Lateral thinking involves approaching problems from new directions. Instead of doing the routine, logical thing, what is termed “linear thinking,” you come at the problem from the side. Breakthroughs can only occur when assumptions are broken (hence the break in breakthrough). So how can we “break the rules” of content marketing to make something great?

Start with your brand or product and take a giant step backward from everything you think about it. To try a lateral thinking approach, we’ve got to get rid of the assumptions around how we think about the subject. Chances are your brand is something you know a lot about, which can make it hard to actually consider it in a new light.

Start By Exploring Relationships

We can start by writing the subject on a piece of paper, and then creating a bubble chart around it exploring tangential relationships. Write anything down that strikes you, using lines to indicate connections to the original content or other elements you have on the page. Don’t question if something doesn’t seem to make sense, write down whatever comes to mind. If you get stuck, move to a new line and think about something new. Keep doing this until you are well and truly stuck.

If you’re a Conductor Searchlight user, you can actually plug the ideas you’re coming up with into Explorer and find other related keywords to add to your chart.

Example of lateral thinking in content marketing.

The beginning of a lateral thinking exercise around Conductor’s product: our SEO platform.

Then go do something else totally unrelated. Give any ideas some time to incubate, but if you don’t get a Eureka moment, it’s time to jumpstart some illumination.

Break Through Assumptions by Asking Questions

Start by asking yourself the question, “How would a typical person approach this problem?” Map out obvious, straightforward solutions. Then ask yourself, “What if I couldn’t go this route?” With your chart in front of you, ask yourself these questions:

  • How would a type of person of a different background or expertise look at this challenge?
  • How have other industries (not your own) approached similar challenges in the past?
  • If no one would get in trouble for anything you tried, what could you do?
  • What assumptions are we making about the question itself, and what if those assumptions weren’t true? (Even better: list them out and ask this question for each one individually.)
  • How would you stop you from succeeding with your proposed solution if you were someone else?
  • What would an expert recommend we do? (Then do the opposite.)
  • How could we solve this problem 100 times cheaper than we presently do? (So cheap that you couldn’t just do the same thing more efficiently.)
  • How could we make this 10 times better? (So much better that you couldn’t just do more of what you’re already doing.)

Write the question you’re trying to solve at the top of the page, and as quickly as you can, write down 20-30 answers. Write some deliberately bad answers if you get stuck. It feels counter-intuitive because it will force you to confront assumptions you might not even be aware of. 

Once you have an idea, you need to verify it by asking other people about it. If they are indifferent or confused, you have to look at your idea again and judge whether or not it’s as brilliant as you thought. In the end, only you can make that call; once you’re all done, start developing your brilliant idea into content!

Bring Lateral Thinking to Your Team Through Brainstorming

You have a lot of new ingredients to add to your content marketing strategy, and that’s the perfect time to consider them from a creative angle with your team so they don’t too comfortable with a status quo. So bring everyone together for some productive, idea-generating work: the brainstorm.

But this isn’t your grandmother’s brainstorm. This is a brainstorm dedicated to lateral thinking, just like the solo work we discussed above. There are some rules to the brainstorm (respect is a big one), but there are no “stupid ideas” in the room. Encourage people to think outside the box through questions that encourage going outside the box.

Here’s some best practices that will help you build a great brainstorm:

  • Know the “why” of the brainstorm. Typically, brainstorms are successful when they’re led as a process to discovering lots and lots of ideas that may or may not be successful when implemented. Brainstorms are not about quality, analysis, or decision making… they are all about quantity.
  • If possible, ask your participants to come prepared with questions or ideas.
  • Clarify and enforce the rules of the brainstorm. As a facilitator, it’s your job to clearly identify and plan for the desired outcome you want. It’s also your job to enforce the rules as a neutral party. (This is why it’s not always a good idea to host the brainstorm if you’re the boss—you don’t want your participants to fear, well, the effects of participation!)
  • Don’t brainstorm first. It’s a good idea to have “warm up” conversation to get your group acquainted with (read: comfortable with) each other. Not many people will share their ideas (good or bad) with a group of strangers, so ease into the conversation as much as possible.
  • Have a plan, and get specific with your problems. For content marketers, that means answering the questions your audience has (or doesn’t even know they have yet).
  • Stray from the middle of the road, but don’t get lost. A brainstorm isn’t a linear diagram. Get unorthodox. Phrase questions in ridiculous ways to see the range of responses you get, and then validate them all.
  • Don’t stick to the status quo. Ask participants to take certain people, functions, products, etc., out of the equation or add them in to see what would happen (or wouldn’t happen or what you would need to do to achieve your objectives.
  • Get everyone on board by implementing visual tools. Post-it notes, whiteboards, blank pieces of paper, play-doh, modeling clay… brainstorm with your whole brain (right brain included!).
  • Think about the atmosphere: Do you have judge-y participants? If you have people nixing ideas that “won’t work” and frustrating others (thus defeating the purpose), turn it around and take control. Remember, as a moderator, it’s up to you to emphasize quantity—every idea should be weighted as equal in a brainstorm.
  • If the group isn’t getting involved, break up the team into small groups to meet for a few minutes individually to come up with a set number of ideas to present. This takes a bit of the pressure from the individual, especially those who don’t do well reacting without time to think first. Make sure you have someone recording everything, too, so you can have a record of the group’s ideas that you all can refer to—these notes may also spur on other ideas in future sessions (plus it’s easy to forget the nuances of your ideas after the fact).

Once you’ve got some ideas from lateral thinking, it’s time to start creating and optimizing your content. Check out our SEO 101 for Content Marketers e-book to make sure your amazing content actually gets found.

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