(Note: this is part 1 of our Math Men Creative Process, part 2 follows our Buyer Persona Intelligence framework where we develop a deep understanding of the target audience through research, internal, and external interviews. Both steps are critical to developing a data-backed strategy. Stay tuned for part 2!)
Not too long ago, the creative process was similar to what you’d see in the TV show Mad Men. The creative team would rack their brains trying to come up with a “big idea,” and once they found something, they would go all-in.
Today, however, times have changed. The Mad Men days are dead. Now, it’s all about the Math Men (and women!).
Math Men don’t operate from their gut or based on a hunch. For Math Men, the creative process begins with carefully analyzing existing data to develop deeper insights that are then leveraged to inspire creativity.
Math Men don’t think they know better than everyone else. It’s that they first turn to the most trusted creative advisor of all: data.
Data doesn’t get hungover, take days off, or have an ego. Data provides an unemotional view of what worked yesterday so you can better plan for today.
What data doesn’t replace, however, is creativity. If all you had to do was look at some datasets, everyone would be a marketing genius and every brand would be a unicorn. Data doesn’t replace creativity. It simply acts as a foundation to develop your creative ideas.
In this article, we’ll walk you through our Math Men Creative Strategy process. We won’t hold anything back. The process we outline below is exactly what we follow with our clients and the way we develop our own content.
The Tool Box
All great Math Men have their own set of tools. And while there are new SaaS platforms being launched every day, we’ve found these three tools to be everything you need:
Tool #1: Ahrefs.com
Use: Analyze keywords based on search volume, difficulty, etc.
Cost: $179 per month
Tool #2: Buzzsumo.com
Use: Identify the most socially engaged content by keyword
Cost: $499 per month (also available for $99 per month, but with limited features)
Tool #3: Google Sheets
Use: Stores all data, highly customizable
The Math Men Creative Process
Our process is broken up into the following 5 core parts:
Part 1: Conversation Analysis
Part 2: Outlet Analysis
Part 3: Competitor Content Analysis
Part 4: Influencer Database
Part 5: Idea Development
While you can skip steps, we strongly encourage you to follow them in order because the insights you gain from the early steps will guide your planning in the later steps.
Before you begin to develop creative ideas, you need to get clear on your overall strategy. To do that, follow our Thought Leadership Machine Framework, which asks 14 targeted questions that help define and guide your overall strategy.
We’re big believers that if you don’t have the right strategy, you’re just wasting your time.
If you want to skip over defining your strategy, at least make sure you can answer the following questions in detail:
In order to show what our Math Men process looks like in action, we’ll highlight a made up company called FUWU Payments, Inc. FUWU Payments is an international money remittance service that leverages blockchain to help migrant workers living in the US to send send money back home faster and cheaper. The company partners with U.S.-based banks to use their technology.
Objective: Your objective in this step is to clearly identify what conversations are taking place in your industry that are relevant to your strategy. You will then distill these conversations into keywords and phrases that will be analyzed on BuzzSumo, Google, and Ahrefs.
This is by far the most important and critical step. If you don’t have the right keywords or miss obvious ones, your entire strategy could be misinformed.
FUWU Payments, Inc. Example: This is the list that was created based on research.
How to Perform a Conversation Analysis
Step #1: Begin with making a list of simple and obvious keywords — your industry, your target customer, etc. Add as many keywords as you can, then narrow your list. If you run out of ideas, Google a keyword and then scroll to the bottom of the search results page; Google will provide you with additional relevant ideas.
Step #2: Search each keyword from your list on Ahrefs and identify the search volume and keyword difficulty. Don’t get too caught up on keywords that don’t have much volume — they should still be added to your list regardless because they will be helpful in your research to understand the core themes of the industry.
Step #3: Take each keyword and enter it into Buzzsumo to see what relevant content pops up. When you’re doing this for the first time, we recommend filtering down to the past year.
Step #4: Take the top ten articles for that keyword and add them to your spreadsheet, noting the outlet and headline. Make sure to hyperlink each headline so you can go back to it easily in the analysis step.
Step #5: Follow the same search process for the keyword on Google and add the top ten articles and outlets to your spreadsheet. If you find something that’s not relevant – just skip over it.
Step #6: Now comes the part that requires creative thinking. Manually review the top ten articles you’ve identified on BuzzSumo and the top ten articles from Google. Look for patterns, themes, trends, new keyword ideas, competitors, and anything else that you think stands out as something to consider for your own creative ideas.
You aren’t just looking at headlines, you should be actively reading and absorbing everything you read and turning that into actionable details.
For example, after adding the initial articles for for FUWU Payments, we identified competitors to research, like WorldRemit, Ripple, BitSpark, and Zero Bank, and keywords like unbanked, remittance fraud, Ripple remittance, and remittance market share.
After completing our analysis, this is what the spreadsheet looks like:
Step #7: Repeat! Complete this process for at least your top ten keywords/phrases.
Now, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking, holy shit, this must take a long time. And you’re right. It does.
But you know what takes even more time? Wasting manpower, resources, and time on strategies that don’t actually add value to your goals. By investing the time up front and really diving in, you set yourself up for success down the road.
