How to Use Group Ideation to Get Awesome Content Topics

Feb 13th 2017

How to Use Group Ideation to Get Awesome Content Topics

This article is repurposed from our new book, “The Content Marketer’s Guide to Ideation.” This massive 187-page guide is available free as a PDF (get it here), and is also available in Kindle and paperback.

Focused teams outproduce individual people in uncovering, selecting, reshuffling, combining, and synthesizing information into new ideas. If you’re looking for the best content ideas, your best bet is to use a team.

It’s obvious that if four team members each bring one idea, there’s the potential for 1+1+1+1 Ideas, but the truth of ideation is that ideas spark ideas. By allowing ideas to come together, you open up the possibility for an “idea bank” to grow exponentially.


That’s not the only reason to ideate in groups. Group ideation can help you accomplish three other goals:

  1. Generate a larger pool of ideas
  2. Bond with your team
  3. Get buy-in from your team (+ bosses, execs, etc)

But how do you avoid the traditional boring, unproductive brainstorm sessions? That’s the topic I’ll tackle at length in this article. First, let’s unpack why we hate brainstorms.

Why Do We Hate Brainstorms?

The reason we hate brainstorm meetings is that our leaders are not equipped with structured exercises, not clear enough about their goals and expectations, and don’t facilitate or police the meetings appropriately. The good news is that if you fix those three issues, group ideation meetings can be one of your best tools for generating great content Ideas.


The Makeup of a Content Ideation Group

Small teams of 3 to 4 work great for ideation meetings. Keep your ideation groups under 10. Try to gather participants from diverse disciplines across the organization. Try to bring together more than just your colleagues who have been reading the same content marketing listicles over and over. Like-minded people inevitably produce similar ideas.

Don’t assume who will be creative and who won’t be. With the right mindset, processes, and practices, you’ll be surprised by who can generate great Ideas. Often, people who have no preconceived notions about what great content is or “should be” come up with tremendous ideas.

Prepare Your Team Before The Meeting

Ask your team to do a little research before attending the meeting. Give them prompts or resources.  At the very least, provide your meeting participants with these four building blocks:

  1. Clarify the business problem.
  2. Identify the objectives of the meeting.
  3. Ask them to block out 30 minutes on their calendars before the meeting to ideate individually.
  4. Provide them with data sources to research the topic in depth.

With these four pieces in place, you’ll have your team ready for a productive session.

Give Them Written Instructions

If you’re working with salespeople, customer service reps, technical experts, and other non-marketers, you’ll want to prepare them with an agenda, your goals for the meeting, and an explanation of what a successful outcome looks like. For those participants outside of your department, write a personal email inviting them to an hour-long session.


Dear John Doe,

On Thursday, November 6th, I’ll be gathering our content and creative teams to Conference Room Z to work on developing new content ideas for x content marketing campaign.

I’m inviting you because I value your input on x and I think you could be a big help to my team.

Please let me know if you’d be interested in attending and if the suggested time and date works for you!

Thank you very much!

P.S. If you do attend, below are the details of the meeting. I’ll send along an agenda the day of the meeting.

Business Problem: Lack of ideas in targeting audience x

Objective: Develop 10+ engaging ideas related to our audience.

Time Investment: 30 minutes or less

A few sources for research:

This article is repurposed from our new book, “The Content Marketer’s Guide to Ideation.” This massive 187-page guide is available free as a PDF (get it here), and is also available in Kindle and paperback.

Choosing the Right Environment

If possible, use a room other than your conference room. Conference rooms are often a place of hierarchy, conflict, and tension (i.e., the war room), and that setting won’t fly for group ideation. It’s not always easy to get out of the office, and typically you sacrifice some resources and tools when you do so, but a comfortable coffee shop or park can help break people out of their routine thinking.

Because you want to create an unstructured, lateral, and creative atmosphere, sometimes a more formal setting helps ground a lot of the rigorous, vertical thinkers. Creating a formal environment signals that though you plan to be relaxed and open-minded, the purpose of the meeting is very serious.

Bring The Right Tools To Your Meeting

You won’t need a lot of physical tools to run an effective ideation session, just some basic office supplies and an appropriate environment. The common tools of the trade for ideation sessions are:


  • Butcher paper. Easy to drop on a table and let the group go to work. For some people, it’s less intimidating to use than a whiteboard.


