A Research-Based Guide to Brainstorming Linkbait – or Anything Else

Posted by Carson Ward

SEO (and inbound marketing) consultants, agencies, and in-house professionals rely upon their creativity to solve problems every single day. Just compare an experienced SEO to an industry thought leader—or a failed piece of linkbait to a fantastic piece—to see the difference that creativity makes. Nowhere is creativity more important than in the creation of content.

“Content quality matters a lot. So a lot of time, in the SEO world, people will say, ‘Well, you have to have good, unique, useful content.’ Not enough. Sorry. It's just not enough. There are too many people making too much amazing stuff on the Internet for ‘good…’”
Content rarely attracts natural links by merely being useful, but by being unique and creative. Every good link-loved piece of content has a creative idea, and every creative idea comes from brainstorming. Whether spontaneous or planned, individual or group-based, brainstorming is nothing less than producing unique or novel solutions that help us fix problems and achieve our goals. 
So, how can we be more creative?
XKCD - Stand back, I'm going to try science!
Courtesy of XKCD

Enhancing Individual Creativity

Many of us have been brought up with the myth that creativity is something you either have or you don’t. Fortunately, that’s not entirely true. A “lack of creativity” may in fact have a lot more to do with bad habits your brain has gotten into – and can get out of. 

Love the Obstacles, Define Constraints

The best advice I can start with is also the most counter-intuitive: set constraints. Don’t think about everything – think about one thing. Research indicates that specific obstacles stimulate our brain and our creativity1  – probably because we are wired to overcome obstacles and solve problems.
Release from Deception Dan Webb - Shroud
Artists like Francesco Queirolo, Dan Webb, and William Shakespeare realize the constraints of their medium, perhaps allowing them to sculpt marble into net, wood into a flowing bag, and rigid iambic pentameter into Romeo and Juliet.
When you start thinking about it, putting constraints on brainstorming makes perfect sense. Brainstorming linkbait with a broad directive like, “brainstorm ideas about electronics” is extremely difficult. When you start with broad topics, your mind spends (or in this case, wastes) a lot of time trying to determine what information to filter out, while tending to bounce between topics that you think about often or have thought about recently. You’ll have much better results by starting with specific obstacles and questions, such as “how can we show people that (iPhones/Android phones) are the way to go?”
Set your linkbait constraints before you even try to brainstorm: budget, medium, tone, topic, etc. 

Get Motivated, Invest Personally

Unsurprisingly, people are more creative and come up with better ideas when motivated, especially when that motivation is intrinsic2. And that’s the tricky part: we can’t just flip a “care more” switch. There are certainly things that an organization can do to – and we’ll discuss some of them later – but my two suggestions revolve around the fact that anonymity breeds mediocre creativity.3
First, we are likely to be motivated working for people that we actually talk to. Building barriers between SEOs and clients might make calls less awkward, but it can also reduce the SEO’s intrinsic motivation. Next, consider how to get your name(s) on work and ideas. I recently noted here that my intrinsic motivation to create great content soars when my real name is attached to something. When I created anonymous content on an old site, the content was at best mediocre. With my name attached, I want to make it better and unique.

Learn and Try New Things

Yes, we should learn about marketing, design, and writing – but we should also learn more about the people involved and the industry they work in. It should come as no surprise that subject-matter expertise and knowledge lead to creativity.4
Don’t just learn about new things – do new things! People who are open to new experiences tend to perform better on creative tests and achievements in their lives.5 6 7 Get used to breaking out of your routine. Meet people from different cultures, learn new skills (Photoshop? Juggling?), and try that new brand of ketchup! The worst thing that could happen is that you could become more satisfied with your life.8

