Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Staying Creative as a Content Marketer

A colleague suggested I write this, and it’s been percolating at the back of my brain, getting tickled by the bubbles of misfiring neurons, for the last seven days.

In the giddy world of content marketing, where engagement and innovation reign like Louis XIV, creativity isn't just a bonus; it's an essential part of the mix. As a content marketing “expert” – “ex” being the unknown quantity and “spert” being a drip under pressure - my job is to be thinking out of the box, tapping into new trends and thinking, immersing myself in a topic I usually have no knowledge about going in, and creating fresh content that resonates with a specific target audience. Originality at capacity is our bread and butter. How do I stay consistently creative - ahead of time, on spec, and under budget - in an always-evolving environment?


Well, I’m glad you asked.

Understanding the Importance of Creativity 


“Alexa, what is Creativity?”

“Creativity is the innate or cultivated ability to transcend traditional thinking, develop original ideas, and discover uncharted paths of expression and problem-solving. It is not confined to the arts but permeates all aspects of life, from scientific innovation to business strategies. Creativity involves connecting disparate ideas, thinking laterally, and taking risks to create something new and valuable. It's a dynamic and often unpredictable process that engages the mind, emotions, and spirit, transforming the way we see and interact with the world. Creativity is the spark that ignites innovation and breathes life into our everyday experiences.”

“Yeah, whatevs. Play Spotify.” 


Creativity pays the bills.

Strategies to Boost Creativity 

Always be Learning

Never stop trying new things. I’ve dabbled in podcasting, virtual worlds, VR, AR, AI, and so many other things before they made it to the mainstream because curiosity is important. 

I was an early Second Life adopter and joined Twitter and Facebook the day they went public. I was also a big user of Google Lively and a multiple Mayor on Foursquare. Some become useful, and some fall by the wayside. They do, however, stimulate ideas. 

I once won a New Statesman Award for the best green campaign by building trees in a virtual world, selling them in-world, and using the L$ to plant trees in meat-space, allowing people to carbon offset their virtual lives as Second Life hit the cultural zeitgeist. I was adding locations to the Niantic database when it was Ingress, meaning some of my retail clients suddenly found they were Pokémon Go hubs and were inundated with potential customers. I use AI in my work daily, and have been for nearly a year. Specialisation is for insects.

Always be playing. Always be experimenting. Always be learning. Always be curious. It stimulates ideas, and you never know what’s going to become useful. As long as you're green, you're growing. As soon as you're ripe, you start to rot. 

Invest in yourself and attend workshops and seminars. Visit trade shows. Learning from experts keeps things fresh. Seek out wisdom. Engaging with fellow creative minds nurtures your innovative spirit. Once a month, I Skype with my old colleagues from Conversify, Karen Woodward and Shelli Martineau (who are social media and creative content geniuses), and it's always inspiring - sometimes, we record it for the Bad Twin Podcast. I get together for virtual coffees with the content markers who are using AI at one of our agencies just to shoot the breeze after work and share prompt ideas.

Books on creativity, marketing, art, branding, psychology, graphic design, history, and even fiction can expand our thinking, and I've an ever-growing collection of eBay bargains that I sit upon like Smaug. Flicking through the pages, rubbing my chin like a veritable BookWyrm, when the creative fancy takes me.


Daily Creative Habits

Coffee first, then I head up to my office. 

Job número uno I scan my emails. I have our BDMs and sales engineers in the loop to provide me with content suggestions to support what they do. If they have a client or prospect with a specific content or usage case, that may be an excuse for a solution brief, an explainer video, or a new angle on a success story. A blog post, if nothing else. We’re part of the marketing team – never forget we’re there to support the sales process. You are not being paid to be creative without a business case for it. In the words of Capt. Jack Aubrey, “We do not have time for your damned hobbies, sir!” We’re not being paid to believe in the power of our dreams – if that’s your thing and you make a living from it, good on ya, but alas, that's rare, and I like a regular paycheck.