  • Colored Pens. Whiteboard pens work just fine.


  • Stopwatch. A great tool for keeping solo or group ideation sessions to limited durations. Using a stopwatch to create a sense of urgency will not only keep you and your group focused on the task at hand, but it will also push otherwise timid or shy people to get more comfortable, faster.


  • Camera (on your phone). Once you’ve filled a whiteboard, butcher paper, or whatever canvas, you’ll want to snap a photo of your work and digitize it. I like to save my photos off in Evernote, where I can further organize my Ideas and search by text within my photos.


  • Scratch Paper. Give individuals a place to doodle, take notes, write down their thoughts, and stay off of their phones.

Four Rules For Exchanging Ideas

Creating ideas as a team means exchanging ideas. It’s not about trying to change your colleagues’ minds or prove something, it’s about being open, honest, and clear with your thinking. Humility is crucial, and hierarchy is meaningless. Everyone should be viewed as equals in an ideation group.

In his book Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas, James L. Adams puts forth the rules to brainstorming as:

  • There is no criticism, evaluation, judgment, or defense of ideas during the brainstorming session. The purpose of brainstorming is to generate as many ideas related to the topic as possible in the time allowed. Evaluation, judgment, and selection of ideas are the purposes of subsequent sessions.
  • Free wheeling and free association is encouraged. Group members are asked to voice any solutions they can think of, no matter how outrageous or impractical they seem. There is no limit on “wild” or “far-fetched” ideas. Every idea is to be expressed.
  • Quantity is more desired than quality. Group members are encouraged to contribute as many ideas as they think of. The greater the number of ideas generated, the more likely it is that there will be several useful ideas.
  • Building on ideas is encouraged. Combining, adding to, and “piggybacking” on ideas is part of the creative process. Members can suggest improvements, variations, or combinations of previous ideas.

Adams, J.L. (1979). Conceptual blockbusting: A guide to better ideas (2nd ed.). New York: W.W. Norton

Enforce Participation

Groups that can act democratically produce the best Ideas. Regardless of who you invite, every attending member of a session needs to be an active participant. Having guests and onlookers present at an ideation meeting destroys the equality of individuals and could limit the contributions of more quiet participants. On the flip side, no single individual should dominate the meeting, especially not the boss(es) or manager(s).

How to Start a Session

All ideation sessions should start with the organizer reiterating the objective of the session, the goals, and the agenda. If it’s a new group, consider starting with an opening game. Five minutes is enough for a quick opening exercise. Opening games get participants out of the rigorous, vertical-thinking mindset we operate in for so much of our 9 to 5 work days.

Sometimes, the best opening exercise can be to create a list of questions for participants to chew on. Silly games are an easy way to open an ideation session. You could ask your team:

“What’s the worst idea everyone had?”

“What’s the funniest idea everyone had?”

Your goal in opening the meeting is to create energy and optimism before the hard work begins. Don’t worry about producing anything of value when opening an ideation session.

Your Job as The Facilitator

The facilitator is the most important member of the ideation team. Your role as facilitator is to get more ideas out of your team, enforce the rules, track the time, and justify the process you’ve laid out.

You shouldn’t “run the meeting” in a traditional sense. Don’t call on people to offer up ideas. If there’s a long silence during an exercise and you feel the meeting needs to move forward, feel free to prompt an attendee to contribute, but otherwise let the meeting progress naturally.

Make it Safe

Everyone’s afraid of sharing bad ideas. We’re afraid of being judged at work and being less respected by our colleagues. That’s why we play it safe. The problem with playing it safe is that it’s very difficult to separate bad ideas from good ones, and eliminating seemingly bad Ideas limits the potential for good ideas. Your job as a leader and facilitator is to make the group feel comfortable sharing bad Ideas.

“Yes, What Else?”

When bad ideas come up, say, “Yes, what else?” This is a generative statement that stops judgment and opens the door for others to contribute their bad ideas. Another helpful tactic is asking participants to come forward with their second-best idea. This takes pressure off of your participants.

Other Helpful Facilitation Questions

Instead of explaining all the do nots of facilitating, I’ll pass along a few key questions that can help move your exercises along in a productive direction:

  • I don’t know, can you explain further?
  • Can you clarify what you mean?
  • How do you feel about this?
  • Are we going in the right direction?

