Fresh ideas are the lifeblood for just about every business, whether for your next product or your next marketing campaign. But how do you come up with the ideas you need quickly and effectively? That’s where brainstorming comes in. Whether individually or as a group, there’s no faster way to generate creative ideas than brainstorming.
For the last 30 years leading creative marketing teams, I’ve landed on a number of important guidelines that work well when we’re doing campaign brainstorming, especially with time constraints. These guidelines apply whether we’ve been brainstorming for marketing campaigns, events, product names, company names, direct mail pieces, even new buildings. Below, I’ve listed the guidelines that have led to the most successful brainstorming sessions and creative ideas.
The best initial ideas come when there are many people bouncing ideas off one another. However, in this socially distanced era, it’s not always possible to put six people around a conference table, and more and more companies are resorting to “solo brainstorming.” While there is merit in this approach, the ideas generated will never be as varied as when you have multiple brains attacking the problem from multiple angles. However, don’t include too many participants. Between four and seven people in a physical location seems to work best for us. Online brainstorming requires a smaller group due to the more difficult dynamics, such as seeing facial expressions and avoiding talking over one another. In that instance, three or four people is probably the most you’ll want to have.
Be careful when assembling your participants to be sure that everyone in your group trusts one another. Brainstorming is a vulnerable exercise, and many participants will find it difficult to be as open as necessary if they don’t trust the others in the group. If a participant is constantly worried about what’s going to happen if they volunteer a ridiculous idea, he or she will often self edit and not share what could spark a solution. (More on wacky ideas later.)
As with trust, chemistry between your participants is also important to be able to encourage the proper building of ideas, whether you’re working with a marketing team or a group of engineers. I’ve held brainstorming sessions where there was plenty of trust between the participants — but a lack of chemistry meant that ideas often just fizzled out. If someone spouts off an idea that seems irrelevant to the topic at hand, or demonstrates as though they just don’t understand the challenge, it lets the air out of the room. This is perhaps one of the most challenging campaign brainstorming guidelines to get right.
Brainstorming is a relatively “special” activity, so make it feel that way. Decorate the room, bring props, supply finger foods (donuts, chips and dip, and pizza are great choices), even use music — anything to help your participants feel more relaxed and more likely to contribute.
90 minutes seems to be a really good amount of time for a solid brainstorming session: enough time to explain the challenge at hand and get everyone fully into the swing of contributing but not so long that folks are squirming in their seats or leaving for the restrooms.
When brainstorming, you have to start with the assumption that there are no bad ideas. Yes, you’re going to come up with some really silly ideas, and many will be completely unusable. But the beauty of campaign brainstorming is that a silly idea will often lead to something much more functional. If participants don’t feel like their silly ideas are relevant, they won’t share, and self-editing leads to a dearth of ideas and stymies growth toward good solutions. So be sure you establish an environment where all ideas are acknowledged and recorded. (This also means you can’t give premature credence to an idea which “seems” important at the time.)
Every idea goes on the wall (or the online whiteboard), no matter how good or bad. Even make a point of asking folks to repeat an idea if several come at once and you can’t hear a word or a phrase — this goes a long way toward demonstrating you do, indeed, welcome all ideas.
Some participants will prefer to ponder a challenge ahead of time before sharing with the group. If you find there are those on your team who function in this manner, share the situation ahead of time with them to give them time to “pre-brainstorm.” This will help you get the full participation of everybody on your team in the regular brainstorming session.
Most people in your campaign brainstorming session won’t have full understanding about the problem you’re trying to solve. As a result, it’s critically important to bring everybody up to speed quickly so they can effectively contribute. A careful summary help people feel they can share ideas, even if they don’t fully understand a complex topic.
Once your meeting starts, you’ll often find it’s difficult to get over the initial “idea hump.” I like to find a common and simple topic to brainstorm about which may have tangential relevance to the real problem at hand. This gives those participating an easy “win” when they get to see their idea of on the wall. For example, if we’re brainstorming about the name of a commercial water filtration product, it might be easier to start with naming a water park instead. It has nothing to do with the ultimate goal (other than the fact that both are related to water). But folks feel freer contributing ideas about something silly like a water park than they would volunteering names for a water filtration system.
Similar to the previous guideline, pop culture references are easy for your team to relate to when campaign brainstorming, and it’s a good icebreaker to get them thinking about how a pop culture figure would relate to the problem at hand. (We once brainstormed Britney Spears song titles while coming up with a name for an oven. Silly? Yes. But it worked!) This is a variation on a brainstorming approach called “figure storming.”
I have found it lightens the mood in the room if you’re willing to share self-deprecating funny anecdotes while brainstorming (if they’re relevant, of course). This simple action tends to break down barriers, helps the team feel more comfortable and encourages them to relate to one another. According to a study by Harvard Business Review, this approach can generate up to 26% more ideas.
I’m confident these tips will help get your next marketing campaign brainstorming meeting or new product ideation session started on the right foot. In addition to these guidelines, you can find a wealth of brainstorming techniques online for various specific ideation challenges. To see our work, some of which has been a direct result of brainstorming sessions, be sure to check out our portfolio.