Will Isolation Kill Creativity and Innovation — Or Reinvigorate Us?

As the pandemic continues to isolate many, we have to wonder if this isolation will eat away at our creativity and innovation — the fuel that great marketers live off of. Or, will it reinvigorate us?

Happy Memorial Day 2020. To say the least, I salute our fallen soldiers and sailors. They matter greatly to us. This year, of course, we know of another “frontline” of warriors battling a grave threat. We’re also thinking of them — some of whom have succumbed. We mourn and are humbled by their sacrifice, too. Fighting and dying to protect us. Fighting and dying to preserve our freedoms.

Continued adherence to local public health mandates for social distancing and isolation is perhaps the best way we can honor these heroes. We cannot let down our home guard.

And yet, it’s the unofficial start of summer. And my mind and body are eager for familiar patterns this time of year — in a world that is anything but familiar. Much of what I love about late spring inevitably means 1) making plans to go places — and then going; 2) sharing experiences; and 3) taking “down time” to refresh and reinvigorate.

Every one of these activities feeds our creativity. Every one is a sum greater than its parts. True, like a good book, our immersion in virtual experiences can launch our minds and imaginations in new ways.

Graph Showing American Vacation Plans for 2020 with COVID impacts
Credit: eMarketer, April 2020

Yet, it’s also true that hand-to-hand exchanges, encountering new faces and places, and human contact rev up the creativity meter that much more.

I’m fortunate to be a knowledge worker. I have a job. I am able to work remotely with initiative — and get assignments accomplished, and I’m absolutely thankful to have my life and livelihood. But as the cold weather finally has faded away, we need to start our summer.

A Creativity Pact — Isolation That Inspires

So let’s make a pact. This will be our most creative summer ever, because:

We’re going to challenge ourselves to find the silver lining — sun, rain or in-between. They’re plenty of them: “rediscovering” our family relationships and our immediate neighbors, and appreciating them for their quirks and gifts.

I know this sounds strange, but I’ve spent more time studying my family … and I’m grateful for the time we’ve had on top of each other. It’s as though my office mates — who I sometimes think of as family — just became Zoom mates, and my “real” family recaptured the role they were always meant to have. I’ve been re-grounded in family values.

We’re going to go places. They just likely will be near and nearer. Some believe globalism just died, and that supply chains, politics, networks and communities have been forced into isolationism. Some are even celebrating this fact. Tsk, tsk.

I work in the world of data, and silos are NEVER a good thing. So we must commit ourselves to “Think Global, Act Local” — and let the innovations flow. Balkanizations never produced anything worth emulating. So protect that down time, and use it locally.

Find five area points of interest — a state or national park, a bike or hiking trail, a new neighborhood, a vista, an outdoor venue and go there — anywhere that gives you time to breathe, think and share safe distances to both people and nature watch. Observations produce revelations.

We’re going to find new ways to “share” that stimulates the brain. What might you do on those Google Hangouts to provoke the unexpected? Wear a funny hat. Display an aspirational background. Show some personality. Provoke.

I’m about to engage a summer intern, virtually, for the next 10 weeks. And, with my colleagues, it’s going to take a collective effort to make this new normal one where “remote” learning will be anything but boring. So on each call, there will be at least one external experience — non-work — to share. To exchange an idea is a gift — and we need to be in giving mood.

I’m ready to be invigorated. Aren’t you? This pandemic offers us new opportunities to take our familiar summer themes in whole new directions. Let’s discover them — and be very grateful for our ability to make better this unprecedented time.

 

Let’s Get Creative (If We Have the Time …)

PUT ON THOSE THINKING CAPS, it’s time to talk creativity! How do you flick on that creative switch when you’re focused on 483 non-creative, deadline-centric tasks per day?

PUT ON THOSE THINKING CAPS, it’s time to talk creativity!

“But Dani,” you might say, “Your blog is literally called Creative Caffeine, isn’t that what you always talk about?”

Yeah, I know bud, but I don’t usually talk about creativity itself. That is, how to foster it, how to flick on that switch so the creative cup runneth over, particularly when you’re focused on 483 non-creative, deadline-centric tasks per day, as most of us are.

Even in marketing positions like mine, where creativity is an essential in the day-to-day, it can be nearly impossible to find the time, place and stimulation to mine those brain gems. Take me, for example. I’m a fraud. I write this blog supposedly about all things creative, but I only post once a month because I never feel like I have the creativity to spare or the time to find more. I didn’t even come up with this topic, editor-in-chief of Target Marketing Thorin McGee did!