Objective: In this step, the goal is to identify your top ten industry outlets in order to understand the types of content that get the most engagement for that outlet. Do not bother doing this for major outlets, like Business Insider or Fox News, because those sites publish such a large range of content that it’s difficult to gather any valuable information. Instead, focus on niche industry outlets.
FUWU Payments, Inc. Example: Because the company is targeting banking partners, we’ve identified the top ten payments, fintech, and banking outlets to target.
How to Perform an Outlet Analysis
Step #1: Finding outlets isn’t rocket science. Google “XYZ industry news,” “XYZ industry outlets,” etc. If you come across company blogs, you can normally just skip those, unless it seems they accept outside content and ideas.
Step #2: Search each outlet on Similarweb.com in order to have an understanding of the amount of traffic they receive. If it comes back N/A – that typically means it’s extremely low traffic and isn’t worth researching.
Step #3: Add the data into your spreadsheet.
Step #4: Go back to BuzzSumo and enter the outlet’s domain. The results will tell you their top ten most socially engaged articles in the past year.
Step #5: Analyze the top articles to understand what conversations and stories are getting the highest engagement.
Step #6: Repeat for your top ten industry outlets!
Objective: Identify your top competitors and develop a deep understanding of their content strategy to see what they are doing well and where the gaps are.
How to Research Your Competitors
Step #1: Go back to BuzzSumo again (you may as well just keep BuzzSumo open for this entire process!), enter the domain of your competitor, and filter for content in the past year. Add links to your competitor’s top articles to your spreadsheet.
Step #2: Analyze all of your competitor’s content, their workflow, their topic series, and any intel you can gather from looking at the site. After a manual review, go to BuzzSumo and click “Analysis” above the search bar. This will provide you with insights about your competitor, such as their total articles published in the past year, total engagements, most popular content type, most popular length, and more.
Step #3: Repeat for all your competitors!
Objective: Using BuzzSumo, identify Twitter influencers with relevant tags in their bios that you should develop relationships with and leverage for content and marketing purposes.
How to Build an Influencer Database
Step #1: On BuzzSumo, search a keyword on the influencers tab. The results will tell you who has the largest and most engaged followings for that specific keyword.
Step #2: Manually review the results and transfer data over to your spreadsheet about the most relevant influencers. Include each influencer’s name, Twitter handle, Twitter bio, number of followers, and average retweets per post.
Objective: With the insights and research from the previous steps, it’s now time to brainstorm ideas. This is a free-flowing exercise meant to help you come up with as many interesting ideas as you can.
How to Generate Ideas
The following can provide some structure to your idea generation:
It’s important to keep in mind that you’re not just looking at what’s been the most popular content so far and duplicating that. If you found a piece of content or a story that performed well, your mindset should be to make your idea 10x better.
For example, when we followed this process for a client a few years ago, our research for “real estate investing” found that the most engaged articles were lists with titles like “Top Ten Real Estate Markets to Invest In” from the previous year. Instead of just writing another top ten list like everyone else, we created a research report where we analyzed the top 30 cities in the U.S. and compared each city’s medium home price from before the housing market crash (2008) to the present-day medium home price.
This was then turned into a 50+ page gated report, 10 byline articles, 10 pieces of blog content, and a press release revealing the findings — and we did so using a Hub and Spoke content strategy.
Hub and Spoke
As you plan your ideas, it’s important to not just think in terms of a stand-alone piece of content. You should think about content as a package of different types of content that all center around a core theme and work together to own that narrative and conversation.
FUWU Payments, Inc. Example: Looking back at the data we collected in Step 1 and Step 2, there are some clear insights.
The most obvious one is that blockchain dominates the results for the most socially engaged articles and the most popular articles on industry outlets.
Digging into the top blockchain content, you can see that a lot of the conversations center around the unbanked and underserved population of the world, the impact blockchain will have, and the trends shaping the industry.
The majority of these articles are just 800-1000 word text posts with few visuals. We can beat that!
Here’s what a Math Men idea would look like after following this process:
Hub – Report: State of Blockchain in Banking 2019
Our hub piece will be an exclusive report where we survey 100 banking industry executives to understand their current perceptions of blockchain in the industry, the perceived challenges the technology is facing, and what specific problems need to be addressed in order to overcome them.
The report will also feature a detailed write-up where we will interview a series of experts (sourced from Part 4: Influencers). In these interviews, we’ll identify the top trends and other insights into the state of the industry from their perspective.
To support and promote the report, we will use our findings and internal insights to create 5 blog posts, 5 byline articles/founder insights (to be contributed at the outlets identified in step 3), and one press release announcing the finds.
The Way of the Math Man
Coming up with ideas based on your gut and pumping out content isn’t hard. Anyone can do that which is why there is so much shitty content out there in the world today.
Being a Math Men isn’t easy. It requires you to remove your ego and your belief that you know better than your audience. It requires you to stop talking and start listening, stop creating and start researching, and to pause and truly develop a strategy that aligns with what your company is trying to achieve.
Times have changed and like it or not, you don’t really have a choice either way. Companies that continue to operate on just their gut who compete against companies operating based on data and consumer insights don’t stand a chance in the future.
While the Mad Men days were glorious, this is their reality now:
If you want to avoid that same fate, it’s time to start thinking like Math Men.