Take Care of Yourself

It’s always important to take care of yourself and stay healthy, but here are some things that you can do personally to make yourself better at coming up with ideas for linkbait (or anything else):
  • Get plenty of sleep at night: REM sleep, specifically, makes us more creative. Preventing interruptions to deep sleep is, therefore, just as important as getting enough sleep.9 10
  • Exercise: Exercise improves your health and mood, but it also independently enhances creativity.11;
  • Mood: For the type of tasks common to business and online marketing, being in a good mood can make us more creative. Never be apathetic.12 13 14 15
Companies who rely heavily on employee creativity may do well to encourage and/or fund employee visits to sleep clinics and gyms. Taking responsibility for our own creativity, however, sounds a lot like taking responsibility for our own happiness. 
When trying to brainstorm solutions to problems and useful content/linkbait strategies, the answer is rarely to “do more work.” The seemingly paradoxical, yet research-backed truth is this: taking the time to sleep and work out gives us more free time by making our minds more efficient all day.

Enhancing Group Creativity and Efficacy

When you make an individual more creative, you make the group that he/she is a part of more creative. Additionally, the group can have a strong positive effect on the individual’s creativity.16 One key to brainstorming creative linkbait (or anything else) is leveraging this powerful and mutually-reinforcing relationship between group and individual creativity.

Brainstorm Individually, Discuss Together

Brainstorming with others yields ideas that we may have never thought of on our own, but it can also slow us down from running with our own ideas. In fact, people tend to come up with more ideas on their own when compared with a traditional brainstorming group due to the “production blocking” effect of group work.17
The solution (and this is important) is to generate linkbait and strategy ideas by harnessing both individual and group creativity.
  1. Get everyone together and explain the problem or goal. Remember what we learned about constraints.
  2. Have individuals write down their own ideas, and then present their ideas one-by-one.
  3. After (and only after) everyone has presented their ideas, discuss them all as a group.
  4. If you need to choose or prioritize ideas, have each group member write or send their own rankings for each idea.
Groups following this process (called “nominal groups” in research) routinely out-perform even the best-run “traditional” brainstorming groups.18 19 20
It would probably be wise to plan brainstorming at least a day in advance and encourage team members to get plenty of sleep and learn a little bit about the topic, as we know that this makes the individual more creative.

Meet in Person, Use Large Groups

Groupthink is your enemy in group brainstorming, especially if your brainstorming group is large (and large groups do usually come up with more and better ideas21 22 23). Also, remote meetings are a bad idea. Those people calling in tend to add less to the group, probably because they are less engaged and more distant. Research also shows that electronic brainstorming (with anonymous or masked idea generation and voting) is less productive.24 25;
Where possible, group brainstorming should occur in person, with up to 12 participants for important brainstorming sessions. 

Create Diverse Groups

Imagine that you’ve just duplicated yourself, along with all of your memories and experiences. 
“I was just thinking the same thing…”
You would, no doubt, get along with your other self, but you would be unlikely to brainstorm ideas that you (or you #2) couldn’t have thought of separately. Perhaps this is why research indicates that groups that are diverse are more creative.26 27
When forming a group to brainstorm the next set of juicy linkbait ideas, we would be wise to include people of various ages from diverse backgrounds with different interests and experiences.

Build a Creative Company Culture

I’ve chosen to focus on things that everyone in an organization can do to enhance their own creativity and the creativity of their teams or brainstorming groups. In the future, I would like to write about what companies and their managers can do to make their companies more creative. A good start would be reading Teresa Amabile's How to Kill Creativity.
By working at Distilled, I have instantly become more creative. Not only am I intrinsically driven to work with the company long-term, but the company encourages and supports innovation. I remember staring at Will with a sense of confusion as he told us to “fail faster.” What he understands is that to be a creative and innovative company, you have to take (smart) risks. Icarus flew too close to the sun and fell hard and fast – but the Wright Brothers defied gravity in a way that seemed impossible.
Never underestimate the impact of company culture on creativity. Companies that encourage, support, and invest in innovation can prevent themselves from turning into slow, boring, and risk-averse corporations.
I am by no means claiming to be the world’s leading expert on creativity research, but I have taken experts’ research to uncover actionable ways to solve problems more efficiently and effectively. Creativity is so much more than artistic originality or idea generation – it’s a necessary element to solving problems and achieving defined goals. 
What do you do to enhance your or your teams’ creativity?

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