So how do you feed your right brain in a work day full of left-brained tasks? Do you set aside time for it? Do you have a playlist you listen to, or a podcast, or a calendar of inspirational quotes that you go back to time and time again when you need that extra spark?

workplace-2303853_1920

This image was a free result for “creativity”, but also it reminds me of that one episode of Black Mirror. Bonus.

Personally, I often just have to hope I can find the time to completely zone out and/or doodle, usually while listening to a showtunes playlist, for a little while, because that’s honestly my most successful brainstorming method. I have to disengage before I can find a way to be engaging, or something like that. Unfortunately, that opportunity is rarer than desired.

Fortune published a great post just last week, “Why You Can’t Force Creativity at Work,” offering a few alternatives to the “sit at your desk crying and avoiding your other work until something comes to you” method, such as:

  • Encourage Outside Interests
  • Provide Flexible Deadlines (This one is KEY in my world!)
  • Allow for an “ideas before measurement” mindset

I found another great article on Huffington Post from a couple of years ago, but its points feel evergreen: “Fostering a Culture of Creativity in the Workplace.” One suggestion it offers is to take cues from classic improv theater games, like every theater kid’s favorite “Yes, and …” As a former (is it something you ever really grow out of?) theater kid myself, this one’s definitely on my To Try list.

Oh, obviously, I also rely on coffee. While some sources will tell you caffeine stunts creativity, this article from the Atlantic gives a lot of science-y reasons those sources are wrong and confirmation bias leads me to believe it.

So how about you? Do you use any of these ideas, or have your own methods? Do you find it difficult to balance the scales between creativity and productivity? As always, let me know.

Talk to you in July!

Discovering the Big Idea

What’s holding you back from creating your next breakthrough marketing campaign? It’s probably you. Why? Because instead of coming up with a new big idea that you can test, you may be just shuffling the same deck of cards. So how do you discover the big idea? Here are a few …

Content Creation IdeasWhat’s holding you back from creating your next breakthrough marketing campaign? It’s probably you. Why? Because instead of coming up with a new big idea that you can test, you may be just shuffling the same deck of cards. So how do you discover the big idea? Here are a few tips.

Copywriters and marketing professionals see a lot of copy. And it must be evaluated. The trap is in deceiving yourself that “breaking through” is simply rearranging the words from a past promo and calling it new. Fact is, this approach isn’t likely to produce a new winner.

Recently I evaluated copy from several seminar attendee copywriters where I presented a client case study and the challenge to write a subject line, headline and lead for an email promo. They only had about a day to work on it. The copywriters who had their game on were those who spun an existing message into a new idea, metaphor, perspective, or story.

That’s what I was looking for, because a new, big idea, has the power to beat a control. I believe it’s because big ideas create new memory for a prospective customer. Turned into long-term memory with a follow-up, longer-form message, the big idea has better odds of converting into a sale.

Ideas sell. Here are a few tips about how you might identify a big idea worthy of testing:

  • Interview customers — or better — interview prospective customers and ask what it will take to earn their business. Phone calls are good; focus groups can be better. Ask them why they buy. Then, ask them a follow-up “why?” to peel back the layers.
  • If you’re a marketer, you surely have data — all kinds of data ranging from demographics to behavioral information. Examine your data through a new lens to inspire yourself and imagine the possibilities for a new big idea.
  • Look at the characteristics of your best customers. You know, the Pareto Principle; often simply called the “80/20 rule.”
  • What are your competitors doing? But don’t knock them off. Steal smart, add your own twist and rise above them.

Conversations with peers and co-workers can also inspire copywriters and marketers. Ask “what if” questions. Ask “why” questions. Ask what the driving emotion is that tips a prospect into becoming a customer.

Then, let your copywriter digest the research, discussion and background materials, and take a step back with these “4 Ways to Get Creative” to let the big idea reveal itself.

Gary Hennerberg gives you the detail of his “Seven Pathways from Head to Heart to YES!” in his book, Crack the Customer Mind Code, available from the DirectMarketingIQ Bookstore. For a free download with more detail about the seven pathways, and access to Gary’s videos where he presents them, go to CustomerMindCode.com.

