Marketers are creative people that tend to have a lot of ideas. So why is coming up with ideas when content creators, marketers, and problem solvers need them most is so difficult? There are a lot of reasons, but also a lot of simple solutions.
Today’s guest is Melanie Deziel, Director of Content at Foundation Inc. and author of The Content Fuel Framework. Melanie breaks down flawed assumptions about creativity in content and marketing and shares practical tips and processes to replace those assumptions to think more creatively and create better content.
Ben: Hey, Melanie, how's it going this morning?
Melanie: Pretty good. How about you?
Ben: Not too bad. Super excited to have you on the show to talk about The Content Fuel Framework, your book that came out, I think it was last year maybe?
Melanie: It was, yeah. It was early 2020 right as we were all preparing for what we didn't know was going to be a two-year lockdown.
Ben: I feel like my entire sense of the progression of time I think has just been irreparably warped.
Melanie: Yeah. I was just saying that the other day too. It's like things that I think were just a few weeks ago were actually months ago. Then also vice versa, where I'm like wait a sec, hold on, 2020 was almost two years ago. It's all wonky now.
Ben: Yeah, five minutes ago, two years ago, it's all the same. Everything just kind of exists on one solid continuum these days, I feel like. Super excited to have you on the show. To open things up, could you explain what The Content Fuel Framework is and how does it work? Just give me your best elevator pitch.
Melanie: The Content Fuel Framework is essentially a system that you can use to tap into your creativity when you need to come up with content ideas. Because what I found is that so much of what we do in marketing is so organized, regimented, and systematized. We've got spreadsheets and KPIs. We're measuring and organizing everything except for the creative part of the process.
I think there's this human instinct to think that creativity needs to be this complete freeform, no rules, no organization process, but actually, we are much more creative, much more productive, and much more efficient when we have some level of organization around the way we approach coming up with content ideas. That's what the Content Fuel Framework is—an attempt to create a really easy and approachable system for tapping into that creativity when you do need content ideas.
Ben: Sounds great. Marketers typically are creative people and creative people usually have lots of ideas all the time, except for maybe when we need it the most. What makes ideation hard for marketers and for creative professionals maybe in general?
Melanie: I think it's a couple of different things. First off, as you said, we've got lots of different ideas so sometimes, reining in that process to focus on ideas for a specific problem can be a challenge. We're often juggling a lot of different campaigns, platforms, maybe multiple customers, multiple accounts that we're on, and so focusing on that brainwave can be kind of difficult because we're juggling so many things.
The other thing is the lack of process. If we're running a report to measure a specific campaign that has clear steps of what it is that we're doing and how we know when we're done. Whereas something like coming up with content ideas or brainstorming ideas is really abstract, so it's difficult to know where to start, what to do. But the last thing that I think is a real challenge, to be honest, is just that we don't really have a shared language when it comes to talking about content ideas.
I like to make the analogy of what are we having for dinner question. There's never any resolution because there are so many different ways to answer that question. You could answer we're cooking, you could answer Mexican food, you can answer with a specific restaurant, and those are all acceptable answers to that question, but they're not the same type of answer.
I feel like coming up with content ideas is the same thing. You could get in a room and one person says an infographic, another person says an interview, and another person says a series. Those are all kinds of acceptable answers but don't get you to the complete resolution. That lack of shared language can make it really difficult to kind of get everyone's ideas on the same page.
Ben: I think that's a great analogy for it too. I think anybody who has ever asked somewhere, where should we go eat? You might know of a thousand places to go to eat, but at the very moment when someone asks, it's like oh, man, I don't know. I think that analogy works really, really well.
You kind of talked about things being systematized in marketing and we've got a process for everything. What's the real benefit of having an actual process for creative ideation versus maybe the type of attitude that I think marketers and creatives sometimes have where they treat creativity as this unknowable magical thing. How dare you ask me what my process for genius might be? What's the benefit of giving that some structure?
Melanie: I think the real thing is like you mentioned, we all have these ideas, but at that moment, it's really difficult to tap into it when you don't have some sort of process, some sort of system. In a way, it's not limiting what it is that you're doing. It's not keeping you from having that magical genius moment, it's just helping your mind reset to know that now is the time to have that magical genius moment.
It really gives us control over that activity and I think that, as a creative, is empowering. To know that I can sit down, and I'm not going to be stuck or blocked, or I don't have the right coffee, I'm not in the right chair. You're able to consciously turn that switch in your mind to say this is creative time and I know without a doubt I can be productive and I can have that outcome I'm looking for. To me, that's like a superpower. You have your ultimate creativity, but also you can control it when it comes to you. That's the next level.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. If listeners want to begin applying a more structured process to creative ideation, say they want to apply the Content Fuel Framework specifically to their ideation process, what's the first step that they should take? Before I hand the floor over to you, just saying they should buy the book is [...], if you want to start with that. But digging a little bit deeper into just what are the first steps that people should take I think would be really great.