Of course, there are questions like: “How can we prioritize this list?” “How can we make this idea feasible?” These and others may be appropriate based on the stage of the framework you’re operating in. Any time you ask probing and open-ended questions, expect some occasional silence and discomfort. Sit with it and let it pass.

This article is repurposed from our new book, “The Content Marketer’s Guide to Ideation.” This massive 187-page guide is available free as a PDF (get it here), and is also available in Kindle and paperback.

Humor is a Hint

Reward a little silliness from group members. Humor keeps people loose and encourages them to take creative risks. Anyone who compromises fun and lightness in an ideation session should be removed—that’s how seriously you should take fun. Sometimes, as you encourage humor and bizarre ideas, a participant will run with outrageous ideas to try to make laughs. Keep this from hijacking the meeting by asking the participant to elaborate on their idea.

In-Game Roles

You, as the facilitator, decide whether an idea is a duplicate of one already listed, but you can be vetoed if the originator of the idea disagrees with you. You can ask a designated note taker to read the list of ideas aloud if necessary. The most important rule in an ideation session is to enforce that no team member is allowed to evaluate ideas as they’re being generated.

The common lines you’ll hear when people start evaluating ideas is:

  • “That’s a silly idea.”
  • “Too expensive.”
  • “We’ve already tried that.”
  • “How would that relate to….”
  • “We already know that….”
  • “You’re missing the point….”

Often, you’ll see body language like crossed arms and people checking their phones before making these sorts of statements. Stop the group when you hear these statements. Even if you know that a particular Idea will eventually be thrown out, don’t throw it out. If an idea is completely off base, address why it is wrong, and make that discussion productive. Redirect your team in the right direction—don’t correct.

Meeting Duration

Though you blocked off an hour on your team members’ calendars, 30 minutes is often plenty of time to deconstruct Artifacts as a team. Don’t go over an hour, even if Ideas are flowing. You don’t want people to get completely tapped out. If participants have additional ideas to share, ask them to email them or add them to a shared document after the meeting. Lastly, you’ll always find more if at the end of an ideation session you say,

“Let’s add just 10 more ideas in the next minute.”

Closing a Group Ideation Session

Closing an ideation meeting can mean assigning pieces to team members, crossing off irrelevant ideas, and/or selecting ideas to pursue further. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve made conclusions about the best ideas or even generated any fruitful content ideas. You can close a session by simply saying,

“These ideas give me something to chew on, but we’ll need at least one connection ideation session to produce the kinds of ideas I’m looking for. In the next session, we’ll work on exercises which will help provide structure and priority to these thoughts.”

Be skeptical if you close a session and the group has already closed their minds around a particular idea or path. Usually, when a thought prevails in a group, it signals that people aren’t thinking, but trying to conform.

If this happens, it’s likely you either:

  1. haven’t created a safe environment where people feel free to disagree.
  2. haven’t clarified the objective of the ideation session.

Group Ideation Summary

Group ideation is a tremendous tool to expand your pool of potential Ideas and Artifacts. It can be used to do exercises throughout this book, but it’s never a replacement for individual ideation.

Remember these guidelines for group ideation:

  • Keep your team small.
  • Give them instructions/objectives/agendas.
  • Choose a creative environment.
  • Come prepared with resources.
  • Ask participants to come prepared with thoughts.
  • Don’t allow criticism (unless the session is focused on decision making).
  • Make it safe.
  • Enforce participation.
  • Keep it short.
  • “Open” your session.
  • Ask: “What else?”
  • “Close” your session.

This article is repurposed from our new book, “The Content Marketer’s Guide to Ideation.” This massive 187-page guide is available free as a PDF (get it here), and is also available in Kindle and paperback.

You May Also Like:

How to Diagnose a Drop in Organic…

August 13, 2015

  There are few things in the life of a website that are more frightening…

Read More

3 AdWords Metrics That Actually Matter

October 2, 2015

A quick overview of often-overlooked data superstars For any AdWords newbie or expert, the data…

Read More

Do-It-Yourself SEO Audits

March 19, 2014

An Insanely Quick & Easy Process For Analyzing Your Site For Common SEO Errors It’s…

Read More