4 Ways to Get Creative!

I once had a client who would say “get creative!” as a locker room type motivation to write a break-through direct mail package. Of course, I’d get creative — that’s my job. But sometimes, it doesn’t come to you as quickly as you’d like. In a world full of pressure to break through, today I’m sharing new research, and four ideas, that support how you can …

Is Your Creative Workload Out of Control?: Discover 3 Easy Ways to Maximize Your Resources for Optimal ResultsI once had a client who would say “get creative!” as a locker room type motivation to write a break-through direct mail package. Of course, I’d get creative — that’s my job. But sometimes, it doesn’t come to you as quickly as you’d like. In a world full of pressure to break through, today I’m sharing new research, and four ideas, that support how you can “get creative.”

There is new research evidence that substantiates how the act of walking stimulates creativity. The report from Stanford University researchers said “walking outside produced the most novel and highest quality analogies. Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”

Among participants, 81 percent improved their creative output when walking. People “became more talkative and within that chatter were higher-quality creative ideas.”

For those of us in marketing, our job is to “get creative.” Meetings and conference calls can be good for generating group-think ideas, but in my experience, it’s the solitude of thinking deeply while walking, or engaging in other non-work activities, that result in the best creative outcomes.

With that in mind, I share my top four ways to “get creative.”

  1. Take a walk. Taking frequent walks — daily when my schedule permits — has been one of my obsessions for years. I’ve made it a point to live where great walking trails are just steps from my door. Before I start my walk, I read or research the specific topic that I’m thinking through so I’m set in the right frame of mind.
  1. Go to the gym. Like many people, I really have to crank up my motivation to hit the gym. But every time I’m walking out the door of the gym after a work-out, I can honestly say I haven’t regretted the time. As I mentioned about walking, it’s helpful to put a specific problem or task in your mind before a work-out.
  1. Engage in a hobby. For over 23 years, I’ve sung in an international champion caliber performing chorus. It requires weekly rehearsals plus about 15 to 20 public appearances annually. In our time-crunched lives, it’s really tough to carve out an evening a week for rehearsals, plus one or two evenings for performances each month. But some of my best ideas have come while I’m rehearsing or performing while my thoughts are away from work.
  1. Get out of the office. This one is easier for those of us who freelance (I’m writing this from a coffee shop). Not so easy if you work inside an office. So a word for senior managers: Encourage your marketing and creative staff to leave the office and think — and if practical, take a walk outside.

Finally, a word about the amount of time a marketing or creative person should set aside to be creative. My personal recommendation is a balance of one to two hours daily should be allocated for any of these suggestions. To some, this may seem like way too much time away from a desk or computer screen. But from personal experience, it’s what most creative people need to stay on top of their game.

But the bigger challenge may be to give yourself permission to go about activities that help you “get creative.” You (or your boss) may need to suspend work ethic guilt to make any of these recommendations work. It’s why Google has an 80/20 rule that encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their time on passion projects not directly impacting their normal job. Or why some companies have a gym inside the office.

What do you do to “get creative!”?

(Looking for tips about how to attract more customers? Download my free seven-step guide to help you align your messaging with how the primitive mind thinks. It’s titled “When You Need More Customers, This Is What You Do.” Or get all the details in my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code” available at the DirectMarketingIQ bookstore.)

7 Marketing Resolutions for Younger Marketers in 2016

Fear not, I’m back for 2016 and will be posting again on a monthly basis. Starting right now, with my very own “2016 Marketing Resolutions.” I’ll also list a few great resources I’ve found to help me on the road to resolution glory!

I’m baaaaaaack! Did you miss me? Did you feel like 2015 was just a little darker and a little colder as it drew to a close? You may have assumed it was just a result of the earth’s regularly scheduled journey farther away from the sun, but I’m here to tell you that chill in the air was merely the lack of my presence in your life and on your screen.

But fear not, I’m back for 2016 and will be posting again on a monthly basis. Starting right now, with my very own “2016 Marketing Resolutions” (because there’s never enough “My New Year’s Resolutions” posts in the world, right?) I figure I’ll fare better with these guys than I will with “go to the gym 3x a week” or “limit myself to one season of a show on Netflix per night.”

I’ll also list a few great resources I’ve found to help me on the road to resolution glory!