Melanie: Definitely, of course, go ahead and check out the book. I think before you even get there, there are some steps that can help you get a handle on it partially yourself. I think the first thing, and this is what I talked about in the early part of the book, is to stop thinking of the content idea as a single thing that is completely undefined. It has parameters. It has two main parameters. If you can understand that, it makes tackling this process much easier.
The first is a focus. Every piece of content has an angle, a message, a lens through which you're going to tell the story. That's the first half. What is it that we're going to say? Then the second thing that you need to figure out is, how are we going to bring that to life? That's the format. Is it going to be an article, a video, or whatever else?
I think even if you could just make that slight mindset shift to say when I am coming up with a "content idea", I'm actually deciding two things. I'm deciding the focus and the format. If you can make that mindset shift, it's already going to become much easier because you know what those steps are—first decide a focus, then decide the format. That'll help you reign in that process and make it a little bit more organized. That's step one.
Then the other thing you want to do is really hone in on why you're making content, to begin with, because you can put all the processes in the world around it. You can go buy 10 different books about how to make content, but if you're really not sure of the goal like why am I even saying these things? What is it that I'm trying to communicate to my audience? None of that is going to be worth anything if you're not clear on your purpose and your goal because that clarity is required for any sort of productivity.
I would say if you could do those two things first, get really clear on your purpose, why you're creating content, and what you hope it will achieve for you personally, for your business, for your audience. Then if you can wrap your head around the content idea is actually two things—that focus and the format—you'll already start to feel like that whole process is much easier. Then of course, if you do decide to get the book, that'll give you more steps beyond that, that can just kind of help make it a little bit more tangible, a little bit more organized as you move forward from there.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. I love how that gives people a very concrete process just to get started, just move past the blank page, and actually have a repeatable process that you can put into place to start to really zero in on ideas for things that you actually shouldn't be creating and knowing why.
Melanie: Yeah, and bringing it back to that, what should we have for dinner questions like how do we make that more tangible? It's the same thing. What are the two things that we're actually deciding as part of this question? Where's the food going to come from? Are we going to cook it, get it delivered, or go and get it? Those are our options and are we also deciding what is the food that we're going to get? Is it going to be Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, or whatever else?
Again, we're breaking it down into its smaller parts, and that makes that whole decision process so much easier. I think with a question like that, what are we having for dinner, or what content should we create? It's too big of a question. Just breaking it down into smaller parts just makes it so much easier to tackle.
Ben: Something in this conversation that I think is really worth reiterating is the way that process and constraints can actually enable and empower creativity rather than squash it. That feels really counterintuitive, right? We sometimes like to think that creativity flourishes when you take all the boundaries off of everything and you're just going to have these brilliant flashes of insight that are going to lead to the best content you've ever made in your life.
The reality is that that just doesn't happen because that's not really the way it works. One of the hardest parts I think of embracing a lot of the things that Melanie shares in this interview is really getting past that inner struggle when it comes to just the belief that the process is going to prevent creativity rather than enable it. Really, what process does in this context is rather than restrict your creativity, it enables it by allowing you to focus on the problem that is at hand.
There's so much great advice packed into this episode. Thanks to Melanie and her insight. If there's one thing that you take away from this whole conversation or one thing that I personally think is maybe the most important to take away from this conversation, it is that idea that constraints enable creativity. Once you can get past that, the rest of this becomes much easier to apply. Now, back to Melanie.
Once marketers have gotten comfortable with applying the rudiments of a process to ideation, how can they then mature and scale that process so that you can consistently have enough ideas to fill out a content calendar and a pipeline of work that you need to get done?
Melanie: This is kind of what I walk through in the book. I will give you sort of the reader's digest version here. The idea is now that you know what those two elements are—the focus and the format—if you can create for yourself or use some of the suggestions from the book to create a list of options, these are my options for focuses, these are my options for formats, you now have a mix and match capability that can give you a nearly unlimited number of combinations.
Just to make it tangible, as focuses, you might focus on telling the story through the lens of people. Who are the people involved in the story? You could also choose data. What are the numbers involved in the story? How can I talk about it purely from a quantitative standpoint? History is another one. How do we sort of look back at what got us to this point in the story or what contributed to the evolution of the trend that we're examining? Those are three examples of focuses you might choose.
Then for formats, we might write something so it's written content, maybe we do an infographic like we mentioned before or a live video. Now you have three and three combinations. You can mix those focuses in formats and all sorts of different combinations for any possible thing you want to create.
Creating those lists of options, coming back to our dinner analogy, now we have a menu to choose from. It's not an endless number of what do I want to eat, but here are the options for appetizers, here are the options for main dishes, and we can just choose from that list. Makes narrowing it down a whole lot easier. Choosing what's exciting for you, what tools and resources you have available, and what's on-brand.
There's a lot of ways you can construct that list, but just creating one of the tools in your tool belt for focuses and for formats so that when it's time to come up with an idea, you know what your options are, you can combine in unique ways and come up with whatever is going to work for that specific scenario.
