Steve Jobs suggest you make your brand more distinctive? How would Leonardo da Vinci approach your need to create compelling visual content?
Imagine you’re standing before the members of your imaginary board. What advice are they giving you? Write down any observations and ideas that occur as you engage in this thought experiment. I think you’ll discover that this “sleight of head” technique is a great way to whack you out of your habitual paths of thinking and can result in some exciting new ideas and possibilities.
Imagine tomorrow’s customer
Picture what your best customer’s business will look like 20 to 30 years into the future. What opportunities will it be presented with? What will it be challenged by? What changes will it need to make to stay relevant to its customers’ needs? How can you help? How can you develop new content, experiences, products and services now to help them meet those emerging needs?
This thought experiment can be an exciting way to lift your thinking from present needs and concerns into a compelling future space. Vividly imagine what this world looks like and what your customer’s typical day looks like. What has changed? What’s different about the way in which they run their day-to-day business? What are they challenged by? What has happened to the economy, the labor force, the regulatory environment and other factors during the last several decades? How do those changes impact your customer, positively and negatively?
You don’t have to be a guru to perform this thought experiment. You can easily extrapolate today’s trends into the future, as well as imagine some “black swans” – unlikely but discontinuous changes that could have a revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, impact on your customer’s world. Play “what if” and see what possibilities and content ideas the future reveals to you.
These are just a few examples of the creative thinking and problem solving techniques that are available to you. To learn about more this subject, I highly recommend the seminal book on this subject, Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques by Michael Michalko.
It’s up to you to develop more exciting and engaging content that can lead your customers’ thinking in new directions. If you feel creatively burned out or don’t know where to start, these creative thinking techniques can serve as powerful catalysts to jump-start your thinking and get it moving in new directions.
You don’t need any special tools or training to use these creative thinking techniques. All you need is a brain, a means to record ideas and the desire to envision new opportunities and possibilities. Good luck in your creative explorations!
Photo credit: Flickr User Sean MacEntee
About Chuck Frey
Chuck Frey is the director of online training for the Content Marketing Institute. He is also the founder and author of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the world’s leading website covering visual mapping. In addition, he blogs about creativity, productivity and personal development strategies on his personal blog. He has extensive experience in public relations, online marketing, content development and marketing, business strategy and creative problem-solving techniques. He is an avid photographer. You can follow him on Twitter @ChuckFrey.