Once I’m happy nothing’s broken or needs my attention, and I’ve made a few notes of anything for action, I take the dogs out for a walk. Physical movement stimulates mental agility and creative thinking. I’m very lucky. I live in the spectacular Sperrins, the largest mountain range in Ireland, spanning some 40 miles. Regardless, the same stimulation existed when I lived in Leeds, Nottingham, Denver, Stockholm, or anywhere outside my home office. Not focusing on a pair of monitors eight inches from my nose is a must and gives fresh stimulus and time to mull ideas. I might see some cool signage, a Pine Martin, a tractor rally, talk to a neighbor, or I might just think of a different way to phrase something for clarity. I wouldn’t get that at my desk, and it’s all a catalyst for creativity. A few months ago, Alison in the Post Office complained to me about the effects of the cyberattack on the UK postal service, so home I went to write a guest post about the effect on rural communities for link-building. Subconscious processing during this 'incubation period' can lead to unexpected and innovative solutions.


When I return to my desk I usually make notes and put any thoughts in ink. I have a notebook worthy of a serial killer and the search history of a domestic terrorist. If your desktop doesn’t look like Verdun, do you even work in content marketing? Writing freely each morning can clear mental clutter and spark new ideas. It might not be relevant today, but in 6 months’ time, it could be the seed for an entire campaign or a white paper on whatever. My partner calls it “Dopermining,” but even when I watch TV in the evening, I hit Wikipedia or IMDB to “find out more.”


NB: ALWAYS write an idea down, or at least take a screen grab or leave the tab open. Nearly 30 years of doing this has taught me that I won’t remember it if I don’t, even if I think I will. Give the likes of Evernote a go.

Regarding moving, I also love a standing desk and have been using one for decades. This is my current setup:

Which brings me on to:


Building a Creative Workspace 

A sedentary body is a sedentary mind. Also, it’s bad for the waistline. 


I spend at least half the day upright at my desk, some of that getting my steps in with an under-desk treadmill, tapping away about all things cybersecurity. Standing lets me step back and gives me a different perspective. The rest of the time, I sit on an exercise ball. This means I don’t have to move the treadmill, and it’s great for posture, so I’m not bending over my keyboard like a croissant. I appreciate that not everyone can afford the luxury of a desk like this, but I began with a bit of DIY and a wireless keyboard. Get creative. This is how I started many moons ago, with a bit of spare pine bolted to an adjustable shelf.

If you don’t work from home, ask about a change in your environment come appraisal time. Agencies, especially, are often surprisingly amenable to the idea of a communal standing hot desk, and Ikea does some low-budget starter packages that won’t break the bank. During COVID we got a "home office payment," so I bought a secondhand Flexispot base from Facebook Marketplace and a bit bit of nice oak for esthetics, which I'm still using today. In total, it cost me about £250, but it is a REALLY nice bit of oak. The treadmill was partially bought with Amazon vouchers from some VO work I did for a friend.


Sometimes it’s good to take a step back. Surround yourself with colours, books, objects, and artwork that inspire you. Structure your space in a way that stimulates and doesn't stifle your thinking. If you can, have a view with a window nearby. Changing scenery or rearranging your workspace can shift your mental state and stimulate creativity. Yes, sometimes I do play with those action figures in work time.


While I’m working I listen to an eclectic array of music and podcasts. I even watch YouTube or BritBox (but nothing I have to concentrate on) on my iPad. Don’t limit yourself to your usual – try Nordic Folk, Polynesian Pop, Trance, Frank Zappa, Ganstergrass, or someone else's playlist made for running around a castle at midnight or selling your soul at the crossroads at midnight. Feel free to have a root through my playlists on Spotify. Staying in your comfort zone defeats the purpose.


Weekly Internals

Once a week we have a marketing dept. team call, and I solicit ideas and suggestions for gaps in our assets catalogue. I also ask for anything for our weekly internal newsletter (all the what’s new and fluff that’s good for LinkedIn sharing) that they’ve produced and invite contributions for proofreading and brand compliance, which all come under my remit. I also attend the big weekly sales pow-wow because nine times out of ten it stimulates an idea or another usage case, plus it keeps me on the sales team's radar. I can't create a conversation if I’m not a part of the conversation.


Regular collaboration with team members can ignite fresh ideas. Engaging with colleagues from different areas of the business can provide new perspectives. Figurative speaking, I'll turn up to the opening of an envelope if there might be a story in it.


Here's an infamous anecdote I’m paraphrasing from my old boss, Trevor, at Tank PR:


“I worked with a veteran PR guy who would sit in the loading bay at his company. He’d sit there every so often and just watch. Eventually, he’d spot something, like a pallet going to Zimbabwe or a special order going to New Zealand, and he’d have his story.”