Ben: It sounds like really what this process helps people do is you take an infinite number of variables and you break it down to a very minimal number of variables. You don't just have a literally unlimited array of things that your brain has to account for so you can actually focus on what you should be focusing on. Would you say that that's accurate?
Melanie: A hundred percent, yeah. I know that as creatives, I count myself in this bucket, we like to imagine that what we're doing is magical, mystical, no one can control it, and all of that. This is a superpower to be able to turn that energy on when you need it. You do need guardrails, and there's a lot of studies that have shown that when you put some minor guardrails in place to creative activities, it's actually more productive, it's more efficient. You get to the point faster because if you don't know your destination, if you don't know the various routes available to get there, how can you possibly get there?
Even if you do, it's often going to be a process of elimination of getting to a lot of other places first until you finally end up where you want it to go. Just having some minor guardrails, we're not talking about limiting your ideas, your abilities, but just giving yourself a direction to head in, it just makes that process so much more efficient.
I always tell people, regardless of what variables you plugin, what focuses you want to use, what formats you want to use, if you want to add another variable for yourself, for the different audiences that you want to reach, or something else, as long as you have broken it down into some smaller steps with some guardrails, you're going to get to your destination of an idea that's usable so much faster. Hopefully, just removing some of those variables or at least putting them in an order of some kind makes it a lot less intimidating.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. I think that is so true and something that I've long felt that feels counterintuitive, but I think is just something that doesn't really get talked about enough or maybe isn't super well understood is that constraints enable creativity.
Melanie: A hundred percent.
Ben: It seems like the opposite should be true, but it's not. I think that's a hard thing for a lot of people who do consider themselves to be creatively minded, I think that's really difficult for people to get past.
Melanie: I read The Organized Mind, I don't know if other audiences have read this book, but it kind of gave me the visual of our brains almost as a filing system. You've got all these different drawers and all these different files that you're collecting all of your information. Choosing a file at random is actually really difficult because you have to make choices to get there, you have to pick a filing cabinet, pick a drawer, pick a folder, and so it doesn't feel random. It feels really difficult.
Whereas if you have to pick a file from this drawer, there's still plenty of room for creativity there, but there are far fewer decisions for you to make to have to get there. It's really just a matter of making it easier for you to sort through an unlimited number of options.
I think everyone can relate to this, hopefully, in some way, where if you have a special skill of some kind, maybe you draw, or you tell jokes, or you sing, or you speak another language other than English, and someone just turns to you when they find this out, and they go oh, tell a joke, or say something in this language, your brain freezes up because there are so many options of every joke or every word in a language. You get paralyzed by the amount of options.
If you can narrow that down to sing Happy Birthday or sing a pop song, you just make it that much easier to get to the destination. I think we know this and so many other areas of our lives, but again, creativity just seems so inherently unstructured that it's sacrilegious to suggest that we put some limitations on it to help us get there.
Ben: If you can win that mental battle with yourself, you really do a lot to put yourself into a better position to succeed. Once marketers have mastered the application of The Content Fuel Framework, to the extent that it's possible to actually master anything, I feel like there's no real endpoint. Once they get good at putting this process into place and it just becomes routine, what kind of outcomes can they expect to drive? How is life as a marketer, as a creative professional, how's it going to be different after you start applying this process versus maybe how it might have been before?
Melanie: I'm always cautious about making big gigantic promises because I know that everyone's situation, their life, their job, their industry are very different. From readers, some of the things that I have heard or folks who have been in a workshop with me, the thing that makes me so happy is when I hear I don't feel blocked anymore. They're not having that moment of I don't know what to post, I don't know what to say, or I don't know what we should share. That whole feeling of not having anything is kind of gone.
You can start to see content ideas as more of a renewable resource rather than something that there's like a limited supply of, which I think is really freeing to not feel that tension, that feeling of emptiness at any point is really cool.
I think it also gives you a chance to tell stories in a more interesting way. There's this feeling of excitement that might come back. I think a lot of marketers and creators sometimes start to feel like, man, I'm really telling the same stories over and over again, or all these case studies are starting to blend together. You can feel that sameness, and so I think getting this injection of fresh options brings back some of that excitement of like, oh man, there are new and exciting ways for me to do what I thought was just the same thing.
If we can sprinkle a little bit of excitement back into what it is that we're doing and hopefully make the options feel plentiful instead of scarce, that's a good outcome in my mind.
Ben: Sure, absolutely. Melanie, thanks so much for coming on the show. This has been a fantastic conversation. Obviously, everybody listening to this episode should go look up The Content Fuel Framework, which I'm sure is available probably wherever you find books on the internet. If people want to get in touch or they want to follow you anywhere online, where's the best place to find you?
Melanie: For your one-stop shopping, so to speak, storyfuel.co. That's my main website, so you can find information there about the book, where you can get it, about speaking and workshops. You could find all my social links there if you want to connect with me on your network of choice, and I always give the caveat that I spend the most time on Twitter. If you're a Twitter person, I'm there as @mdeziel. You could find me there and we can talk about content and creativity all day.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.