To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.
– Thomas Edison
A lot of people dream of having a job where their days are spent coming up with new and exciting ideas. This, after all, is the bread and butter of the creative industries. As the digital world has evolved, we’ve seen a growing convergence of digital marketing activities across niches – content marketing, SEO, e-commerce, social media marketing and so forth – with elements of the more traditionally creative activities of advertising and media production.
This convergence means that many more of us now spend our time focusing on generating ‘creative’ ideas. These ideas typically need to translate into assets that produce very specific outcomes, be that press coverage, links, social engagement, leads, or transactions. If you and your business are new to creative content development or have arrived at the task from a more technically-minded background, the prospect of on-cue creativity and regular ideation can be daunting, especially if your performance is measured against the success of your ideas in execution.
In this e-book, I aim to take you through the entire process of how to form ideas, the right ideas: ones that will help you achieve your goals. I’m writing with content marketers in mind, but the process and techniques I explore are equally relevant to anyone who is looking to shape targeted ideas.
Unlike the many brilliant books by leaders in advertising, this volume is not about creative thinking. Rather, it’s a detailed examination of both the strategic and the tactical user-centric approaches to discovering and evolving ideas that are right for your business and audience.
What is ideation, really?
The word ideation makes me wince. Not quite as much as synergy, but enough to have me repeatedly question my flippant decision to write an ebook on the topic.
Why use ideation when you could say the far more everyday brainstorming or coming up with ideas? Is ideation a portmanteau of idea generation? Critiques of jargon point out the role of laziness in the use of obscure language – see for instance ‘Why Jargon Feeds on Lazy Minds’ by Scott Berken, someone who despises ideation and calls out marketers for their deliberately obscure use of language.
Unlike its sister concept brainstorming, invented in 1941 by advertising executive Alex Osborn, the concept of ideation does not have its roots in the age of advertising or modern marketing. This term dates back to 1818 and peaked at the time of Thomas Edison, during the industrial revolution, when new ideas spawned grand new inventions at an extraordinary rate.
While brainstorming has entered the popular language, it is in fact only one facet of ideation. Ideation denotes an entire process of innovation that should not be undervalued.
The best explanation I’ve come across of what ideation is not is from the website of Strategyn, a strategic growth consultancy:
Myths that mislead the ideation process:
There is one belief that permeates academic literature and has influenced nearly all gated
product development processes: it is the notion that the innovation process begins with an idea. This is the myth that misleads.
An idea is the output of the innovation process, not the starting point.
The innovation process is understood here in terms of forming ideas for a new product or service, but applies equally to determining what shape a new marketing or content campaign should take.
The emphasis on the thinking that occurs before ideas are reached stands against the ‘brainstorm first, verify later’ approach, in which a multitude of ideas are conceived and then filtered down depending on how they measure up against a set of criteria: does it suit the brand? Will it get shared? Will journalists want to write about it?
“You don’t brainstorm innovations; you construct them” – strategyn.com
The one important lesson to take with you when looking to form innovative ideas, especially when it comes to content marketing: Innovation stands the greatest chance of success when the needs of your target audience are at the heart of the process. Ideas are constructed on a foundation of knowing the audience and, in particular, their pain points. This comes back to the fundamental purpose of ideation: problem solving.
Successful problem solving requires a really clear understanding of the problem in context. You can’t reach an effective solution without knowing:
- What the end goal is (objective)
- What’s been tried so far (context)
These two points are central to the strategic thinking behind solving a problem, and are often overlooked at the expense of a campaign or product’s effectiveness. Starting with the ‘Big Idea’ – the strategic steer – not only ensures that your tactical ideas are innovative, but that they work together in a larger ecosystem of output.
We’ll be taking a detailed look at both the strategic and the tactical sides of ideation shortly, but first, what do innovative ideas look like?
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