Create Great School Marketing Content With Smarter Brainstorming

Brainstorming is one of the best parts of school marketing. The aha moments are just as great as the moments where you realize what you just said was, well, kind of silly. Because that’s brainstorming. My silly thought might lead to your aha moment, and that might lead to our next brilliant idea.

As a concept, brainstorming has been around since 1939, when advertising executive Alex Osburn laid out a few basic tenants (although he didn’t actually use the term “brainstorming” until 1953). Since then, the creative industry has twisted and expanded what it actually means to brainstorm. Sometimes that works, but many times we’re approaching brainstorming all wrong. And because of that, we’re probably missing a lot of outstanding ideas.

Let’s take a look at what Osburn outlined for us, and how we can use his fundamentals to develop great ideas and, ultimately, great content.


Osburn’s brainstorming standards

“Focus on quantity.”

In other words, the more ideas, the better. Eventually you’ll hit on something great, but the time spent shouting out the first few things that come to mind is not wasted. Don’t hold out until you have a great big idea, share the little ones, too.

“Withold criticism.”

There are no bad ideas during a brainstorming session. Ever. So instead of taking the time to call out why someone’s thought wasn’t spot on, see if you can use the bad idea to spark a good one. If you can’t, just move on. Bringing negative attention to someone in a brainstorming session is a great way to ensure they won’t share their next idea, even when it’s a great one, and it makes everyone else hesitant to speak up, too.

“Welcome unusual ideas.”

Osburn suggests looking at things from a new perspective and also removing any assumptions. Instead of being bogged down in concerns over what will work tactically, what fits in the budget or if a quirky idea will ever be implemented, just think freely.

“Combine and improve ideas.”

This is where ideas take flight. Don’t be hesitant to delve deeper into a combination of ideas to see where they can go together.

We should all run our brainstorming sessions with these rules in mind because the goal of brainstorming is to collect ideas, not instantly develop a fully vetted strategy. As school marketers, you do also have to distill those ideas to determine what’s realistic, how it fits with the strategy and if it fits in the budget. But first, you need the ideas. Just like in the craft of writing, editing should be saved until the end. Don’t censor your creativity during the brainstorming process – let the ideas flow and save the red pen for later.

Set the stage for Osborn-approved brainstorming sessions 

  • Appoint a brainstorming moderator to kickoff the session and keep it on track. This person should listen and gently guide the conversation.
  • Share the four rules with your brainstorming group at the start of the session. If people know that unconventional thinking is encouraged and that no idea will be ridiculed, they’ll be more likely to speak up.
  • Record the session or bring in someone whose only role is to take notes. That way none of the thinkers have to worry about jotting down their ideas.
  • Gather a diverse group of people. Remember, you want fresh perspectives, so look outside the marketing department. You’ll get unique points of view from people whose brains aren’t clouded by an existing creative brief or strategy. As an added bonus, you’ll be giving employees throughout the company a feeling of ownership in the content that gets created.

Marketers from a variety of industries have insightful tips and tactics that can help improve your next brainstorming session.

Mix up your team. “We’ve found that putting people together for article brainstorming who write for clients in completely different verticals can be an excellent way of introducing some fresh thinking. Your tech writers might not be too familiar with the hot topics and recurring themes in health care, but the questions they ask might be just the stimulus that your health writers need to come up with some truly original article ideas.” – Adam Barber of Castleford Media via Search Engine Journal

Define the problem, not the solution. “While everyone gets an opportunity to think creatively during a brainstorming session, there should be a practical purpose for your gathering, or else you may end up going nowhere. When the conversation strays, remind everyone about the problem you’re trying to solve, and keep working toward that objective.” – Richard Branson for Virgin – Entrepreneur

Compile more than just a few ideas. “Don’t jump into deep discussion on the first few ideas. The idea here is to amass a big list of ideas. They won’t all be big winners, but sometimes, crazy ideas lead to great things.” – Yvonne Lyons for Right Source Marketing

Resist the urge to reinvent the wheel. “Content marketers often waste time by starting from scratch with a blank screen, rather than looking for models they can use as the basis of their current project. Save time planning your next content marketing project by looking for examples of what’s worked in the past.” – Roger C. Parker for Content Marketing Institute

Keep writing materials on hand. “You always need something to record your thoughts. If you wait and think you will remember later, too late.” – Tim Jones of Cybrix via Inc.

Cube it out. “In [the brainstorming strategy Cubing], a topic or idea is examined from six distinct viewpoints, hence the name. Describe the topic (what is it?), compare it (what is it like or unlike?), associate it (what does it make you think of?), analyze it (what constituent parts is it made of?), apply it (how can it be used?), and argue for and/or against it (how can you support or oppose it?). – Mark Nichol via DailyWritingTips

Encourage uniform participation within a group. “[Brain writing is a strategy] designed to generate lots and lots of ideas in a short amount of time. … Hand out sheets with space for a topic or keyword at the top of the page and space where ideas can be written. It can be a different topic for each person or the same for everyone. Write ideas. Pass the sheet to the next person, who adds more ideas, using the existing ideas to build off where possible. Keep going until you’re done.” – Kaila Strong for Social Media Today

Change perspectives. “Imagine being someone else—such as how your biggest competitor would think about the problem or a completely unrelated industry would think about the problem. How would a 5-year-old solve your problem? What would Picasso do?” – Anita Campbell of Small Business Trends LLC, via OPEN Forum

Mind map it. “Create a mind map – a constellation of main topics and subtopics or of related points – on a large sheet of paper, a whiteboard, or another surface that all participants can see, or simply list suggestions in roster form.” – Mark Nichol via DailyWritingTips

Try brainswarming. “To start brainswarming, write the goal or problem you need to achieve or solve on a big piece of paper and have your team sit silently and write down different ways to tackle it with your company’s resources in mind. Once the right resources are found, you’ve come up with your solution.” – Dr. Tony McCaffrey for Harvard Business Review via 99U

Allow for the incubation of further ideas. “If you’ve had a productive session, ideas will continue to occur to people for hours or days after the session. Ask everyone to write down these ideas and submit them later to record along with the main session notes.” – Dean Rieck for Copyblogger

Get solo brainstorming assistance

These fun, helpful tools can get those creative juices flowing when you’re brainstorming alone, and can also help further your ideas post- group brainstorming session.

Portent’s Content Idea Generator

Just enter your topic into Portent’s Content Idea Generator and voila! Headline. And even if what it delivers doesn’t quite fit, it can help get you on the right track. Plus it’s kinda fun. Just keep hitting refresh and it’ll keep delivering new headline options!

Quandary’s Content Idea Generator

Quandary’s version of the idea generator is a little more in-depth. Once you register, you have to answer some questions about your business and customers. It’s worth the time though, since it then gives you 360 content ideas to choose from. Like Portent’s, they won’t all be a good fit (and might not even be grammatically correct) but it still can prove useful in coming up with new ideas you haven’t explored yet.

Osborn showed us how brainstorming can work, and it’s worth the time to uphold his standards (and maybe create some new ones of your own). The outcome of this type of brainstorming session is always better, and the journey is incredibly fun.

Want to use smart brainstorming to create a standout school marketing story? Learn more about working with us.

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