Business group of people standing on the hill and looking aside
According to iStock, a significant number of people have a goal of climbing a mountain and/or doing the Rocky pose in business suits

 

1. Get to Work Earlier
Here’s the problem with having flexible work hours: you can actually take advantage of them. Add that to my just-two-blocks commute and you’ve got a perfect recipe for snooze-button-dependency. I’ve never been an early bird, and generally I’m of the mindset that I work better when I come in a little later and leave a little later. But I have to admit I feel an extra sense of pep and motivation when I manage to start my day an hour or two ahead of schedule, and having that extra time to enjoy my coffee and clear out the cobwebs logically results in more productivity. So I’ve decided: 2016 is the year I start getting to work before 9:00.

I recently found this simple yet brilliant post on LifeHack for people like me, and I’m eager to try these strategies out.

2. Better Time Management
Another daily struggle for me: deciding what on my list needs to be done and when, and how much time should be spent doing it. Since it’s a point I’m always looking to improve, I’ve found a few basic tools that seem to work best for me when used together.

I’m a visual person, so I always love a good to-do list; it really helps me to be able to look at my tasks laid out in front of me, and physically move them into an order that makes sense. My favorite of the many online options available is Wunderlist. You can create separate folders within your to-do list and categorize each task, set due-dates and alarms, enable email notifications, and sync your lists to the mobile app to access anywhere. Plus, that “ding” noise it makes when you complete a task is super satisfying. Oh, and it’s free!

Another must: The StayFocusd browser extension. No more “two minute web surfing breaks” that turn into ten or twenty; this app blocks all but your allowed websites after your allotted time runs out. Pro-Tip: Put the Chrome Extensions store on your block list, so you can’t cheat and remove the app 😉

Strategy and Technology: Which Is Chicken and Which Is Egg?

The average marketing stack includes up to 17 distinct technologies, according to Signal. Yowsa. No wonder integration is a big pain point for most marketing teams. No wonder martech is a hot investment area. No wonder our heads hurt.

The average marketing stack includes up to 17 distinct technologies, according to Signal. Yowsa. No wonder integration is a big pain point for most marketing teams. No wonder martech is a hot investment area. No wonder our heads hurt.

Technology is taking over marketing. Let me hear you say, AUTO! Let me hear you say, “AUTO-MATE.” I’m a devoted fan of technology that improves marketers’ productivity while enabling a more fabulous and satisfying user experience. But let’s not let all this technology go to our heads.

Technology is still a tool. And so strategy and content and creativity still need to be in the driver’s seat. You can’t buy the right technology if you don’t have a clear idea of what you need to accomplish. I had this conversation with a client this week — where we kept getting distracted by bright shiny objects (AKA: sales pitches from technology vendors), instead of focusing on what experiences we wanted to create for the customer. Once we hunkered down and really focused on the customer experience, the technology needs became obvious and much more attainable.

And yes, we did agree that we’d set aside some budget to test some wild and crazy ideas. Because that is often where the best new experiences come from — ideas that customers didn’t know to ask about.

Once you have that customer-focused objective in mind, the fun begins. Learning about all of the technologies available to modern marketing leaders is a feat in itself, but understanding how each technology maps to the goals of the marketing organization is even more challenging. It’s a little bit like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with a pure white (blank) picture. There are very few visual cues as to what fits together when and how … you need a deep understanding of technology — or an internal or external advisor you really trust to be looking out for you.

Your business strategy will set the expectation about what is being built, and a marketing technology strategy will provide clear outlines of the necessary steps to accomplish the work.

I find the chicken and egg problem appears at two levels.

  • Which Comes First? First, is the strategy borne of what technology is already in house? That could be a good starting point, and usually the best place to start for a proof of concept. Of course, buying technology is also a poor way to figure out your strategy. Yet, too often, we hear about a new feature or tool, and we want to test the channel without doing the work of considering content development and design, brand alignment, staffing resources and, most importantly, the customer need.
  • Best vs. Possible? Second, is the solution we select the best for the customer, or only the best that can be accomplished by the tools we have today? This is always the question when we get suggestions from a technology vendor. I know most will honestly aim to solve the problem in the best way for your business. It’s just that they only have their own tools to work with. It’s a caution for all marketers to watch.
Scott Brinker graphic
Scott Brinker graphic

As marketing technologist Scott Brinker aptly says in his ChiefMarTec blog, “No technology is a strategy-in-a box, and no strategy comes with a defined technology bundle.” He visualizes this concept in a Venn diagram, detailing the relationship between marketing, technology and strategy. He claims that where the three meet is the “Most interesting intersection in the world.”

I tend to agree. What are your most pressing challenges in getting your marketing technology to work for you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.