Brainstorming sessions are key to building an effective tech content strategy. But when it comes to collating a comprehensive list of content topics with the relevant stakeholders, less is more. Meaning you should be giving your attention to one person at a time.
I recall many years ago conducting group brainstorming sessions. With so many people and opinions, the result was a chaotic, unfocused discussion. The stakeholders involved were frustrated: Not only did they feel it was a total waste of their time, but their input wasn’t even reflected in the final content strategy and editorial plan.
If you’re a tech content marketer or content strategist, I urge you to read on.
This blog post, based on my experience running hundreds of tech content strategy sessions, argues that separate sessions with each stakeholder will garner well-reasoned and effective strategies. This personalized approach underlines the individual’s personal importance to the success of the project, and the boost to their egos means they’ll invest thought into their answers.
Brainstorming As an Art Form Is Overrated
When developing your content strategy or editorial planning, you might be tempted to gather all potentially helpful people into one space and ask them to brainstorm their ideas. You might think that between them, because they know the technology, current marketing challenges, and customer pain points, they’ll know how to give you the direction you need. And you would not be wrong! But lumping all these people together in one place and at one time is ineffective, superficial, and potentially draining for the marketeer session leader.
Consider a typical brainstorming session with seven participants, some of whom are physically in the room and others on Zoom. There are representatives from all facets of the organization, with a heavy emphasis on tech personnel. Many of them are inadvertently distracted by their phones or each other. Some of the tech guys are wondering why they are there at all, and are perhaps preoccupied with mentally solving some incalcitrant unrelated issue.
The session leader may find most of her energy is spent directing the order of who should speak next, and trying to get input from everyone present while not letting one or more people dominate. Some people lower down on the totem pole feel they have nothing to add but they must contribute ideas to the growing pile of ideas simply to justify their presence. And there are always a couple of participants who feel privately that they personally could do a better job of running the session, so they vacillate between holding back and taking over.
Learn from my vast experience in conducting hundreds of brainstorming sessions. I urge you to save everyone their precious time. Instead, use your communication skills to engineer rapid and consecutive one-on-one meetings.
This approach is your key to successfully generating a long list of marketing messages. You do want to tap into all the specialties of the key team members, but your interests are best served when you can give each one your undivided attention and probe their thoughts to the depths.
3 Group Brainstorming Pitfalls
Generally speaking, people enter group brainstorming sessions uninformed and unprepared, apply little attention to the process, and leave feeling frustrated and ignored.
1. Failure to Ensure All Stakeholders Are Heard
When the room is crowded, no single person can run with the thread to encompass a complete idea, and the marketeer is unable to tease out the full threads of the multiple simultaneous half-thoughts floating around into solid topics. Additional individual follow-up discussions will become necessary.
Other issues include:
- Senior management may intimidate subordinates who will be reluctant to voice their opinions.
- Certain stakeholders may dominate the discussion, while others may be less likely to participate when there are so many others in the room.
Say your organization is a cloud cybersecurity startup. The CEO is present as well as one of the developers. Being more senior, the CEO might try to take ownership of the content ideas; the developer, for his part, may not be as invested, and so takes a back seat.
But the CEO has never been in the position of the target audience; the dev, on the other hand, at his last cybersec job, was in fact a typical target user for the company solution. But his voice might not be heard due to being further down within the company hierarchy.
Or the CTO, who doesn’t spend her days coding in a DevOps environment, may try to develop an idea suggested by a DevOps engineer, but deviate from the original intention. For example, the DevOps engineer might say that the target audience is concerned about security when running a K8s cluster, but there might actually be a constellation of Kubernetes-related issues, and the individual participant might need time to dig deeper to develop the entire strategy.
2. Superficial Contributions
The nature of the brainstorming beast is to permit and encourage any comment whatsoever. Each person is expected to contribute something—but only as a headline, without going into detail, because there is only a small window in which to speak and little opportunity to respond meaningfully to others’ points. As a result, superficial contributions often prevail over deeper wisdom.
One person heading up the garden path in a useless direction potentially pulls everyone after them. Someone who hasn’t given any thought to the subject will be unlikely to have a lightbulb moment when there are distractions and disruptions. Listening to one another in a group rarely inspires helpful heady visions.
3. Difficulty Honing in on the Right Topics
The participants are unlikely to understand both marketing and technical fields of expertise, yet may try to set the tone for everyone attending. The target audience may be practitioners or developers; alternatively, the point may be to generate high-level topics for C-level executives.
