The nature of creative work has changed drastically over the last 20 years. Digital channels have proliferated and the increasing focus on content marketing has pushed the demand for high quality content to new heights.
As a result, professional creatives and marketers are focusing more on repeatable creation processes for content in order to keep a rapid pace and maintain a high standard of work quality. Here, we’ve broken down the creative process to help you understand how to conduct creative market research, brainstorming and creative thinking, and optimize your content and its distribution, so you can spend more time making inspired work that resonates with your audience and ultimately outperforms.
Simply, creative process is the framework for creativity and experimentation that results in something new being created. This includes poems, ebooks, hit songs, podcasts, art, companies, painting, and anything in between. There are four major steps that together help a creator craft a work that will touch with their audience, while still being new and delightful.
The 4 steps of the creative process
The creative process has been used by artists, entrepreneurs, designers, and marketers for centuries but with technology and innovation rapidly changing the creation process, this guide will give you the knowledge to use your creativity and intelligence more effectively at work.
Creative Market Research is the first step process of understanding your target audience’s mind beyond traditional demographic data. It is instead focused on discovering preferences in taste, uncovering needs or uses that aren’t obviously identifiable, and workarounds that present opportunities for new solutions. With consumer tastes continuing to rapidly evolve and customers seeking more and more personalization, it is more important than ever to dig deeper into what elements of video, imagery, and word choice deeply resonate with an individual in your audience.
In person observation has traditionally been the most effective way of understanding an audience’s problem. If you want to understand what drives a person, there’s no substitute for stepping into their life and having experiences in their world. This hands on approach teaches lessons that can’t be gleaned from even the best designed surveys and builds real empathy. While usually expensive and time consuming, the content created will have an unmistakable feel of authenticity that is invaluable when connecting with the intended audience. When paired with rapid prototyping and fast iteration, this becomes a way for companies to engage in customer co-creation.
The recent developments in computer vision and big data have been a massive step forward in understanding creativity as well as audience taste and behavior. By training algorithms to understand the objects, colors, kinds of people, and behavior it is possible to understand how customers are interacting with products and each other. When you feed these models large amounts of data, it becomes clear what aspects of videos, images, and copy resonate most with audiences. Often times these insights aren’t obvious, and will show people interacting with products in unintended ways. These are great opportunities to speak to a new market, or create new products to delight and better serve these users.
For companies who lack the time and resources to fully immerse their teams in the world of their audience, surveys and focus groups have traditionally been the way to garner audience insight. By assembling a focus group of your target audience, you can ask them questions and watch how they react to the work being created. Checking in with these groups as the process progresses helps make sure further iterations are trending in the right direction.
Surveys are the lowest cost way to interact with people. When designing surveys it is critical to ask questions that don’t lead the audience, and to get enough data to make the results significant. The major downside to surveys is there is no way to see the audience interact with the product and it is usually difficult to maintain an open line of communication for ongoing dialog.
After you have completed all your creative market research, it’s time to start thinking about solutions. The Ideation stage is where you process all the learnings from your creative market research and begin to find inspiration and incubate ideas for a possible solution. There are 2 key phases of the ideation process that should be repeated several times to arrive at a solution worth investing further time and resources into.
This step of the creative process involves coming up with as many creative ideas as possible. The team manager should find an environment that gets the creative juices flowing and where people can find inspiration. When generating ideas it’s important to go broad and bold with divergent thinking. There is so such thing as a bad idea, and at this stage there can be no critical voices shooting down ideas. Save the debate for refinement, that comes later. Genius never strikes on the first idea, or even the 21st idea. It’s only after all the obvious and derivative ideas have been exhausted that people feel the freedom to reach for the ideas that are out of the box and innovative.
See our Creative's Activity Guide to Idea Generation
As important as numerous and novel ideas are, its equally important to have as all the team members in the project be a part of the idea generation process. The best ideas come from diverse perspectives and often times an idea from one person will trigger a cascade of inspiration in others and help the group make creative leaps.
Now that you have plethora of ideas, it’s time to begin narrowing them down. An initial round of voting to eliminate the ideas no one is passionate about is a great way to narrow the field. Do this as many times as necessary to get down to the small number of great ideas that exist.
Then, vigorously debate those that remain with constructive criticisms. Remove those that aren’t feasible, will take too long or too much budget, and elevate those that play to your team’s strengths. By the end of this process you should have arrived on an idea that the whole team believes in and is excited to execute.
Once you have defined and prototyped the your content you have something you can begin refining through iteration. This is often the longest and most intense part of the creative process, but here is where the piece is ultimately shaped into its final form. It is important to remember not just to optimize the creative elements for your audience, but also to optimize for the channel it will eventually be distributed on as well.
Written content optimization primarily revolves around mirroring the word choice and tone of your audience, while offering a unique take on the subject at hand. Most written marketing content now focuses on social media posts, content marketing and SEO, email marketing, and website content.
When it comes to these forms of digital marketing making sure each piece of content is unique but still fits into a larger content strategy is the key to finding the correct framing. The length, tone, style, and target audience will also change from channel to channel. Simply writing a single piece then blasting it across all your channels won’t work. Take the time to tailor each piece to the channel you plan to distribute it on.
Guide: Creative's Guide To Written Content Optimization
Guide: Creative's Guide to Visual Content Optimization
Tip: Content clusters and are the best way to both keep creative freedom across a broad range of topics, and keep with SEO best practices.
An emerging area in content optimization is visual content. Using computer vision and AI, marketers are able to understand the individual objects, elements, colors, and style of images. By using these kinds of insights creative marketers can fine tune their imagery to maximize any metric such as engagement, click throughs, or conversions. Like written content, visual preferences change by channel and audience. The color palette that is outperforming on Instagram might go totally unnoticed on Twitter, and your Facebook audience may prefer entirely different visual subjects.
Distribution is often the most overlooked part of the creative process, but can be the most impactful stage if done correctly. If you have properly optimized pieces of content for the channel you plan on distributing it on then you’re already ahead of the game, but the magic comes from getting that content in front of your audience when they are paying attention and ready to take action.
Guide: Choosing the Right Social Media Content Distribution Channel
Pulling this off requires knowing the optimal number of messages for each channel, when exactly each of those messages need to be shown, and the most effective budget allocation for each message on paid channels.
Technology has become instrumental in getting all three steps aligned. Scheduling tools are getting smarter and incorporating more data in their planning recommendations and Cortex has even build in Smart Budgeting to allocate marketing budgets based on when they will have the most impact on a per content basis.
Congratulations! You’ve successfully created and distributed an amazing piece of content! Time to keep them coming since your audience will be hungry for more. Remember, the best way to become a creative genius is to be prolific!