Leveraging Technology for Creativity 

Platforms like MindMeister allow us to visually organise our ideas. Tools like Feedly can help us stay updated on the latest trends and inspiration. 

While not directly a creativity tools, Zapier or HeyData's automation of repetitive tasks can free up time and mental energy, allowing content marketers to focus more on the creative aspects of our work. Admittedly somewhat whimsical, if you're stuck for a blog or content ideas Portent generates suggestions based on keywords, often sparking inspiration for unique angles - especially for SEO content. While primarily a grammar-checking tool, the free version of Grammarly can also help in refining the tone and style of writing, aiding us brain-weary content monkeys in crafting compelling text – infinite monkeys, infinite typewriters. 

AI is fried-gold and, with the right input, can be brilliant in generating creative content and providing innovative ideas – see this post for more on that. 


There's a lot of good resources out there, and ten minutes on PinterestBehance, or 99Designs can get the creative juices flowing if you're looking for infographic ideas or new ways of displaying data.

The Creative Block

Even though professional work is driven by process and necessity, it can happen to the best of us. 


Recognise what might be causing the block and address it. This invariably involves introspection and some observation of my work habits and mental state. Considering factors like recent stressors, unrealistic expectations, fear of failure, fear of "the unknown" when you write a lot of technical content like I do, the need for stimulus, or even external distractions - any of these may be inhibiting our creativity. Reflecting on changes in our routine or environment, and assessing how we feel about the project itself, can often illuminate underlying issues that have led to staring at the screen for the last fifteen minutes. Sometimes this raises an inner tut, and I realize I'm just procrastinating and need to break a big task down into smaller tasks so that I can crack on.

Often, stepping away for a while can bring back creativity and give me a fresh angle. Trying painting, baking, new tools, online Dungeons and Dragons, or playing music can all unlock hidden creativity. New experiences and cultures provide a fresh perspective. 


The most surprising insights can come from unexpected places. I find that creativity often thrives in a non-linear way, and exploring new avenues can help us reconnect with our creative flow and find the spark we need to continue our project. Turning things around and considering new approaches is good practice: Take, for example, this video, where I embraced and highlighted the limitations rather than looking to create the standard case study assets.


Go for lunch with younger or older colleagues outside your departmental bubble. Brainstorm, or just chat. Sometimes, a fresh perspective from a workmate or friend can provide the spark needed to break through a creative impasse. Speak aloud to the dog; vocalisation is underrated. New ways of looking at things, and new insights, are all around us.


Putting too much pressure on yourself for the perfect idea can stifle creativity. Embrace a growth mindset, recognising that mistakes and imperfections are part of the creative process. There's plenty of opportunity to polish things later. Instead of fixating on a single solution, try to generate a multitude of ideas. Embrace thinking that doesn't follow a straight path and allow yourself to explore possibilities.

Techniques such as the Six Thinking Hats or SCAMPER can provide a structured approach to thinking creatively, guiding us through the different angles and aspects of a problem.


An old boss, Aliza, suggested mindfulness during one of our podcasts. She’s written books on the subject. Mindfulness practices can help clear mental clutter, allowing new ideas to surface. As a white Gen X male from Lancashire, I didn't consider the benefit until I was challenged to try it. Meditation, in whatever form makes us comfy, helps nurture a state of relaxed attention where our creativity can flourish. Stop. Clear your mind. Give ideas a chance.

Embrace The Creative Journey 


Staying creative as a content marketer isn't just about sudden sparks of brilliance. It's about cultivating an environment, both within and around you, that continuously nurtures and encourages creative thinking. Sometimes it’s about attitude – it’s not writing twenty FAQs for SEO; it’s a fresh crop of word puzzles that must be conquered. Whether adopting new daily habits, restructuring your workspace, collaborating with others, or embracing new tools, remember that creativity isn't a finite resource. It's a renewable energy that thrives on curiosity, exploration, and a willingness to experiment.


Sure, it’s work, but when I publish a piece of research I’m proud of or something of genuine value to our target audience and picked up for syndication, it feels like more than work. Embrace the wonderful chaos of professional creativity. Let it lead you down unexpected paths, open up new doors, and fill your content with the kind of humanized energy and originality that resonates with your audience. 


The road to inspiration is wide open, and it's ours to travel. Now I just have to practice what I preach.