Marketing may need articles for lead generation, including white papers or a specific article format, yet if the CTO disagrees with the general direction, it’s harder and inefficient to resolve the disagreement in a one-to-many discussion because there’s no opportunity to explain when participants are going astray. I guarantee you, it would be a total waste of time.
One-on-one, the marketeer can change direction by saying, “Hold on, this is not a good subject. Let me explain the marketing agenda. We’re not targeting practitioners, but executives, so give me high-level topics.”
Top 4 Advantages of One-on-One Brainstorming
The approach of individual sessions offers numerous gains.
1. Stakeholders Feel Valued, Marketers Get More
Spending an hour with a group of stakeholders who all have to share the floor makes the marketer’s job difficult. Instead, the marketer can spend an hour with each of the stakeholders involved. Say there are 7 stakeholders. An hour with all seven versus an hour with each will yield far more info for the marketer, ensure the stakeholder feels their input is valued, and thus yield better results. There’s also more flexibility and even spontaneity when setting up individual meetings, therefore avoiding coordination issues across time zones.
2. Participants Can Share Ideas More Freely
Contributors do not feel hampered by the presence of superiors as they would in a larger setting. On the contrary, the interviewee feels valued. Each successive person you interview will want to go the extra step when they trust they have your full attention. The marketeer can focus and probe deeper.
If the discussion is centering on the AWS cloud security challenges, for example, a one-on-one discussion will allow you to dive deep into networking security with the relevant stakeholder and allow for a much more focused discussion on the sub-topic.
3. Eliminates Friction, Stakeholders Come Prepared
Expectations from a brainstorming session conducted one-on-one are different. If someone has a limited viewpoint or a particular agenda, that is understood and accepted.
And because the individual knows this is an individual interview, they are more likely to prepare for the call instead of relying on colleagues to speak up. You’re far more likely to get meaningful contributions if your invitation says, “We need to discuss topics dealing with cloud security. Please prepare ten items, and you are welcome to send me your ideas in advance.” They might otherwise only think of brief titles, but when they have the opportunity to do their research and check their resources in advance, they may just come up trumps.
4. More Open Communication
You can share thoughts you recorded during a previous interview as a trigger. The ensuing discussion allows comparison or elaboration, and (hopefully) candid responses of the titles you gleaned earlier.
You can clarify points by asking for resolution of differing views originating in different cross team perceptions. For example, the topics relating to cloud security challenges for a firewall raised by the first stakeholder may be negated when you share the ideas with the next interviewee. So you can share the rationale raised earlier, allowing a linear discussion that might not happen in a larger team meeting.
The end result of all this? You emerge from these sessions with a long, detailed, and comprehensive list of talking points.
5 Steps for a Successful One-on-One Content Strategy Brainstorming Session
- Do your homework: Research the company/products/competition. Try to anticipate likely responses that will arise in the interviews. When you invite stakeholders to meet you, ask them to come prepared.
- Start with the right person: You’ll want to start with the stakeholder likely to provide valuable insights or the one most proficient in the material; for example, higher level management and specifically SMEs such as the startup’s CTO. They will help refine your initial direction and encourage you to ask better questions.
- Dig deep: Press them to provide in-depth and full answers. Give them time to ask questions, think things through, and refine their thoughts. Record each session and summarize each stakeholder’s input. Show that you appreciate their time and contribution. Individual commitment to the process rises accordingly.
- Share ideas from earlier interviews: Judiciously and intelligently, share ideas with company stakeholders you spoke with previously in later interviews with different stakeholders. One person’s ideas may spark another person’s creative juices. Alternatively, points of disagreement may arise from one meeting to the next due to conflicts of outlook. Encourage that linear debate and make your own decisions.
- Follow up: Go back to the initial stakeholders you met with to share the ideas you heard in later meetings. Put together a spreadsheet with all of the content topics generated from your one-on-one discussions. Then share this document with all the stakeholders, asking them to vote and comment on the topics.
- Remind each person of the point of the session: to come up with a list of ideas.
- Schedule the interviews close together to maintain momentum and focus.
- Make sure you understand the information you are given. Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions, if necessary, to keep the conversation going.
- Praise originality and commitment.
- Don’t waste interviewees’ time by requesting technical explanations. Consider bringing in a tech expert to listen and translate.
- Don’t try to write everything down. Record the sessions so you can revisit the content later, and focus instead on your current direction.
The tips and best practices covered here apply not only to content strategy sessions, but to any brainstorming discussions. From the hundreds of tech content strategy sessions I’ve participated in, I’ve learned brainstorming one-on-one is hands down way more efficient and value-rich than any group attempt. It’s so much easier for a reliable marketing team to take advantage of individual interviews to generate a solid content strategy.