Digital Marketing

The anatomy of a marketing ideation workshop

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There’s nothing especially mysterious about the origins of a great idea. It’s what happens when you dedicate time to thinking about how to solve a problem or seize an opportunity.

Where many marketers struggle, though, is actually finding that time to just sit down and think.

Enter the ideation workshop.

It’s as close as a marketing team can come to creating all the right conditions for innovative thinking.

Let’s back up: What exactly is ideation?

Ideation is the act of “forming or entertaining new ideas.”

Even though the word dates back hundreds of years, user experience designers have co-opted it as part of the “Design Thinking” model in recent times. Design Thinking is a nonlinear process that helps designers find creative solutions to real problems a user faces.

In marketing, ideation often retains this context (after all, there is plenty of UX and design in marketing).

But it can more broadly refer to the process of developing creative content ideas in other mediums like writing and video.

Some examples of ideation in marketing might include:

  • Coming up with blog topics.
  • Developing ideas to fuel a new explainer video series.
  • Exploring new logo options.
  • Trying to come up with a new brand slogan.
  • Spitballing ideas for your next marketing campaign.
  • Ideating strategic opportunities.

So what is an ideation workshop?

It’s a fancy way of saying a structured group brainstorming session.

“Structured” is an operative word here.

“Brainstorming is the other operative word.

We mean “structured,” in the sense that there needs to be a facilitator for the session, a format, a time, a place, key stakeholders present and a particular opportunity or challenge on the table.

When we say brainstorming, we really mean brainstorming. Bring on the metaphorical lightning, thunder, hail, sprites, wind. Whatever idea blows into your mind deserves mention.

An ideation session is a safe space for you to challenge assumptions. Don’t worry about being right. Part of having a great idea is having a lot of bad ones first.

What happens in an ideation session?

No two ideation workshops are identical. Even the names can be different. You might call yours an innovation workshop or just stick with the good old brainstorming session. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is:

  1. What you choose to focus on. Ideation sessions are great for specific problems that can be solved with open-ended solutions. Not every decision will warrant an ideation workshop. You don’t need a workshop to choose whether you’ll use Marketo or Padot for your email marketing. You might need one if you’re reinventing your newsletter.
  2. How you format your workshop.

That second item is a little more involved, so let’s walk through the basic format elements that every ideation workshop needs to succeed:

The right people

First you need a facilitator – someone who will be in charge of keeping the workshop session focused on the problem/project at hand and documenting any action items that might arise.

Second, you should include anyone who you anticipate will work directly on the project – writers, designers, videographers, strategists, etc. Marketing departments sometimes make the mistake of taking a top-down approach to creativity where a few strategists do the bulk of the ideation and then delegate their ideas to creatives. The purpose of an ideation workshop is to eventually converge on an idea that’s worth pursuing, not to dictate a plan.

Finally, think about who can bring in some outside perspective on the issue. Maybe pull someone in from sales if you’re trying to ideate around a lead nurturing campaign. Ask someone from R&D to sit in as you ideate on brand positioning for your latest offering.

Location

In non-pandemic times, your location might be the most sunlit of your conference rooms, the park around the block, the atrium, the bar, etc. Pick a place that doesn’t feel enclosed, and where there are multiple forms of stimuli, but where participants can still be heard.

While social distancing, you’ll have to get a little bit more creative. Encourage attendees to sit somewhere other than their usual workspace. The facilitator must be especially mindful of the tone and mood of the conference. They can be the first to crack a beer, for instance.

Preparation and format

I’ll give you an example from Brafton’s own marketing team. We recently had a virtual ideation session about our homepage. Our facilitator emailed us several days in advance with this problem statement: “We haven’t evaluated our homepage layout in years; does it still do everything we need and want it to?”

The 4 attendees were given a homework assignment: Bring examples of homepages you like. During the session, the facilitator reiterated the problem statement. Each attendee then had a chance to walk through their examples. At the end of each walkthrough, the call was opened to everyone else, who could basically spout off their ideas about how those examples might apply to what we need, might need, are doing right, etc. on our own homepage. At the end of the session, the facilitator summarized talking points. She later followed up with a document outlining people’s ideas.

Your format could be totally different depending on your problem statement. And that’s fine. Just make sure that it’s appropriate for the problem statement at hand.

Activities

Try to start with an icebreaker – something to relax the mind and make your participants feel less guarded. You’ll get their best ideas if they feel comfortable sharing.

Then there are activities to help you discover potential ideas:

  • Role-playing: Act out various customer journey scenarios.
  • Brain-writing/sketching: Have each person write out or sketch out an idea or design and then pass it to another person who then adds to it.
  • Reverse brainstorming: Actively think of a list of bad ideas (this can help you narrow down your focus areas).

You might even gamify your sessions. For instance, maybe you play kill, marry, screw with your product offerings or desert island with your blog categories.

Activities can help you stumble on a new idea rather than actively generate it. They can also change the way you engage with a problem or scenario by disarming the problem-solving side of your brain so you can more easily see things with a new mind.

Convergence

Last but not least, convergence is the part where you establish some sort of consensus about which ideas deserve further consideration. The purpose of idea generation is to encourage divergent thinking – that is, exploring many possible solutions.

Once you’ve done that, the final step is to actually evaluate those ideas. Some will be eliminated. Some might be combined. Eventually, you’ll be left with a handful of ideas, at which point you can do a few things.

One option is to use the right side of your brain, so to speak, to make an executive decision. Another is to literally vote on the course of action. For instance, a sticky note of a certain color might represent a vote for a particular idea.

Finally! An explanation for all those stock images of people looking at blank post-it notes.

In some ideation sessions, you want to walk away with as many strong resolutions as possible.

For instance, I’ve had ideation sessions with our marketing team where we spend the first 5 minutes thinking up dozens of blog ideas, and the last 25 minutes scrapping the ones we don’t like. At the end, we’re left with fewer ideas than we started with, but obviously we want as many good blog topics as possible.

So how often do you do this song and dance?

As often as you need to. When do you need to? Whenever you have a specific problem that can be solved by an open-ended, creative solution.

That problem could be as simple as “we need some more blog content ideas” or as complex as “we need to completely reinvent our online branding.”

Either way, an ideation session is your way of turning creative thinking into a business process.

Now go manufacture some great ideas.